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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.


SEATTLE — 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.

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.

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.

"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. . . . "

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."

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.

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