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Your Father’s Muzak

May 20, 2009 • History Factory

Companies struggling for brand recognition might look enviously at Muzak, whose pithy name is instantly recognizable across America as the company responsible for the generic-sounding music heard in office buildings and waiting rooms. The problem—as NPR reports—is that Muzak has been trying to rebrand itself. But its 75-year-old history keeps getting in the way.

Elevator music made Muzak a huge success, but Shawn Moseley says it’s also made the company a punch line. Moseley, who works at Muzak’s headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C., says the place is actually hip. “Every day,” Moseley says, “you have to have a conversation with somebody and say, ‘We’re not elevator music. We’re not your father’s Muzak.’ “

It’s an uphill battle, especially in today’s crowded aural atmosphere. Even as Muzak struggles to change its image, the ubiquity of iPods is rendering its current signature product—custom playlists built from today’s hot tunes—obsolete. It’s hard to convince corporate clients to pay for company-wide background music when they know customers and employees are all wandering around with ear buds in place.

Obsolete technology is nothing new for Muzak. The company was founded in 1934 on the basis of a new technique to deliver music over the wires, rather than using the then-unreliable radio. But by the time it was up and running, radio had entered its golden age. The company persevered, pursuing a new business model that customized content based on psychological research. And for decades, it succeeded. It may have not have been hip, but it was certainly profitable.

Muzak’s recent bankruptcy filing sends a clear signal that it’s time for the company to reinvent itself again. But instead of fighting against its history, why not embrace it? Don’t tell customers they’re wrong—tell them the rest of the story. Today’s Muzak isn’t elevator music, but it is your father’s (and your grandfather’s) Muzak: a nimble, perpetually changing company that stays on the cutting edge of research into how music affects our brains.

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