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Humming Right Along : It’s a far cry from a haphazard menu of music. Muzak has a mission. On any given day, it offers ‘stimulus progression’ to 80 million American ears.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his corner office at Muzak’s world headquarters, next to the Red Hook Brewery, vice president Bruce Funkhouser is explaining Muzak’s basic mission.

No, it’s not to annoy you. It’s to “reduce stress and increase job efficiency.”

The idea also is to encourage shoppers to open their wallets, and fast feeders to eat and leave. And depending on the tempo, to seduce fine diners into ordering a second bottle of wine.

That up-tempo “Jingle Bells” with all the chimes is “high stimulation” stuff.

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But stimulation isn’t what Muzak is known for. In fact, the name had become so synonymous with elevator music that when new owners took over the company three years ago, they toyed with changing it. They decided, however, that being famous as Muzak was better than not being famous at all.

Since 1987, the company has been working on propping up its image. “If we’re a generic term like Kleenex, that’s fine,” Funkhouser says. “I don’t want to be a generic term like Spam.”

Muzak, which on a given day reaches an estimated 80 million pairs of captive American ears--100 million during the holidays--doesn’t stay at the top of the piped-music heap by serving up some haphazard and relentless menu of music to yawn by.

Muzak doesn’t just come oozing out of ceiling speakers through some mysterious alien force. A creative force at corporate headquarters in Seattle is responsible for the repertoire, which is beamed by satellite from Raleigh, N.C.

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Shoppers at the Beverly Center, at Fashion Island in Newport Beach and at Sherman Oaks Galleria, at Thrifty Drugstores, Vons, Lucky, Hughes and Alpha Beta markets may think they’re just hearing piped-in music but they are, in fact, undergoing “stimulus progression.”

The tempo is the thing, Funkhouser explains. Nothing too depressing, nothing too stimulating like, say, a John Philip Sousa march. But a samba, a reggae tune, a really peppy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town"--now, those have what Muzak folk call “good stimulation value.”

It’s 10 a.m. Muzak is in the air, drifting past Funkhouser’s door as well as through shopping malls and supermarkets and restaurants and waiting rooms all over America. He is explaining the Muzak mission.

On the environmental channel, Muzak’s bread-and-butter, every hour of every 24 is divided into four segments, starting with low stimulation value numbers--a string orchestra, perhaps--and getting ever more stimulating. “There’s this little lift going on,” Funkhouser explains. Then, a short pause, for the ear to reset. Then the cycle starts anew.

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“The further you are from a meal,” Funkhouser says, “the more fatigue you have.” Muzak counteracts that sinking feeling with a mid-morning musical jolt heard ‘round the world--or at least throughout the United States and Canada and in 12 other countries from Peru to Australia.

Funkhouser glances at his watch. He says, “Right now in Chicago they’d be hearing the same thing we’ll hear tomorrow at 10 o’clock our time.” (There are East Coast and West Coast feeds to accommodate time zones).

Starting Saturday Muzak’s 160,000 subscribers--including 8,000 in Los Angeles and Orange counties--will get nonstop jingle bells and sleigh rides and holly and fa-la-las.

That’s millions of workers and customers humming along--subliminally, of course--to “White Christmas” and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. “You name it, we’re in it,” Funkhouser says. “Secret naval installations, churches. . . . “

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Muzak was born in 1934, in Cleveland, transmitting music over telephone lines to hotels and restaurants. In 1936--when America was humming “There’s a Small Hotel” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin"--Muzak moved to New York. Two years later Warner Bros. bought it and introduced franchising, then sold to a triumvirate that included William Benton, later founder of Benton & Bowles ad agency and a U.S. senator from Connecticut. New vistas opened for Muzak with studies showing it reduced fatigue among war plant workers during World War II.

Today there are 500 employees, 18 offices (including Los Angeles) and 180 independent affiliates. The environmental channel, the original concept, accounts for 80 to 85% of what most people think of as Muzak. A 1936 memo shows that the philosophy of non-obtrusiveness has also changed little. It decreed: “No tangos or waltzes after 12:30 at night.”

And Muzak continues to be haunted by its image as those wonderful people who bring you “oceans of beautiful music.”

“We’re easy to take shots at,” says Funkhouser, acknowledging that by the time Field Corp. bought Muzak from Westinghouse in 1987, it had deteriorated into “crummy music coming out of tinny speakers.”

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The new management team was of a generation that had seen the evolution from mono to stereo, from LPs to CDs, that related more to rock ‘n’ roll than to Percy Faith and Jackie Gleason. “If people’s favorite tune comes along and it’s being played by the schlockiest orchestra they’ve ever heard, we’ve definitely blown the mission,” Funkhouser says.

Environmental programming starts in Seattle when Christopher Case, 35, manager/artists and repertoire for the environmental channel, decides which songs are going to be added to Muzak’s active library of 5,000 titles and which orchestras are going to record them.

On a recent morning, Case was in his office, listening to a Willie Nelson tape of “Living in the Promised Land.” Willie probably won’t make it onto the environmental channel which, with a few exceptions such as Christmastime, uses only instrumentals. Instrumentals are considered suitably “unobtrusive,” a Muzak buzzword.

