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The Muzak beat

The lobby of Muzak's Fort Mill headquarters. hspace=4
The lobby of Muzak's Fort Mill headquarters. hspace=4

The company Muzak made its mark on American culture by producing generic-sounding songs for office buildings, retail stores - and, let's not forget the dentist. Yes, Muzak gave us elevator music. But it's been 25 years since Muzak stopped producing those instrumental covers and switched to providing clients mix tapes of popular recordings. Yet Muzak is still trying to shake its elevator music reputation as while trying to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. WFAE's Greg Collard reports. Elevator music made Muzak a huge success, but it also made the company a punchline. Shawn Mosely certainly knows that. "Every day, you have to have a conversation with somebody and say, 'we're not elevator music. We're not your father's Muzak," Moseley says. Mosely works at Muzak's headquarters in Fort Mill. It's actually hip. Music is everywhere you go - and I mean everywhere. There are more than 250 speakers here. The building is a 115,000 square foot warehouse with a sort of modern, stainless-steel look inside. But Muzak has been around a long time. This year the company is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Bruce McKagan is Muzak's unofficial docent. His tour includes interesting historical tidbits, like former President Lyndon Johnson once owning a Muzak franchise in Austin, Texas. "And Lyndon Johnson sold it to the White House while Eisenhower was there. So there was Muzak in the White House because of LBJ," McKagan says. But again, this isn't your father's Muzak. Steven Pilker is in charge of today's sound has head of Muzak's audio architecture unit. This is the group that creates many of those mix tapes you hear when you go shopping or out to eat. Muzak's clients include AT&T. He plays a sample of a playlist that's intended to "liven up the edges" for the company that launched the I-Phone. "We've recently discussed that since they're the branch that launched the iPhone, and the iPhone and iPod are generally associated with indie music, of injecting more indie music into their programming." Pilker's example is a song called "Shooting Stars" by The Mosquitoes. "You wouldn't necessarily associate it with a mainstream act, but it's perfect for someone like AT&T. It's very lively, very springy without being over-the top." Pilker says many of his audio architects are musicians or used to work in independent record stores. "From personal experience you will not find a more opinionated people about music than people who worked in independent record stores." You know, like Jack Black in the movie High Fidelity. OK, maybe not that bad. But Pilker says Muzak's audio architects certainly have that passionate knowledge of music. The challenge is connecting the right songs to the tastes of its clients' customers. "You're watching television or you're in a bar, and you're like, 'God, this would totally fit for this client. You don't ever turn off from that job experience. People will e-mail themselves or take a note and say, 'this worked here, I can apply it there.' " Sounds like a cool job, but Muzak isn't hiring a lot these days. In February, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with $436.6 million in debt. Standard and Poor's analyst Hal Diamond says the collapse of the financial markets came at an especially bad time for Muzak. Several acquisitions over the years were heavily financed with debt, and much of it was due to be paid off in the first quarter of 2009. A merger with competitor DMX would have helped Muzak, but the deteriorating credit markets helped kill that deal. The recession added to Muzak's problems. Some of its biggest clients are in the suffering retail and restaurant industries. And Diamond says there's emerging competition. "Now when you walk into a store, you may have videos, and people are carrying iPods with them everywhere they go. So this has restricted Muzak's ability to raise prices as well," Diamond says. So Muzak has a plan to make itself more valuable to its clients and their customers. It offers in-store video signage, and a service it calls Muzak ID. Basically, it tries to give products an audio identity. Muzak's Shawn Moseley explains. "If I'm a hair salon and I just sold you a $32 bottle of shampoo, and you leave my store, how do I connect with my customer when they're not in my store anymore? Using music and mobile technology, I can make them hear my brand." Despite Muzak's bankruptcy, Moseley is optimistic about the company's future. Yes, the name Muzak carries some baggage, but it also has its advantages. At the very least, Moseley says prospective clients always take his calls