Music News: Muzak goes bankrupt

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An indoor shopping mall in the 1960s.
Muzak was a typical soundtrack in mid-century shopping malls like this one, photographed in the 1960s. (H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Mood Media, the owner of the Muzak brand, is filing for bankruptcy. Is this the end of an era for elevator music?

Billboard reports that Mood Music is citing a range of challenges — including coronavirus-related shutdowns at the company's retail clients, increasing music licensing costs, and increased competition. It's the company's second bankruptcy in four years, so clearly the pandemic is only part of the problem, although sales are down by a third from 2019.

You may be surprised to learn that Muzak is still a thing. The company dates back to 1922, when it was founded as a way to literally wire music into your business when the quality of radio broadcasts was still poor. When the quality of those broadcasts improved, Muzak pivoted to content: they would sell mood music, which became known as elevator music because rapidly-rising skyscrapers would pipe it in to soothe nervous passengers.

Muzak's peak was before the rock and roll era, when a lot of popular music was essentially easy listening. By the '60s, Muzak was starting to become a joke, awkwardly "covering" cutting-edge artists like the Beatles. There was still a need for ambient mood music, though, and into the 21st century Muzak has sold itself as a musical experience more precisely calibrated than, say, a Pandora stream.

Whether or not this is the end of Muzak, the name will live on — very gently — in music history.

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