New York's giant Muzak Corporation merges with Seattle's Yesco on December 31, 1986.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 5/06/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10073

On December 31, 1986, the somewhat controversial, New York City-based background music -- or "elevator music" -- company, Muzak, strikes a merger deal with a Seattle-based rival, Yesco Foreground Music, and soon relocates its staff and headquarters to Washington state.

Wired-In

The Muzak Corporation traces its history of providing "piped-in" background music to subscribing clients back to a former U.S. Army major general, George Owen Squier (1865-1934), who invented a means of playing phonograph records via electrical power lines in the pre-commercial-radio years of World War I. Initially Squier's patented invention was employed by Wired Radio, Inc., which provided piped-in recorded music to residential customers in Cleveland, Ohio, through a monthly subscription service. The quick rise of free commercial radio after 1920, however, ruined that business plan.

Long-story-short: In 1934 Squier founded the Muzak Corporation, which refocused on providing canned-music to restaurants and hotels, which didn't want their guests bothered by advertisements and DJ blather. The music itself was newly recorded versions of popular songs, but now produced with purposefully mellow, orchestral arrangements and sans any previously existing opening fanfares, exciting solos, loud bass lines, or drums. It was what Muzak began marketing as "Background Music" -- the precursor to what came to be universally known as "easy-listening" music.

Elevator Music

Muzak's success multiplied greatly during World War II, when factories, shipyards, and even military bases subscribed in order to motivate workers and troops. In the post-war years Muzak's theories about the power of carefully curated music to impact the shopping habits of consumers led to its soothing, saccharine sounds being pumped into dentists' offices, grocery stores, airports, and shopping malls all across the nation and overseas. While Muzak grew into a giant business success, its signature product began to draw detractors -- who viewed its all-pervasive, watered-down, orchestra-saturated sound as an invasion of everyday people's private listening space -- and it came to be known derisively as "elevator music."

It was in this context that in 1968 Seattle's Mark Torrance laid the foundation for The Yes Co. firm (later: The Yesco Co., and then Yesco Inc.) with a plan to counter Muzak's offerings with a new model: He would license actual, original, soft-rock radio hits from major record companies and then sequence them into a rather hipper format ("Foreground Music") for his business clients. Things went well for Yesco, which, over the decades, expanded and evolved into Yesco Foreground Music, and by 1986, the firm enjoyed 25,000 accounts. Muzak still had the lion's share, with 173 franchises serving 135,000 business accounts, but the Baby Boom demographic trend-lines were indicating that future growth would be in the "foreground" realm.

Coming Out To Seattle

Muzak and Yesco had actually forged a working relationship as far back as 1984, in which the latter was contracted to provide its "foreground" music as a programming option for the former's client base. And, in September 1986, word began to leak out that a deal might be in the works. In January 1986, when the merger hit the news, Torrance told Newsday of one goal behind the move, "We want to bring Muzak out of the elevator and into the '80s" (Sandomir). But, as one newspaper joked about the somewhat controversial music: "Of course, some listeners of Muzak's subliminal music might prefer to leave it in the elevator" (The Pittsburg Press).

Within months Muzak relocated to Seattle (915 Yale Avenue N), where Yesco's Torrance began serving as company president. The result of this merger completely reshaped Muzak for the future, precipitating what Billboard magazine would later describe as Muzak's transformation from a "passé 'elevator music' specialist to a dynamic, multi-faceted communications company." The merger also brought an end to Muzak's leadership of the background music industry, and greatly strengthened its presence in the foreground music industry. Muzak's vice president of programming and licensing would later acknowledge this when he told The Seattle Times that, "There are still a couple of companies out there doing that kind of old-style, 1,001-strings, ruin-your-favorite-song kind of thing, but we dropped all that in 1987" (Dunham).


Sources: Richard Sandomir, "Will Moving to Seattle Take Muzak Out of the Elevator?," Newsday, January 8, 1987, p. 45; "Muzak, Yesco Merge," Toledo Blade, January 8, 1987, p. 29; "Merger May Bring Muzak Out of the Elevator," The Pittsburg Press, January 8, 1987, p. B-10; Elisabeth Dunham, "Modern-Day Muzak Features 'Foreground' Tunes -- Seattle's Leading In Musical Exports Of All Kinds," The Seattle Times, December 26, 1993 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); "Muzak Inc -- Company History," fundinguniverse.com website accessed on March 5, 2012 (http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Muzak-Inc-Company-History.html).

Related Topics:   Business | Music & Musicians

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