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Mood Media, the Successor to Muzak, Emerges From Bankruptcy With Plan to Fine-Tune ‘Elevator Music’

The Austin-based background music company has just emerged out of bankruptcy, with a continuing appetite for the softer hits or ambient styles it provides. Meanwhile, some fans of the old Muzak still fetishize the schmaltzier "elevator music" sounds of old.

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Sipa USA via AP

Whether you know it or not, you’ve been in the mood for some time. That’s Mood Media Corp, one of the world’s largest providers of atmospheric music and visuals (along with digital signage, scent, service menu boards, hold music. on-hold messaging and integrated A/V) to shopping-oriented businesses, hotels and restaurants.

Whole Foods uses Mood. Target uses Mood.

Two weeks ago, that Mood soured as the Austin-based corporation, founded in 2004, filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of Texas, seeking to restructure $627.5 million of debt. Its financial woes, Mood CEO David Hoodis said, came down to the media giant’s purchase of 13 separate like-minded companies since its start. “With said acquisition came leverage and a lot of debt as these companies merged,” stated Hoodis. Combine that with high costs (1,700-plus employees internationally) and Covid-19 (“70% of our clients stopped paying us”), and Mood Media’s bankruptcy seemed inevitable.

As luck (and smarts) would have it, though, one day after Mood Media filed for Chapter 11 on July 30, the company’s restructuring plan was approved by a federal judge, its debt reduced by $404 million — and the mood lightened.

“Getting out of bankruptcy was made quick through hard work and getting concessions from every stakeholder, be it lien holders, equity holders or bond holders, that this was a fresh chapter for Mood,” said Hoodis. “They bought into our vision of a new, lean structure, a reduction in the debt load and the creation of an organization moving forward in a post-Covid world with the intent of growth and stability, that their investment would return in the future.”

By August 13, Mood hadn’t just elevated its Harmony all-in-one Brand Experience (a proprietary tech platform where clients manage all of their content through one singular content management system). It had introduced Mood Reimagined, the company’s new client support and service initiative driven by ease of use and contact, and its Center of Excellence. The latter analyzes and interprets consumer trends and behavior data faster so Mood can offer real-time strategic counsel to its operators.

“As we move forward with a Reimagined Mood, it’s with the realization that the consumer experience has become connected,” said the man behind Mood’s music, Danny Turner, global SVP of creative programming. Talking about the interconnectivity of audio, video and additional signage, Turner pushed the agenda of “fully integrated media solutions and campaigns,” where every opportunity to influence or localize is afforded.

“We’re pivoting… making the brand experience retail-ready and retail-easy in a cost-effective, fully-integrated way,” said Hoodis.

What was nearly lost in the bankruptcy proceedings was the name of Muzak, the avatar of self-created, atmospheric background music happily known as “elevator music.” That’s the brand upon which Mood Media built its reputation, with piped-in sound meant to sooth and engage, often tied to the science of how music affects the behavior of customers. (Muzak’s one-time motto was “specialists in the physiological and psychological applications of music.”)

“It is our legacy brand,” said Hoodis of the (soft) rock upon which Mood’s empire was built. Mood Media acquired Muzak Holdings in 2011, with Muzak acquiring the assets of Independence Communications Inc. in 2012.

Invented in the 1920s by Major General George Owen Squier as a technology to deliver music to audiences without the use of radio, the North American Company acquired its rights, created the firm Wired Radio, Inc., made it available in 1934 for commercial clients, eventually sold to Warner Bros., then sound entrepreneur William Benton, then Westinghouse. At its height, Muzak had its own in-house orchestra producing smooth, original content and easy, breezy covers of popular hits of the day.

Other giants of serene, swirling instrumental music such as Mantovani, Ferrante & Teicher, Ray Conniff and Percy Faith also became wildly popular — the monsters of shlock. “Those classic Muzak sounds, the drippy, kitschy, gloriously saccharine instrumental interpretations of pop melodies, are embedded in our American culture,” noted Turner. “The Muzak brand name became synonymous with the actual product. We became the Band-Aid or the Kleenex of commercial music services.”

Joseph Lanza,  the author of 1994’s “Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong,” bristles at Turner’s description of Muzak and east listening as saccharine.

“Why would having something be fake-sweet be any better or worse than it being genuinely sweet?” asked Lanza. “People would consider something as schmaltzy because you don’t have some drugged-up jazz trumpeter in the foreground. This critical prejudice against schmaltz is cultural Marxism,” he said, sticking up for “a simple melody without the jive of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.”

The best of this lush instrumental music designed for backgrounds, then, is sweet, sentimental and often unobtrusive, with a Muzak or easy-listening version of any given song “bringing out the melody that was already existing, but, only now in a more prominent fashion, and without the distraction of the voice,” said Lanza. “It would make the more harsh instruments mellow, and reconstitute the song itself. You would still be connected to, and appreciate, the original. Elevator music just added another dimension.”

