Muzak in the realm of retail theatre

f you blindfolded Dana McKelvey and led her into a retail store, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or a bank, she could tell fairly quickly whether the music playing in the background was Muzak. You may think that you would be able to tell, too, but unless your job is creating Muzak programs, as McKelvey’s is, you probably wouldn’t. The syrupy orchestral “elevator music” that most people associate with the company scarcely exists anymore. Muzak sells about a hundred prepackaged programs and several hundred customized ones, and only one—“Environmental”—truly fits the stereotype. It consists of “contemporary instrumental versions of popular songs,” and it is no longer terribly popular anywhere, except in Japan. (“The Japanese think they love it, but they actually don’t,” a former Muzak executive told me. “They’ll get over it soon.”) All of Muzak’s other programs are drawn from the company’s huge digital inventory, called the Well, which contains more than 1.5 million commercially recorded songs, representing dozens of genres and subgenres—acid jazz, heavy metal, shag, neo-soul, contemporary Italian—and is growing at the rate of twenty thousand songs a month. (Some record labels now upload new releases directly to the company, which, like a radio station, pays licensing fees for the songs it uses.) The Well includes seven hundred and seventy-five tracks recorded by the Beatles, a hundred and thirty by Kanye West, three hundred and twenty-four by Led Zeppelin, eighty-four by Gwen Stefani, a hundred and ninety-one by 50 Cent, and nine hundred and eighty-three by Miles Davis. It also includes many covers—among them, versions of the Rolling Stones’ song “Paint It Black” by U2, Ottmar Liebert, and a late-sixties French rock band with a female vocalist (who sang it in French) and approximately five hundred versions of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” which, according to Guinness World Records, is the most frequently covered song in the world.

“There are so many songs out there that if I listened to just one I’d never know whether it was Muzak or not,” McKelvey, who is twenty-six years old, and has the kind of soft, persuasive voice that would sound good on late-night radio, told me. “But I could tell if I listened to the flow of a few. The key is consistency. How did those songs connect? What story did they tell? Why is this song after that song, and why is that one after that one? When we make a program, we pay a lot of attention to the way songs segue. It’s not like songs on the radio, or songs on a CD. Take Armani Exchange. Shoppers there are looking for clothes that are hip and chic and cool. They’re twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and they want something to wear to a party or a club, and as they shop they want to feel like they’re already there. So you make the store sound like the coolest bar in town. You think about that when you pick the songs, and you pay special attention to the sequencing, and then you cross-fade and beat-match and never break the momentum, because you want the program to sound like a d.j.’s mix.” She went on, “For Ann Taylor, you do something completely different. The Ann Taylor woman is conservative, not edgy, and she really couldn’t care less about segues. She wants everything bright and positive and optimistic and uplifting, so you avoid offensive themes and lyrics, and you think about Sting and Celine Dion, and you leave a tiny space between the songs or gradually fade out and fade in.”

Muzak’s corporate headquarters are in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Naturally, there’s an awesome sound system, which extends into the parking lot but not (for deeply felt symbolic reasons) into the elevator. McKelvey works in a section of the building called the Circle, a curved arrangement of cubicle-size offices, which are the only Muzak work spaces that have doors. She has spent many hours behind hers, listening to hundreds of songs and thinking about how best to employ music to further the marketing ambitions of the hundred or so clients she manages at once. At the time I visited, she was working on a proposal for a prospective customer, a French-owned chocolatier in New York City. “They want the program to include music from everyplace in the world where cocoa grows,” McKelvey told me. “It’s a challenge, to say the least, but it’s fun.” Shortly before we talked, she had been listening to lounge and rhythmic music from Brazil and West Africa, and to a number of less exotic songs, including familiar jazz tunes that she felt conveyed a mood of chocolate-appropriate romance.

McKelvey, a creative manager at Muzak, is one of twenty-two “audio architects”—the company’s term for its program designers. All but two are in their twenties or thirties, and all have serious, eclectic, long-term relationships with music. (Eight of the architects work in the Circle, ten work in the Muzak office in Seattle, two work in New York, and two work from home, in Connecticut and in California.) McKelvey was born in 1980 in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents weren’t musicians, but her mother liked to sing and her father worked as a d.j.; he now owns a night club in Charleston called Casablanca. McKelvey began playing the piano when she was two, could read notes on the treble clef before she could read words, and took up the violin when she was seven. Two years later, she joined the Charleston Youth Symphony, as a violinist, and performed through high school. At home, when she wasn’t practicing classical pieces, she listened mainly to eighties pop—Michael Jackson, DeBarge, the Jets—and to the music her parents loved, which was Motown and funk. “I never had a TV in my room,” she told me. “I always had a 45-player. My dad had an amazing record collection, and he still does, and it’s all first runs, not reissues. Whenever I’m in Charleston, I try to sneak records from him.” She says her current taste in music is too diverse to characterize.

People at Muzak sometimes speak of a song’s “topology,” the cultural and temporal associations that it carries with it, like a hidden refrain. When McKelvey works on a program for a client whose customers represent a range of ages—such as Old Navy, whose market extends from infants to adults—she has to accommodate more than one sensibility without offending any. The task is simplified somewhat by the fact that musical eras and genres are not always moored firmly in time. Elvis Presley (who is represented in the Well by fourteen hundred and five tracks) sounds dated to many people today, but teen-agers can listen to Beatles songs from just a few years later without necessarily thinking of them as oldies.