DJs spin the new elevator music

Some of L.A.’s hottest DJs work for a firm from Concord, Ont., finding Muzak for a new generation of shoppers

Jay Teitel
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Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Linda Kennedy is a 35-year-old, Los Angeles-based, one-time art and set director for movies—and a DJ in the underground house-music scene in that city. Ten years ago, while she was in a vintage store shopping for furniture, she ran into the creative vice-president of Muzak, who told her she sounded perfect for what the company did. “At the time, I thought about Muzak the way most people did,” Kennedy says, “but I went to their L.A. creative offices to check it out. What I saw was that they were just creating environments like me, but in a different way. I’ve been involved with music design ever since.”

What Kennedy means by “music design” is what you might call Muzak 2.0—the latest incarnation of the background music you hear in shopping malls, strip plazas, banks, doctors’ offices and outlets swank and utilitarian the world over. But there, the similarity to Muzak 1.0 ends. Most background music these days consists not of the anodyne orchestral covers of well-known songs that gave rise to the epithet “elevator music,” but of original tunes. This requires music designers with an encyclopedic, if not addictive, knowledge of various schools of music, a talent for juxtaposing songs and an instinct for what people want to hear at a particular time and place. Who are these prodigies? DJs. A recent cover story in a major Paris magazine highlighted the new phenomenon of the “star-brand DJ”—people who spin by night at the city’s top clubs and, by day, work in media music, creating auditory backgrounds for people who are buying groceries and shampoo and underwear. What’s even more intriguing is that a large percentage of them are employed by a company that exports its music-programming formula all over the world, and has its head offices in Concord, Ont.

The company in question, Mood Media, has been in the “sensory marketing business” since 2004. But it made its first splash in 2011, when it purchased Muzak, and a bigger splash earlier this year when it decided, in one fell swoop, to largely dispense with both the Muzak brand and name. The media took a mainly sardonic, good-riddance stance—“Muzak, the musical equivalent of white bread, is no more” reported Fast Feed. The blogosphere, meanwhile, was mock-scandalized at another soulless takeover of a piece of quintessential American culture. The satirical cake went to a takeoff of Don McLean’s iconic anthem, American Pie, posted by The Onion’s AV Club, entitled Buy, Buy, You American Guys. It ended:

I was a lonely teen with those mall bucks,

Spent at Spencer’s Gifts, then the Sunglasses Hut,

But I knew that I was out of luck,

The day the Muzak died . . .

But the story was in fact bigger than that. Over the past 36 months, Mood Media’s CEO, Lorne Abony, a 43-year-old McGill University graduate who appears on the CBS reality show Undercover Boss, has engineered the takeover of not only Muzak, but another background music giant, DMX, making Mood the largest firm of its type in the world, with offices in 41 countries, a programming presence in 60, and products reaching an estimated 150 million people every day at more than 500,000 business and commercial locations around the globe. The brands they program for include J.C. Penney, Crate & Barrel, J. Crew, Kenneth Cole and Restoration Hardware. The last three are part of Linda Kennedy’s portfolio. It’s slightly wondrous to realize that, when you go to buy your antique doorknobs, you’re not listening to tunes from a teenage sales clerk’s iPod, but a brand-dedicated playlist compiled by a house-music maven extraordinaire.

In explaining Mood’s decision to rebrand Muzak, Abony notes that Muzak, although iconic in North America, is relatively unknown in the rest of the world. And Muzak was, above all, a music business, whereas Mood and its competitors have become multimedia providers, creating electronic labels on clothes, even scents, which comprise a large part of Mood’s Las Vegas business. (Every casino and hotel on the Las Vegas strip has its own signature scent, a must in a city that lets people smoke while they gamble.) One of Mood’s specialty products, Mood Presence, detects customers and their smartphones through a store’s music system, which lets retailers direct-message them immediately via an app.

