Squier Founds Muzak

The Muzak company, founded by George O. Squier, became the leading provider of recorded music designed to increase employee production.

Summary of Event

George O. Squier, a military general, had a job that required him to determine if an invention had any military use. An inventor himself, he developed a method to send many messages through power lines at the same time and invented the photochronograph, which allowed calculation of the velocity of an object. In 1908, while on military duty, he flew a plane made by the Wright brothers. In 1922, Squier brought his invention for signal transmission to the North American Company. A holding company for public utilities, North American Company had financed Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and later went on to form General Electric. When the North American Company purchased Squier’s invention, it formed Wired Radio, Inc. Wired Radio wanted to compete with wireless radio, which was steadily growing in popularity. [kw]Squier Founds Muzak (1934)
[kw]Muzak, Squier Founds (1934)
[g]United States;1934: Squier Founds Muzak[08520]
[c]Communications and media;1934: Squier Founds Muzak[08520]
[c]Marketing and advertising;1934: Squier Founds Muzak[08520]
[c]Music;1934: Squier Founds Muzak[08520]
Squier, George O.
Benton, William
Houghton, Harry E.

The North American Company also purchased a music publishing company that became Associated Music Publishers, Associated Music Publishers Inc. With these two companies, the North American Company North American Company was in a position to send music, commercials, announcements, and news to individual homes. Squier hoped that his invention would allow the general public to receive all these media in their homes.

Wired Radio, Inc., changed its name in 1934, when Squier decided to combine the word “music” with “Kodak,” the name of an already popular company, to get Muzak. That same year, Muzak started sending transmissions to individual homes in Cleveland. These transmissions combined music with commercials and announcements. Muzak also got involved in “functional music,” which was broadcast in hotels and restaurants. The functional music did not contain commercials or announcements and was meant to be unobtrusive to customers. It also provided privacy for restaurant clients by masking their conversations. At the same time, Muzak also switched transmission of its programs from electric power lines to telephone lines, which made transmission easier and less expensive.

In 1936, Muzak started its commercial services in New York. Many clubs, restaurants, and hotels subscribed to it, but individual subscriptions to Muzak were very expensive, and so the number of clients was limited. In 1938, the North American Company sold Muzak and Associated Music Publishers to Warner Bros. By 1939, Muzak had only 30 individual homes but more than 360 restaurants as clients, and it soon introduced a program for apartment complexes. This program was relatively inexpensive and included four New York radio stations in addition to Muzak. Wireless radio reception was still not very clear, and Muzak’s reception was a substantial improvement. By 1945, 60 apartment houses in New York were wired with this program.

Since Muzak had grown in popularity in New York, the company decided to franchise. The first franchises were located in Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia. All the franchises Franchising;Muzak were obligated to play only Muzak productions and were not allowed to alter them in any way. After a year of ownership, Warner Bros. sold both Muzak and Associated Music Publishers to a group of businessmen. Out of this group, William Benton owned the largest percentage of the companies. When Benton took over, Muzak had just begun to make a profit. By 1942, Benton was the sole owner of Muzak. In that year, Muzak went from a 17.5-hour programming day to producing broadcasts all day, every day.

Benton was interested in producing an information service for the government. Muzak could be transmitted even while the country was at war or being raided, when wireless radio stations would no longer be able to transmit communications. In case of such an emergency, Muzak purchased gasoline-operated generators for its offices in New York so that broadcasting could continue during a power failure. Muzak would be able to warn its clients of coming attacks and be able to advise them on what to do afterward. This service was never used, however.

Muzak spent a large portion of its profits on research and on producing functional music. The armed services reported less tardiness, better morale, and more work accomplished in barracks where soldiers listened to Muzak. Factory experiments showed that the introduction of Muzak was followed by lower turnover rates, increased efficiency, and decreased sick days reported. The effects of Muzak were not limited to humans. One farm that received Muzak reported increases in milk production from cows and egg production from chickens. This experiment increased the credibility of the effect of Muzak. Since animals could not have been affected by a self-fulfilling prophecy, the results were unquestionable. In other words, farmers could not have informed cows that the music would increase the amount of milk they produced, thus leading them to produce more because that was expected.

Factories reported increases in production ranging from 2 to 11 percent. Workers remarked that Muzak was soothing, and many thought that relationships with managers improved. Muzak was programmed to counteract the lows that workers experience at midmorning and midafternoon by manipulating the tempo and type of music. This increased production, and the general calmness of the music contributed to maintaining even tempers in the workplace.

After World War II ended, Muzak had three major concerns. The first and most important was a dispute with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). When Muzak had been short of funds, it had stopped paying ASCAP for the use of its copyrighted materials; as a result, Muzak had to pay the ASCAP royalties. The second problem, which had not plagued Muzak prior to the war, was competition. Muzak’s solution to this problem was to hire an advertising and marketing expert, Harry E. Houghton. Houghton helped end the dispute with ASCAP and a dispute with the American Federation of Musicians, the third difficulty faced by Muzak. The disagreement had kept Muzak out of the Chicago area, but shortly after Muzak hired Houghton, the company entered the Chicago market.

During Benton’s ownership, Muzak gained several large companies as subscribers, including Sears, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, General Electric, and Dow Chemical. Most of these companies continued their membership through the 1980’s. Benton sold Muzak in 1957 to the Wrather Corporation. It was during the period when the Wrather Corporation owned Muzak that the programming became solely functional.

In 1972, Muzak was sold again and became part of the TelePrompTer Corporation. Muzak continued to grow and was purchased by Westinghouse in 1981. With the acquisition of Muzak, Westinghouse became the largest telecommunications and cable operation in the world. Muzak was part of Westinghouse’s Radio Group W Broadcasting Network and continued research on functional music. Muzak changed hands several more times and in 1992 was bought by New-York based Centre Partners. In 1996, it formed an alliance with EchoStar Communications. Under the name DISH Network for Business, Muzak began to provide direct-broadcast satellite services in both audio and video formats.


