The Secret History of Muzak

More than just elevator music


As Mood Media retires its most famous brand name, Muzak, let's pause to recall that the operation was responsible for more than just the sonic custard that people associate with the Muzak label. Theodore "Arwulf" Grenier, host of an excellent jazz show on WCBN-FM, points out that

A collection of Fats Waller's Muzak. Click the picture to go to the anthology's Amazon page.
Jazz Classics

Muzak was one of many transcription services for which musicians—many of them now regarded as legendary jazz artists—regularly cut recordings that weren't peddled to the public in stores. The only time anyone heard these sides (which often exceeded the 3.5 minute limitations of the ten inch 78 rpm record) was when they were aired over radio waves as filler. Transcription recordings by Duke Ellington, Claude Thornhill and dozens more have been reissued and often represent some of the best material we have from that period (30s & 40s). I believe this was largely due to the fact that the A&R directors usually associated with commercial recording sessions were absent or "defanged" for the transcription sessions, which weren't geared towards selling units in stores.

That's right: The company that has probably received more sneers from music lovers than any other corporation not only recorded some of the greatest jazz artists of the last century, it often gave them more time and freedom than the major labels did. Arwulf goes on to describe Fats Waller's Muzak sessions, "which underline perhaps the most important and least recognized aspect of Thomas Waller—his subtlety." There's a link to one of Waller's Muzak recordings too. Read the whole thing.

Bonus link: In recent years, Muzak moved away from elevator music and into elaborate experiments with niche-targeted "audio architecture." David Owen describes the results here.

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  1. Musak also provided a good living to a lot of musicians. You supported your nightclub act by playing musak for steady money during the day.

  2. It’s still Muzak.

    We had it at my first job in a fast food joint. The most vanilla, inoffensive, bland offal in all the land. Whether it was Fats Waller or Duke Ellington or an anonymous piano player and his Arkestra*, it was still just Muzak.

    Glad it paid the bills for some of the brothers – they earned it.

    *anyone else a Sun Ra fan??

    1. We had it at my first job in a fast food joint. The most vanilla, inoffensive, bland offal in all the land. Whether it was Fats Waller or Duke Ellington or an anonymous piano player and his Arkestra*, it was still just Muzak.

      Listen to the Fats Waller recording that Arwulf linked to (it’s here), then tell me if you think it’s “the most vanilla, inoffensive, bland offal in all the land.”

      *anyone else a Sun Ra fan??

      The best concert I ever attended was a Sun Ra show.

      1. So n=1 overwhelms the rest of Muzak.

        Sorry, Jesse – no. That’s a fine piece by Mr. Waller, no question – Muzak still sucks(ed).

        1. So n=1 overwhelms the rest of Muzak.

          Of course it doesn’t. But you wrote that even if “it was Fats Waller or Duke Ellington,” the music “was still just Muzak.” I think that Fats Waller recording qualifies as more than “just Muzak.”

          1. Walker! You resilient BAStard!

            OK. Whatever.

            1. I have always joked about Muzak and its bland covers; really funny to hear some mellow version of a ferocious head banger hit from a few years before.

              But when Muzak and Fats Waller reputations collide in my brain, Fats wins. The sample is playing now, but I have such high regard for Fats that I don’t believe he could record a bad track, and I don’t believe even Muzak would want him to, because they could hire any cheaper session musician for that. My belief in self-interest lead me to expect the best from this sample even before it started; only fools would buy a Rembrandt and let their kid draw all over it.

              1. “I have always joked about Muzak and its bland covers; really funny to hear some mellow version of a ferocious head banger hit from a few years before.”

                In a similar vein, I was browsing through a Thrifty (nowRite-Aid) store in Morro Bay CA in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I don’t know if their music service was Muzak, but it coukld certainly be classified as “elevator.” At some point, I became conscious of my mind recognizing the instrumental tune that was being played at the moment, but more importantly, filling in the lyrics:

                “And if the elevator tries to break you down … go crazy!”

