MUZAK: TODAY'S BACKGROUND TUNES WERE YESTERDAY'S HIT SONGS

Published: Sunday, July 29 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

Muzak may be an anomaly of the business world. Few business could be so maligned and survive a year, let alone 56.

Its audio and video services reach some 80 million people every day. Yet, most people associate Muzak with elevator music - bad elevator music."People think we're one flavor. We're like Baskin-Robbins," said Steve Randall, president and co-owner of Mountain West Audio Inc., which owns the Utah and Idaho Muzak franchises. Utah, incidentally, has been served by Muzak for 49 years.

Muzak offers seven satellite programs and 46 different music formats - everything from Christmas music to Bach.

Easy listening music is still one of its offerings but Randall said most of its customers lean to more progressive formats such as Foreground Music One, adult contemporary favorites, or Hitline, a selection of top 40 hits.

Today's hits are tomorrow's Muzak, he said. Long gone are the days of the Henry Mancini orchestra or the Christy Minstrels playing "Feelings." Today's Muzak features the likes of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, and George Michael.

Debbie Gibson said in a recent USA Today interview she enjoyed the Muzak version of her hit song "Shake Your Love." Said Gibson, "I appreciate that stuff. I was trained in classical piano, so to hear my song fully orchestrated in a mellow way is neat."

Muzak got its start on elevators a half a century ago. "When elevators were brand new, people were afraid to ride them," Randall said. Speakers were mounted on elevator cars, and the soothing music they emitted helped ease riders' anxieties.

An interesting beginning, but one Muzak franchisees wish the public would soon forget. "One of the hardest things we have to do is overcome the image of elevator music," Randall said.

The service is used most frequently in retail settings or in the workplace to increase retail activity or boost employee productivity, he said.

Company research indicates has indicated installing Muzak can improve employee productivity up to 11 percent. On the retail side, department stores that utilize the service report shoppers spend about 18 percent more time in the stores. "Our marketing strategy is changing browsers into buyers," Randall said.

Asked if Muzak contains subliminal messages, Randall tossed his head back, laughed a hearty chuckle. There's no snake oil or smoke and mirrors at work here, he said. "Muzak is simply music used for a functional purpose."

Muzak has developed "time of day" programming, which works to counteract fatigue cycles. The programming is divided into 15-minute segments, and during the times of day people are fatigued - late morning, late afternoon - Muzak features music with a faster tempo.

Music stimulates the mind, helps increase concentration and helps improve the accuracy and amount of work done. "Psychologically it makes it seem that time goes by quicker," he said.

The owner of a clothing factory reported his workers used 30 percent fewer paper towels in the washroom after he installed Muzak. It was by no means a scientific measure of employee productivity, but it was indicative that people spent less time in the bathroom and more time on the work floor.

In the retail setting, Muzak is used to help shoppers feel at home. "If customers feel comfortable, they stay longer. The longer they stay, the more they see. The more they see, the more they buy," he said.

Utah department stores including ZCMI, JC Penney and Nordstrom use Muzak's commercial video programming in their stores to help sell particular products, including clothing, cosmetics or cookware.

Randall said much of his business recently has come from grocery stores. "For the last year, we've just been installing thousands and thousands of systems," he said.

In addition to musical selections, Muzak in grocery stores includes advertisements, nutrition tips and consumer information. However, advertising may encompass no more than 20 percent of Muzak's airtime, he said. "Eighty percent is always music and many times more."

Studies indicate shoppers spend an average of 35-45 minutes in the grocery store, and while most bring a list, most buying decisions are made in the store.

"Over the satellite network, we're able to reach people while they're in the store," Randall said. "If we advertise hot dogs, the store also sells buns and pop along with it."

The grocery stores profit from sales, and some national manufacturers give rebates to stores that advertise their products.

And then there's the Muzak people hear when they're put on hold on the telephone. Most people groan when they're delayed, let alone captive to Muzak. But Randall questions if people dislike Muzak or if they dislike being being put on hold.

He votes for the latter.

A Brigham Young University study "showed 94 percent of the people prefer music to silence. That's good enough for me," Randall said with a grin.

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