Out of the elevator
Muzak helps its clients create the right tone for their customers. Just don't call it elevator music.
FORT MILL, S.C.
Karen Vigeland walks a visitor through her firm's airy, new-economy headquarters, with its Aeron chairs and halogen lamps, polished steel and natural light. There's a black Lotus parked in the employee lot. We are minutes south of shimmering Charlotte, N.C., capital of the New South, and the creative energy here is palpable and forward-leaning.Skip to next paragraph
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Then we approach the elevator, and Ms. Vigeland, a marketing specialist, anticipates the old, tired, but inevitable question. We won't be hearing any music as we ascend, she says with a bright smile. "We made it that way on purpose."
Welcome to Muzak's lair, where the erstwhile doyens of "elevator music" know it's impossible to resist characterizing them as such. This is a 70-year-old marketing company, they will gently point out, not a genre. The firm routinely – relentlessly – corrects those who use its name as a synonym for sappy aural filler.
Muzak began recasting itself in the mid-1980s and got a radical makeover when it relocated here from Seattle in the late 1990s. Today its "audio architects" blend art and science to deliver original-artist music from Mozart to Gwen Stefani that fits the bill for some 400,000 clients from Dunkin' Donuts to Bank of America. Muzak owns publishing rights to some 1.5 million songs.
Forget about saxophone versions of Pink Floyd songs; it hasn't done a strings-and-horns rendition of a pop tune in decades.
"We are trying to help create a brand association for clients, through music," says Greg Rayburn, Muzak's chief executive officer, who keeps a pair of red 78-r.p.m. records in his office as a reminder of that orchestral era. Music has an emotional power that can be harnessed, he says, to create a warm feeling that ultimately cements loyalty. "Our goal is to make sure that the environment that gets created by our clients is in sync with their customers, and in sync with their brand image," Mr. Rayburn says.
Muzak's core work involves a lot of listening – first to clients, whose own perception of their image is mined in detail through meetings and questionnaires and then "imaged" based on factors ranging from what they drive and read to the textures on their walls – and even the colors used in their print-marketing materials.
And then Muzak teams listen to music. Lots of music, from all over. "I can go on MySpace and find unsigned artists," says Steven Pilker, an audio architect – one of 22 here – with a set of Audix speakers attached to his office computer. "A lot of what we do is outside the mainstream."
Consider what he turned up recently at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. "I heard a fellow named Ark who's from France and plays this strange, sample-laced form of house [music] with weird jazz and old soul samples," he says. "And it's incredible. Tons of unique up-tempo sounds."
At any one time Mr. Pilker might be working on eight or nine audio programs for three or four clients, moving complementary songs into "buckets" then arranging them, as a disc jockey would.
Select Restaurants is one of his projects, so is DSW, the shoe-store chain. Clients sometimes point to other successful retailers as examples of how they would like to come across. But often they reach for other reference points. "A lot of times you get, 'We like the O.C.,' " Mr. Pilker says, referring to the FOX TV show.