With midterms winding up, perhaps you’ve studied in the UCen lately. I know I have. Despite the usual grinding of coffee machines and rustling of backpacks, I couldn’t help but notice it sounds less like a student union these days and more like an elevator. Something is different.
Try as I might, I couldn’t place it. Then without warning, it happened. The orchestra on the PA system began playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.”
Muzak. The UCen suddenly became a much darker and more sinister place.
It plays in elevators, dentists’ offices, malls, department stores, supermarkets and over the telephone. It rang through the empty halls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese soldiers stormed the evacuated building. It is pervasive. It is ubiquitous. And it sucks.
Perhaps the most sophisticated haters of elevator music are the English. They have developed entire movements for the elimination of Muzak. Robert Key, MP for Salisbury, England, introduced a bill to Parliament calling for a ban on Muzak.
He said that piped music was “a pollution from which there is no escape. … All music is devalued if treated as acoustic wallpaper. The public hate being trapped with someone else’s choice of music, be it on a plane, a bus or in a queue on the telephone.”
A major website, entitled How to Complain About Muzak in the UK has arisen as a sort of support group for people enraged by the soothing sounds of smooth jazz.
Surveys by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People in Britain state that half of people between the ages of 45 and 54 dislike Muzak. In addition, 34 percent of the general public find it annoying, while 36 percent do not even notice it.
So why play it? And who is responsible for this auditory evil? Muzak, LLC, that’s who.
By the way, just in case you don’t believe that they’re evil, I give you a quote from their website as evidence:
“Consider this: Seven out of 10 callers get put on hold. Seven out of 10. Take advantage of this to communicate valuable information directly to your target audience. The key, of course, is to deliver your message – whatever it is – in a way that is entertaining and persuasive. With Muzak’s Marketing on Hold, you can do both. Our individually crafted messages, mixed with brand-enhancing music, have been proven to reduce hang-ups up to 50 percent and boost sales nearly 20 percent. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
Um, no. It doesn’t. In fact, for some people – namely the hard of hearing, piped music causes awkward discomfort. You see, the human ear is designed to pick out certain frequencies and tune out others. Hearing aids aren’t quite that selective. For people with hearing aids, an orchestral version of Steely Dan playing in the background of an elevator is just as loud as the conversations they are trying to have.
According to the RNID, “For the UK’s 8.7 million deaf and hard of hearing people, especially those who wear hearing aids, [Muzak] causes pain, discomfort and unnecessary distress.”
According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ 1991 estimate, there are as many as 4.81 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States. They certainly suffer from the same problem.
The deaf and hard of hearing are not the only ones with a distaste for Muzak. Ted Nugent once tried to buy the company for $10 million, just so he could erase the recordings. The bid was small though — Muzak makes $200 million a year.
It was founded in 1934 by General George Owen Squier. Over its 67-year history, it has infuriated generations of music lovers with a 5,000-song playlist that has included orchestral versions of everything from “Puff the Magic Dragon” to Gin Blossoms to the “Friends” theme song.
There is a solution. According to How to Complain about Muzak in the UK, “For John Humphries, Radio 4 presenter, piped music is a ‘sinister evil’ that must be eradicated. He took direct action in a Sheffield hotel, asking for the Muzak to be turned off. When he was told by the management that the customers liked it, he took his own straw poll and found that they all agreed with him. The manager finally agreed to turn it off when the Today presenter threatened to leave if the wishes of the customers were not upheld.”
I think its time to follow Humphries’ example. If you hate piped music tell the respective managers at the UCen. It’s time to make a statement: Our student union is not an elevator.
And for those of you who still can’t believe there’s an orchestral version of Steely Dan, you can hear one at: http://www.feedmag.com/95.10gifford/95.10gifford_sample1.html. I apologize in advance if it’s a painful experience.
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science and technology editor. His column, “Red Tape,” appears on Mondays.