Case may ask one of the orchestras he regularly hires to cut that song in Muzak style. In California alone, 250 musicians record for Muzak, most of these in Burbank and Hollywood.

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Case, who worked for a rival company, didn’t join the Muzak team because he just loved the music. When Muzak called 3 1/2 years ago to talk about a job, “I balled (the message) up and threw it away.” Muzak was a word he associated with “a lot of real dated brass sounds, a lot of tasteless synthesizer music and sickening sweet strings.”

Its inventory included a disproportionate selection of songs of the “Three Coins in the Fountain” ilk. Case points out that most of Muzak’s audience is between 25 and 45, people who have “grown up and moved into the workplace” since that kind of music hit the charts.

For some reason not quite clear to him, there was a time when Muzak would add insult to injury by hiring a Czechoslovakian orchestra to Muzak-ize those numbers. That ensemble was, he says, perhaps 20 years out of date.

Case wakes up each day to radio music. He makes notes. Could Muzak do a credible generic version? What audience would it appeal to?

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“The first thing I listen to is the melody,” he says. Some tunes, he explains, “would be laughable” on Muzak because “there is no melody.” He mentions, for example, the rap music genre. He adds. “ ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ would be very difficult. But we did ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and it turned out real well.”

If he had his way, is there one song that would never, ever again be heard on Muzak? Case smiles and says, ‘ “Alley Cat’ would be right up there.”

The secret, he confides, is “knowing what not to play. We’re dealing with everyone from age 12 to over 65. The baby boomers have enough stimulation with bills to pay, babies. They don’t want the music to attack them. They want it to ease their tensions. With the teens, it’s push, push, push, more, more.”

(In the too-stressful category he mentions AC/DC and Judas Priest. George Benson qualifies as a tension-easer.)

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A Muzak melody may be recorded in studios in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco or New York. It’s left to the arranger unless, as Case says, tapes start coming in with a lot of “pops and hums.”

Not all artists are thrilled at the thought of being immortalized by Muzak. Bruce Springsteen said thanks, but no thanks; he didn’t want his music to become “singsong.” At the other end of the spectrum, Case observes, “There are people who live off of Muzak royalties.”

The master tapes go to Seattle where Chuck Walker, the ponytailed manager of environmental channel programming, feeds the vital statistics into a computer: Song, artist, tempo, length, type of group, original artist or cover (remake).

The computer knows the rules: How often that tune may be played, at what times of day. “We don’t have enough (post-1987) titles to cover the 24 hours,” seven days a week, he explains, so in early morning hours Muzak dips into its library of golden oldies.

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After Walker, the next stop for a Muzak tape is with Elfi Mehan.

Mehan, a woman with self-described “bionic ears,” is Muzak’s most senior corporate employee. She joined the company in the ‘60s and moved with it from Manhattan to Seattle in 1987 when Muzak was sold. “I’m a true believer” in Muzak, she says. “It makes unfamiliar places familiar.”

Through the years, she stuck around, “always hoping we were going to do it right.” In the New York days, she recalls, she would seethe as fellow elevator riders made jokes about the Muzak. “When we got to the bottom,” she says, “I’d block the way and argue with them.”

This day, she sits in a windowless studio with egg crate walls, surrounded by the finest of recording equipment--Studder, Ampex, Lexicon, Bryston, JBL, Nakamichi. “We have some wonderful toys,” says Mehan, who designed and equipped the studio.

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When she was a girl in East Germany, there was no money for musical instruments--"The only thing we could afford was a squeeze box.” The next best thing, she decided, would be to work with music. With this as her goal, she was “the only girl who took shop in high school.”

She interrupts her reminiscences, looks skyward, frowns and says something about “little ticks” coming over Muzak. Sometimes, she explains, rain will absorb the signal being beamed by satellite to the dish on the roof.

Mehan is manager of Muzak’s broadcast studios, responsible for transferring studio-made tapes onto glitch-free, distortion-free, properly aligned digital tapes to be sent to Raleigh, N.C. for satellite transmission to subscribers--either directly, through rooftop “dishes,” or, in most cases, indirectly through rebroadcast by affiliates.

“Some of these need a lot of help,” she says. “Say you have an irritating violin in there, yours truly will edit it out,” if it won’t wreck the structure. Or she may snip out repetition. Repetition may be magic on the concert stage, Mehan says, but coming out of a ceiling speaker it’s just repetition.

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Maybe twice a month she’ll reject a tape. She slips a fast-tempo version of “Gentle on My Mind,” the old Glen Campbell hit, into a machine, turns up the volume and says, “Hokey. To me, it makes fun of the original, which was great in its time period.” Muzak will not use it.

She shrugs. “I have an intuitive thing. I get a little nasty sometimes, but playing a song this way is not changing our image.”