Muzak conducted many experiments in order to substantiate its claims of increased worker productivity. Several grocery stores wired with Muzak reported increases in sales of up to 40 percent. Muzak apparently made shoppers feel more comfortable and more relaxed, which ultimately caused them to purchase more items. These results were enough proof to persuade many grocery stores to subscribe to Muzak. In the early 1990’s, Muzak started creating programs for specific stores based on location and clientele.

Once a company started subscribing to Muzak, the likelihood of its discontinuing the service was small. Workers became accustomed to Muzak and found that the silence left in its absence became unbearable. Although most people agree that Muzak is relatively benign, it is still perceived as a form of influencing people. Many arguments have been made that regardless of its effects, something that affects people without their knowledge should be illegal. Because Muzak is difficult to avoid, almost all people are involuntarily affected by it.

One debate over the use of Muzak occurred in Washington, D.C. Although Capital Transit was a privately owned company, the District of Columbia had given it a monopoly on public transportation. The agreement stated that no other companies would be allowed to operate buses in the District of Columbia unless Capital Transit could no longer accommodate all the passengers. This agreement was signed in 1925. In March, 1948, Capital Transit began to install radios on its buses. Passengers complained that they were being subjected to listening against their will. Given that Capital Transit had a monopoly, the passengers did not have the choice to use a different company. The original complaint was aimed at commercials, because passengers were obligated to listen to spots promoting various companies’ products. They claimed that this was unconstitutional and took Capital Transit to court.

The case began on March 3, 1952, and revolved around whether it was constitutional for a public transportation company to play a radio station on its vehicles. The programs played included Muzak and many other stations. The U.S. District Court found radio programming on buses to be acceptable. The passengers objected and took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Although the Court of Appeals reversed a portion of the earlier verdict, the passengers still were not satisfied. Up until that point, the music portion of the programming had not been questioned. The passengers decided that the music portion should be included in the case, and when the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, all the program content was included.

The Supreme Court decided that the case would be limited to concerns for passengers’ safety and comfort. Many reports were submitted to the Court that stated that buses with the programming did not have any more accidents than buses without it. A report on public opinion of the programming stated that more than 90 percent of individuals surveyed were not opposed to the programming. Only 3 percent reported that they were strongly opposed to the programming. Justice Harold H. Burton believed strongly that the rights of the passengers were not being violated. Only Justice William O. Douglas thought that forcing people to listen against their will was unconstitutional regardless of whether the majority was pleased. Douglas stated that if a person can be forced to listen to something beneficial, there is only a small step to forcing him or her to listen to something detrimental. Despite Douglas’s objections, the Supreme Court ruled in Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak (1952) Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak (1952) that public transportation companies could play radio programs in their vehicles.

The Muzak company was questioned about the ethical aspect of manipulating listeners, but the company was largely able to avoid lawsuits on this matter. Because the effects of Muzak are beneficial for the employer, because most employees enjoy Muzak, and because most listeners are unaware of the effects that Muzak has on them, the product has not generated much controversy.

Muzak put time and effort into making its music functional. Because transmitting to individual homes proved to be too costly, Muzak aimed its efforts at factories, offices, shopping centers, and grocery stores. Muzak stopped using commercials, announcements, and vocal music, and instead concentrated on becoming almost unnoticeable, striving to avoid interrupting the work environment. Content was strictly edited; no jazz or blues music was included, nor was any music that might entice someone to sing or clap along, as this would distract workers and counteract Muzak’s goal of increasing work productivity. Despite a number of changes over the years of Muzak’s operation, functional music remained its most important product. Muzak

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Stephen H. Muzak: The Hidden Messages in Music: A Social Psychology of Culture. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press, 1988. Discusses the beginning of Muzak and its history. Includes many portraits of leaders of Muzak. Addresses the effects of music on subjects and the subconscious. Describes the influencing part of music and its potential use as a control by government.
  • Hoffman, Thomas. “Muzak Offers New Tune for Data Flow: Retailers Are Increasingly Using Satellite Data Transmission to Distribute Corporate Information.” Computerworld 26 (September 14, 1992): 72. Discusses transmitting music along with many other possibilities, including e-mail, credit card processing, and teleconferencing. Describes Muzak’s relationship with other companies and the ability of Muzak’s satellites to send more than music.
  • Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. A well-written and accessible analysis of the history of recorded music; a good introduction to the field. Includes CD.
  • Lanza, Joseph. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening, and Other Moodsong. London: Picador, 1995. Rejects the standard scholarly approach to musical analysis; argues that Muzak has been unfairly maligned and chronicles its history.
  • McDermott, Jeanne. “Muzak Is the Music We Hear but Don’t Listen To.” Smithsonian 20 (January, 1990): 70-78. Discusses Muzak’s intent not to disturb people by playing music that might entice them to hum, clap, or dance. Describes how Muzak edits material.
  • Sutherland, Alastair. “Sorry, No Kazoo Players Required.” Canadian Composer 1 (Summer, 1990): 4. Discusses Muzak’s tough restrictions and requirements of pieces that it plays.
  • Yang, Dori Jones. “Hear the Muzak, Buy the Ketchup: The Elevator-Music Folks’ New Push—Customized In-Store Ads.” BusinessWeek, June 28, 1993, 70-71. Discusses Muzak’s influence on customers in supermarkets. Describes Muzak as an advertising strategy and describes the different choices of music for different stores, depending on location and clientele.

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