Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

13 March 2023

Recording of the week: Muzak whilst you work for increased efficiency

This week's post comes from Gail Tasker, Audio Project Cataloguer.

As a music fan, I’ve often come across the word ‘Muzak’ without giving it much thought. For many, it signifies the tinny sound of soft instrumental music backgrounding an elevator ride or a customer service call. For others, it’s a genre synonymous with easy-listening. An excerpt from a BBC radio programme called ‘Saturday Night On The Light’, broadcast on 1 February, 1958 and found within the Krahmer-Newbrook Collection (BL ref: C1126), sheds more light on the topic.

Close-up photo of a tape machine from a similar era

This curious recording consists of an interview with William Quinlan, an American businessman and employee of the Jack Wrather organisation and its subsidiary, Muzak Corporation. As Quinlan explains to his interviewer, Charles Richardson, his company provides background music for public spaces such as shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as offices and factories. At the time of the interview, Quinlan was on a business trip as an emissary of Muzak in an attempt to sell this product to British companies.

Listen to William Quinlan

Download Transcript - William Quinlan interview

The interview serves as an intriguing snapshot of the commodification of music. For me, there’s a somewhat sinister and dystopian quality to the conversation. It provokes certain questions, such as: Who should tell us what to listen to? How exactly does background music affect us? The mention of Muzak’s intention to influence the psychology of ‘working people’ in the context of offices and factories is particularly striking, as well as the dubious nature of the company’s panel of psychologists who are tasked with music selection.

Although this conversation took place in the late 1950s, the technical origins of Muzak can be traced back to World War I. The invention came from George Owen Squier (1865-1934), a high-ranking American soldier and scientist who pioneered a way to play a phonograph over electric power lines. He patented the idea in 1922, and would later combine the words music and Kodak to name his own company. Muzak continued to evolve after Squier’s death in 1934. Faced with heavy competition from a fast-growing radio industry, the corporation switched its customer base from residential homes to businesses, steered by scientific research which cited the benefits of music on workers’ output. This move proved successful and under the 1940s slogan ‘Muzak whilst you work for increased efficiency’, the company grew steadily. 

A couple of decades later, following technological innovations beyond the phonograph to tape, further company-funded scientific research, rapid national expansion, and the occasional changing of parent companies, we find William Quinlan seeking to expand the Muzak market further on behalf of the Jack Wrather organisation in 1958. In the interview, he mentions briefly that this idea of background music “basically originated in Great Britain”. I wasn’t able to establish the grounds of this statement, despite some late-night internet browsing of the history and origins of this peculiar idiom. On second thoughts, perhaps some soothing background music whilst searching would yield better results.