Maybe it was OK for the old Muzak, when everything that didn’t have distortion or flutter was sent out, when organ and harmonica music was big. But these days on-hold callers to a Muzak office are reminded by a taped voice, “It’s not just elevator music any more. . . . “

Chuck Walker says that when he tells people he works for Muzak, “they either giggle or they don’t know what it is. Some people think Muzak is just the word for bad music.”

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He notes that the marketing department determined it “would take all of their budget for the next 15 to 20 years to overcome our reputation.” That didn’t seem practical.

A Muzak-University of Washington study now being analyzed was designed to learn whether the loud, and ubiquitous, music that came in with the ‘60s has desensitized people to both music and noise. Subjects, all university employees, were given SAT-type tests, some during silence, some while the radio played, some to Muzak. Test results haven’t been tabulated, but exit surveys strongly suggest it’s good news for Muzak, Funkhouser reports.

Those whose workplace provides a steady Muzak diet may simply stop being conscious of it. On a recent evening at the Pavilions Place supermarket in Santa Monica, Ronald Bricker was staffing the customer service desk, directly below a speaker blaring “Joy to the World.” After a while “you don’t hear it,” he said. “We do get responses from people who dash in and out, or employees who work only three or four hours a day.” He added, “I have not heard any complaints.”

The low stimulation-high stimulation formula was based on a 1987 study that found that subscribers wanted Muzak to do more than entertain; they wanted it to boost business.

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Some songs are perennials, kept on because they make people feel comfortable (early Beatles, for one). Among what’s hip, heavy metal is not well represented. Funkhouser explains, “Businesses don’t want heavy metal, even if they have a leather store with bicycle chains for jewelry.” Nor is there much demand for country music--"An image thing.” Opera has almost no audience outside of Italian restaurants.

When the Field Corp. took over, Muzak’s library was littered with what Funkhouser describes as “bleeps and bloops and squawks,” electronic marvels with “eight tons of fuzz and wah-wah.” New management laid down the law about synthesizers and such.

Chuck Walker says, “A lot of what we do is not to try to please people, so much as to not offend them . . . . I’ll bet 30% of our subscribers use Muzak to mask other sounds.” But somebody must be listening. His unofficial duties include fielding what he calls “name that tune” calls from listeners frantic to know the name of a song just played.

Proper programming, says Walker, means “making sure there aren’t 10 guitar songs in a row, or people are going to start to notice the music. We don’t want that to happen.” No cut is heard on the environmental channel more often than every two and a half days. Muzak, says Funkhouser, doesn’t want subscribers to think “I’m paying for music and these people only have five songs.”

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The rotation rule is bent at holiday time. The menu consists of 500 renditions of only 21 Christmas titles and 17 Hanukkah songs. “We probably have 18 versions of ‘Away in the Manger’,” Walker says.

If the environmental channel pays Muzak’s bills, “foreground music,” as it’s called, is a growing segment. Targeted at specific age groups, it is meant to be noticed; channel selections, most of them by the original artist, include adult contemporary, light classical, New Age and Hitline (Top 40).

For “mom and pop” operations and small offices, Muzak offers an “on-premises” package, a music fix for $30 a month. It includes a tape deck and tapes by mail, fed into the machine by a human being. (High-end satellite subscribers may pay $100 a month). “On-premises” clients include a prison whose recent requests included the theme from “Top Gun.”

There’s also a retail channel, offering “AdParting” with messages taped by Muzak in Seattle. The target is the in-store customer. On this channel, vocals don’t work so well, Funkhouser says, as a customer may be treated to “I love ya, I love ya. Buy Preparation H.”

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Steve Ward, manager of programming for foreground broadcast, admits, “I even have Muzak actually coming into my bedroom. Talk about taking your work home with you. . . . “

Ward is responsible for the 24-hour holiday music channel, a 50-50 mix of vocals and instrumentals that became available Nov. 1. He says, “We had 38 customers who went on-line immediately.” His voice implies a certain amazement.

For those with a more limited tolerance for such seasonal delights, holiday music was programmed into the environmental channel in palatable doses, starting the day after Thanksgiving. After 6 p.m., and weekends, the doses have been getting bigger--a concession to merchants.

And, beginning Saturday, environmental channel customers will get four solid days of Christmas music. “We’re betting those last three days that nobody’s going to be in their offices,” Walker explains.

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There are all the old favorites, plus newer ones such as John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over).” Sacred songs have been cleansed of their lyrics--Muzak, after all, is piped into federal buildings.

Ward smiles and says, “It’s the only time of year I can get away with Bing Crosby and Perry Como. In July, I’d be lynched.” Rudolph is there, in 10 or more versions. And Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.” And Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” which Ward guesses is the most-recorded of all.

And Alvin and the Chipmunks? Ward grimaces. Well, yes, there is one, even though “we try to avoid novelty programming.”

Right after Christmas 1989, the Muzak people began working on this year’s holiday programming, making best guesses about which new tunes had staying power, adding them to the standards.

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And now comes the all-out assault by “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”

It’s Muzak to the ears of Elfi Mehan. “When I hear music we’ve done in a mall, and all around me people are responding, well, no paycheck in the world can give you that feeling,” she says.


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