by Janet Spencer
George Owen Squier (pronounced “square”) dropped out of school at 14. He went on to revolutionize information technology through a thing called Muzak.
GEORGE OWEN SQUIER
• Born in 1865 in Michigan, Squier graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1887, earned a Ph.D., then joined the military, rising to become a Major General in the Signal Corps, the branch of the Army in charge of managing communications and information systems. After the war, he established a communications school for the Signal Corps and a research lab. He was particularly interested in telephones and radios, and studied ways to improve military communications. Over the course of his career, he received 65 patents.
• At a time when music could only be transmitted through AM radio transmissions, Squier discovered how to transmit music through a wire using a phonograph on one end and a receiver on the other end. Squier’s groundbreaking discovery involved the invention of multiplexing, in which numerous signals can be sent through the same wire by dividing the bandwidth. This innovation was the foundation for fiber optics, the internet, cable TV, and streaming. But Squier was interested in music.
• Squier’s idea was to send music into people’s homes, just like electricity. He earned several patents for delivering music and information via wiring, subsequently naming his corporation Wired Radio in 1922.
• He sold the idea to a utility conglomerate, which charged customers $1.50 monthly on their electric bill for a choice of three music channels delivered to their homes over telephone lines. However, radios became so pervasive so quickly that people weren’t willing to pay for music when they could get it for free on their radio.
• Next Squier brainstormed the idea of selling musical subscriptions to businesses. He re-named the company Muzak, a combination of “music” plus the “-ak” he swiped from Kodak, a made-up name that he liked.
• Although Squier died at age 69 in 1934 when his business was still young, a succession of other companies took over the Muzak brand and turned it into an American icon. Muzak was piped into its first businesses in 1936.
• Throughout the 1930s, the Muzak corporation recorded hundreds of instrumental songs from their studios in Manhattan, recording up to 12 tracts per day. By the 1940s, their music library included over 7,500 recordings.
• Research showed that up-tempo music increased factory production, while down-tempo tunes slowed shoppers. Muzak was piped into supermarkets, warehouses, department stores, office buildings, hotels, restaurants, dental offices, elevators, and other places where business owners appreciated a steady stream of music that was never interrupted by radio DJs or ads.
• During the 1950s, Muzak introduced “Stimulus Progression” where the tempos and styles of the music changed in order to influence and counterbalance the natural circadian rhythms of the human body.
• In factories, production rates typically dipped both before and after lunch, so up-tempo, upbeat songs were scheduled during those time periods, featuring brass rather than strings. Programming gradually ramped up in tempo and volume over a 15-minute period, followed by a short period of silence, before starting all over again. These segments prevented listener fatigue.
• When World War II began and factory production ramped up, Muzak found a true niche. By the middle of the war, a survey showed that 76 out of 100 factories used Muzak. In the late 1950s, Muzak claimed its music was being listened to by 50 million Americans daily. Eisenhower had Muzac in the Whitehouse during his administration. JFK had it in Air Force One. NASA piped Muzak into the Apollo 11 space capsule to keep the astronauts calm.
• Officials at Muzak consistently claimed that listening to Muzak would calm nerves, boost productivity, and convince shoppers to spend more money. Although it seems like pseudo-science, study after study showed that people generally are happier, calmer, and more productive when something is buzzing in the background. It boosted morale and offered relief from monotonous tasks. It cut down on absenteeism and reduced employee turn-over. One study, commissioned by Muzak, claimed that their music reduced typing errors by a whopping 38.9% when it was played in the background for secretarial pools.
• Not everyone liked it, though. When officials at the Washington, D.C. transit system started piping Muzak into its vehicles in 1948, unhappy commuters filed a lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. They handed down a ruling in 1951 stating that the transit system had a First Amendment right to put Muzak in their vehicles.
• Innovation followed innovation as the years passed. In the early days, Muzak required an operator to flip record albums 24 hours a day. By the 1950s, it moved to tapes that could run eight hours at a stretch. Next, there were FM subcarriers. In the 1970s, Muzak uploaded its music onto computers for the first time, revolutionizing the system. In the 1980s, Muzak launched a broadcast satellite, making it the first satellite subscription radio service, beating XM and Sirius by several decades. Next, they formed a partnership with Dish Network, offering up to 60 different music channels for private residences.
• Muzak’s music never included voices because it was thought that lyrics might interfere with the rhythm of whatever a listener was doing, whether it was shopping, typing, or working on an assembly line. An exception was made for the worldwide broadcast of “We Are The World” in 1985. Songs with vocals were added for the first time in 1987. By 2009, Muzak had 3 million songs in its catalog, including nearly 100 different channels distributed by satellite or IP.
• Unfortunately, as streaming music platforms proliferated – Serius, Spotify, Pandora – Muzak’s market share diminished, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2009. The firm was subsequently bought out by Mood Media of Ontario, Canada, for the sum of $345 million. Mood Media also bought up Muzak’s main rival, DMX. In 2013, the Muzak trademark was officially retired.
• The word “Muzak” has been a registered trademark since 1954, but it has come into the American vernacular as a generic term referring to any soothing ambient background music, in just the same way that Xerox, Kleenex, Popsicle, and Chapstick are now common generic terms. George Owen Squier would be amazed to see what became of his idea.