                I suppose the store employees thought I HAD gone crazy, as loud and as long as I belly-laughed over that one. True story.

          2. I’ve been skimming old Billboard magazines from the early 50’s online (google has most of them).

            Anyway, one article grabbed my attention when it mentioned that jazz listeners had started seeking out transcription recordings. Apparently there had been an old saying at record labels that went something like “has as much appeal as a transcription” which meant no chance of selling – and this new demand (in the early 50’s) surprised the labels.

    2. I love Sun Ra! “Lanquidity” is a ’70s masterpiece.

  3. I was looking at that pic of the Fats Waller CD. It is a shame they don’t give honest descriptive nicknames anymore. Why isn’t Chris Christie “Fats Christie”? Why isn’t Obama, “Slim”? Or Bohner “Hound Dog”?

    1. Boner as “Hound Dog” is right on!

      Debbie “Fatback” Stabenow, anyone?

      1. Lizzie “Red” Warren.

  4. Does this mean James Taylor will die?

  5. most present or former DJs/crate-diggers know that the archives of ‘production recordings’/ ‘library music’ are some of the richest and most fascinating material of any given era… although admittedly, some eras are certainly a shitload better than others. while not quite ‘muzak’, library music was recorded sans any ostensible purpose, and simply archived and licensed to radio and tv producers to use however they saw fit. the stuff from the late 60s-early 70s is highly collectable, being a blend of everything from early electronic-music experiments to cutting-edge jazz, european imitations of funk music, and other theatric instrumental wackiness. i dont remember the best catelogues off the top of my head, but i believe reissues are still printed for some… will check

  6. While easy-listening/muzak that I grew up hearing in the 70s might sound bland for its arrangements and would have been considered “smooth” for its day, I’m struck by how raw the sound is today. Listen to strings on any modern recording and it’s synth-strings/midi/sample library sound, or way overprocessed if they do use live musicians. Listen to muzak or library music from the 60s/70s and you can hear the sizzle in the sound of live musicians. The easiest example is the theme for Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I love that. Sounds like a live orchestra, not some guy with a sampler. The expression you can hear in the sound more than makes up for the twee nature of the tunes.

  7. Most of the “classic” Muzak I remember in shopping stores was simply mellow cover versions of pop tunes. I’m sure it put money in some talented musicians’ pockets (and that’s a good thing), but it’s a far cry from the library music being described here. It’s also a far cry what Mood Media does now, according to that New Yorker article. Kind of a fascinating business, actually.

  8. All of the Fats Waller recordings available are shorter, not longer, than the regular 78s of the day. If you bother to read the info, you’ll see that Muzak made the recordings for radio stations to play between the regular programs. Why bother, when there were plenty of records already available? I’m only guessing, but my guess is that stations were reluctant to play records because they had to pay royalties. Radio stations at that time presented mostly live music, which they usually got for free from bands seeking publicity. Muzak (probably) paid the musicians a flat fee for the recording, and then sold it to the radio station for another flat fee.

    “Real” transcriptions were made by the radio stations themselves for rebroadcasting material, done on 16-inch discs that could hold a whopping twelve minutes of material. There is a famous broadcast (famous because it was recorded) of Duke Ellington from a dance in Fargo, North Dakota in 1940, available on CD, that was done by some Ellington buffs who had friends at the local radio station who let them use the equipment. In 1945 Ellington made a number of “Buy Bonds” broadcasts for the government that were transcribed professionally and are also available.

    And, excuse me, since when does “Reason” object to “commercialism”? Markets rule, dudes, markets rule!

    1. If the recordings were original works by the bands, perhaps the radio stations were not charged. But the royalties paid for most music by radio broadcasters go to the WRITERS of the music and/or lyrics. So if a band did a cover version of someone else’s song, that someone else was still due a royalty for any “performance” on the premises of a commercial business, or over the airwaves of a particular radio station.

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