The Sound of Muzak

Has our lust for convenience turned rock and roll into background music?
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  April 18, 2012


Once upon a time people used to say "Morrissey, what do you think?" But now, people ask chefs what they think.

-Ian Svenonius

Most people seem content to toss into the void of obscurity the record-store clerk and even the record-label executive, letting them join the silent-movie matinee idol and the jazz-era singing star on the slow-moving boat of the damned-to- irrelevance. But while everyone and their blogging uncle pontificates and postulates on the technological hows and whats of music's future, the rock-and-pop-star constellation itself seems to be preparing to join those aforementioned music-biz dodos in extinction. As each new generation comes to pop culture/consumerism, they are increasingly targeted at non-musical angles — whether by games, television, or other arenas of celebrity. So, just as the rock star supplanted the movie star and killed the radio star, so now do the celebrity chef, the Internet meme, the mobile-app coder, and a host of other non-musical players conspire to make the pop idol obsolete.


If there is one word that sums up the changes to music culture in the past three decades, it is "convenience." In the pre-CD/pre-Internet era, being a fan meant seeking out sacred information and sounds that were hidden, either because of an artist's wish to retain an air of mystery or, more commonly, due to the limitations of distribution. Now, things are easy — maybe too easy, as one is bombarded with music without having sacrificed in order to discover it. Convenience being prioritized above all other things means that one can spend all day listening to music without a) knowing or caring about the history of the artist or b) finding any value in the music beyond the way that the sound fits in with the listener's lifestyles and habits.

Most music fans who flocked to streaming services like Spotify (started in Sweden in 2006 but only unveiled in the States last fall) initially OD'd on being able to access deep catalogs with amazing ease. But similar streaming services have been around for years, with companies like Rhapsody and Pandora pumping content to PCs and smartphones soon after the Napster fire sale of the turn of the millennium drove fans out of stores and into the warm embrace of the Web. These services put control in the listener's hands, a step up from being hostage to the whims of terrestrial radio. But listeners spoiled by convenience soon found making their own playlists to be a chore, which is why streaming music services tend to be focused on allowing the user to play customized "stations" with a single click.

I recently asked a teenage friend of a friend what he was listening to lately, expecting to be schooled on some next-level Skrillex-squared. Instead, he told me, "I really like this one Pandora station, it's called 'Ambient.'" I thought "Oh, like Eno or Satie or Autechre?" But a few subsequent hours basking in the station's wispy effluvia revealed its playlist to be remarkably similar to those sleep-aid CDs that you find near the alarm-clock section of a Target. And then it hit me: in truth, streaming music services have been around since way before the Web. After all, anyone over 30 remembers the name of the corporation that, for generations, piped in wired musical content for all sorts of public and private consumption. Muzak created an empire out of catering to an audience that didn't really care what artist they were listening to, as long as the music's tone was appropriate to the venue where it was heard, whether it was a restaurant, hotel, workplace — or an elevator. More and more, music's ease of access means that it is the passive soundtrack to other things — a utilitarian product.

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