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.
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.
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.' "
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."
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.
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?"