Music is still the mainstay, though. And music is where it gets interesting. The industry is now moving into Europe and Asia, where the landscape of musical genres and sub-genres is far more fragmented than it is in North America: “Belgian pop music is different from German pub music, which is different from British pub music,” says Abony. So the need for music aficionados with specialized areas of expertise, i.e., DJs, is even greater. Ditto the popularity of the jobs. “It’s absolutely bizarre how highly sought-after and competitive these DJ-style day jobs are,” says Abony. “They’re considered glamour employment. If you love music, it’s nirvana.”

Linda Kennedy would agree. She spends her days reading about the brands she’s working with, visiting stores, checking out mission statements and, of course, listening to music. Kennedy’s only hiccup was an early propensity to lean on her specialty. “I’d be like, okay, you want romantic music in your store? I’ve got romantic house music. You want ambient music? I’ve got ambient house. But now, when people ask me what kind of music I’m into, I say good music.” The job, she says, has helped her grow beyond her personal tastes and open her mind. “I haven’t regretted the switch to it for a minute.”

The same is true of Steven Pilker, a designer with Mood’s office in Charlotte, N.C., one of the two main U.S. creative centres, along with one in Austin, Texas. Pilker didn’t start out as a DJ, but in that perfect DJ precursor job: a clerk in a record store. Every Sunday, while he was working at the store part-time during his last year of college, the director of audio architecture (now music design) at Muzak in Charlotte would come in to rummage through records. He recruited Pilker, whose first job was as a buyer for music programmers. “Every week, I’d go out and spend about a thousand dollars on CDs. It was fun for a music-head.”

What surprised Pilker was how much cross-pollinated music he ended up recommending; with the rise of electronica in the ’90s (today called electronic dance music), he found strains of house music, for example, popping up everywhere. What also surprised him was how awkward visiting retail outlets could be. “For four years, I programmed music for a brand whose target demographic was girls from tween age to 22. I’m a six-foot-two guy with a beard. When a guy like that walks into a tween clothing store, you get some weird looks.”

As competitive as the daytime-DJ scene is, though, it’s bound to get harder for Abony to find the new Linda Kennedys. This is because, he acknowledges, in the global market, “music is not a monolith.” “You’re not going to expect someone who’s an expert in Belgian pop music to also be an expert in, say, Mongolian folk music.” Mongolian folk music, which is the Chinese equivalent of country music in North America (but even more popular, because of the sheer numbers), is on Mood’s radar these days. The company is trying to compile a library of Mongolian folk in anticipation of taking the in-store musical experience to China.

Meanwhile, if Asia is the geographic frontier, the technological frontier is interactivity. Some clients want to have their managers and employees change the programs on the fly. Mood is able to accommodate them, but not as eagerly as a much smaller Canadian ambient-music firm, also located in Concord, called PCM Technologies. PCM will loudly play melodious, classic jazz singing—the likes of Cleo Laine and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross—for your corner strip plaza, to attract middle-aged customers (and possibly scatter teenaged hangers-around). It also has proprietary interactive software systems it provides for customers, among them, the Keg steakhouse chain in Canada. If a manager of a Keg in Calgary hears a “blip in a song” at 4:54 p.m., she can send a message to PCM’s office in Concord, where on-call technicians can remove the song remotely and replace it with a clean version. “At any given time,” says Gina Rizhanovsky, president and CEO of PCM, “I can tell you what music is playing at a particular Keg in B.C., and what played there 10 minutes ago.” PCM also specializes in “multi-zones,” special speaker boxes capable of creating up to 54 different non-interfering zones of different music in the same store: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in frozen foods, say, and the Rolling Stones in soft drinks.

It’s a long way from Muzak, especially where it came from. Muzak’s founder, Maj. Gen. George O. Squier, reportedly named his new invention Muzak out of admiration for the name “Kodak.” More verifiable is that Muzak, which debuted in New York City in 1934, was not first used in elevators at all, but in offices and other workplaces, where it was intended to raise worker productivity. Its place in North American society was further solidified by the “music while you work” movement of the Second World War.

Its 21st-century progeny may have another singular, wonderful attribute. It may actually be worth listening to.