Beyond background instrumentals of the Muzak company’s start, Muzak studied the science of musical sound, tones and rhythms to enhance shopping experiences and heighten productivity through its Stimulus Progression programs of the 1950s. Eventually, Muzak continued to use those same prying-and-placement principles, but with popular music and its actual hitmakers, rather than swooning instrumental covers. Mood Media’s Center of Excellence (COE), which analyzes and interprets consumer trends for real-time strategic counsel and bespoke solutions, sounds much the same as Muzak’s Stimulus Progression program.

“Muzak was fascinating in that it had that whole corporate part of it they would try to sell with real musicologists and scientific advisors studying the impact of certain songs and music on the public,” noted Lanza.

“From large, multi-national brands seeking a consistent experience globally — while allowing their managers to infuse local, market-relevant content where appropriate — to the hyper-local craft brewery that wants to be able to influence the experience based on its unique character, the solutions must be architected to be customizable,” said Turner, speaking of Mood Media’s new initiatives, which seem similar to Muzak’s Stimulus program.

The cushiony serenity and/or sweetness of Muzak’s original vision of atmospheric tones were so pervasive that, come 1986 when Westinghouse announced it was selling the sonic background provider, metal-head Ted Nugent made a $10 million bid to purchase the company with the intent of shutting it down. “Muzak is an evil force in today’s society, causing people to lapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” said Nugent at the time.

By the ’80s, however, the music at Muzak was on the move from the background to the foreground.

“The dynamic of what people expect — or rather, what retail expected — changed,” said Hoodis of Muzak’s move to popular artists rather than elevator-driven covers.  “With popular music, we found customers stayed in the store longer and shopped. The came back more frequently. They bought more. That pushed away the easy listening atmospheric music that once worked well for our clients.”

Lanza also theorized that stringed instrumental music eventually died off because “baby boomers came up and had their own version of being mellow, different from the generation before: the ’70s singer-songwriter albums of Carole King and James Taylor who made melancholy songs about growing older or buying a house.”

Mood Media retired its Muzak brand name by 2015. But Muzak lives on for Mood — and YouTube fans — maybe now more than ever in its long history.

“Not long ago, those much-maligned instrumental interpretations of pop melodies that went under the Muzak banner were de rigueur,” said Mood’s Turner. “Now, electronic chill or lounge replaced that soundtrack. It’s contemporary, not obtrusive and fits with environmental factors. In other situations, pop can still reign. In the grocery vertical, for example, multi-generational, mid-to-upper-tempo, familiar and current pop and adult-contemporary selections tend to resonate the most.”

Turner goes on to say that Mood Media recently released an album of previously-unreleased Muzak studio sessions with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra (“Muzak Sessions,” on the Muzak Archives label). “We have shelves full of archived transcription masters that would eclipse your typical garage sale or record swap,” said Turner, addressing how often rare, breezy instrumental albums from the Hollywood Strings or Mantovani, as well as YouTube channels from Muzak and its rivals in background music, 3-M, come up as a topic.

Then there is Joseph Lanza, who continues his obsession with all things Muzak and easy listening in his upcoming book, “Easy Listening Acid Trip: An Elevator Ride Through Sixties Psychedelic Pop,” from Feral House.

Along with touting YouTube channels where versions of “noisy” Beatles songs such as “I Me Mine” from Franck Pourcel reign as quasi-baroque chamber music, Lanza doubles down on mid-to-late-’60s and early-’70s psychedelia and how it found a pillow-y existence in the last vestiges of true easy listening, as well as its own schmaltzy past.

“You had English bands like the Beatles and the Kinks examining their heritage in the British music hall style, while American bands were looking backwards to Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville,” said the author, not counting the folk and neo-classical revivalism on both sides of the ocean. “The irony here being that in an age where a lot of older folks thought it was the end of the world, it was the so-called hippie groups who were coming up with songs with more melodies than their parents’ favorites such as Benny Goodman were doing.”

As for easy-listening and Muzak versions of ’60s and ’70s flower-power hits, these were executed in the same spirit as Percy Faith and Mantovani before them. Only now, these instrumental ensembles, from Lawrence Welk to the Mystic Moods Orchestra, were tackling twisted rock backgrounds whose “edges were softened to be made more palatable… while its melodies were heightened,” said Lanza, pointing to the Hollyridge Strings’ version of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Paul Mauriat’s plush treatment of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and the Muzak instrumental version of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints,” by Charles Grean and His Orchestra.

“Listen to Donovan, then listen to, say, David Rose and His Orchestra doing lush instrumental versions of Donovan (“Wear Your Love like Heaven”),” said Lanza. “These songs were offered to teen and adult audiences simultaneously. You don’t really have that strange interplay of generations and contexts anymore. Now, it is just one two-dimensional goulash of nothing.”