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Out of the elevator

Muzak helps its clients create the right tone for their customers. Just don't call it elevator music.

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Pilker reads relentlessly and follows leads to interesting music with just the right topography. Today he is trying out bands Thievery Corporation and Tangerine Dream. "Sometimes clients ask for edgy and far out," he says, "and end up saying, 'Yeah, that's cool, but we want [to bring it] two steps back.' "

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Retail and service firms have grown increasingly sophisticated with regard to the importance of aural environment over the past two decades, says Paco Underhill, president of Envirosell, a consulting company, and author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

"Historically, people played music inside retail stores as a way of entertaining the staff," says Mr. Underhill. "That's until somebody woke up and realized that it is a way both of telling people who you want there and don't want there."

Sounds and smells

Working with Muzak has "majorly boosted" business for ScentAir, another Charlotte company, says spokesman Murray Dameron. The "scent branding" firm, which injects aromas into retail environments to influence behavior and mood, signed a kind of sensory tag-team deal last year with Muzak. "[ScentAir] over the past year has grown tremendously," says Mr. Dameron.

Muzak – which also installs the audio hardware that carries its programming – has done some expanding of its own. Despite a first-quarter net loss of about $11 million this year – and a rough patch in 2005 when it agreed to a $1 million settlement with DMX, a Los Angeles-based competitor and the industry's other power, over disputed contracts with pharmacy chain CVS – it has become a $60 million firm.

"My view is that what's best for the company is embodied in our mission statement," to dominate the world of audio architecture, says CEO Rayburn. "To me that means there needs to be less attention to sheer top-line growth and more to [customer service and] fulfillment."

However confused people might be by the Muzak name, he says, client businesses understand its evolving role. The average client has been under contract for 17 years, says Bruce McKagan, vice president for music and voice.

Started in elevators

This is an outfit born in the 1920s when George Squire, a retired US Army general, came up with a way of delivering music over telephone wires. It found itself wiring elevators a decade later to soothe uneasy riders. And then it came into play as a productivity-booster in factories before seeping into retail stores in the 1970s.

Muzak continues to enter new territory today, moving deep into on-hold messaging (some 120 voice talents record in studios here), marketing at drive-throughs, even church sound systems and satellite-television programming.

Ambient, all-around marketing has its opponents, of course, and noise-cancellation technology is a growth industry all its own.

Still, says Underhill, Americans' relationship to music has undergone a fundamental change. "My start with music was sort of reverently putting the needle down on the vinyl and sitting there listening," he says. "Today we work out to music, we work to music. Music is accompanying us just about everywhere – in the car, in the elevator, in our iPods," he says. "Why shouldn't music be part of our stores?"