Elevator music heading down

The Baltimore Sun

There was a news item in the paper the other day and, after reading it, I slumped in my chair and thought: That's it, now there can be no hope.

The news was this: In a final, savage blow to the economy, Muzak, the company that makes elevator music, had filed for bankruptcy.

Oh, you go ahead and worry about the Detroit automakers and the greedy banks and shyster mortgage lenders if you want.

But if you can't make money producing gooey orchestral arrangements of pop songs anymore, then there is no money to be made, period, and the economy is doomed.

If you feel this is a gross exaggeration, think of all the places where you hear Muzak these days.

You hear it in elevators, sure, but also in department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, doctors' offices, even when you're holding on the phone.

Look, I have even been operated on in a surgical center with a string version of Billy Joel's "Movin' Out" playing in the background.

And if you think that's a pleasant way to drift off as a stranger in hospital scrubs and a face mask gets ready to gut you with a scalpel, well, you'd be wrong.

But that's the thing about Muzak: You either love it or you hate it.

You either tune it out as mindless white noise or it burrows deep inside you like an aural worm and drives you crazy.

Studies have shown that Muzak in department stores and supermarkets causes customers to slow down and browse, which leads to more purchases.

On the other hand, convenience stores have blasted Muzak in the parking lot to keep drug dealers away, the notion being that there is no illegal transaction on earth worth enduring a Bolivian flute version of, say, the Beatles' "Penny Lane."

Years ago, lunatic rocker Ted Nugent became so infuriated with hearing Muzak everywhere he went that he offered to buy the company for $10 million.

But at the time, the company was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. So it basically told Nugent to take a hike with his tip-money offer, which has stuck in crazy Ted's craw ever since.

Now let me tell you who really, really hate Muzak: the Brits.

They hate it so much that they even have a Web site (nomuzak.co.uk) that offers advice on "How to Complain About Muzak in the U.K."

And these people aren't fooling around. If ever there was such a thing as a Muzak Gestapo, this is it.

Logging on, you come upon an ominous warning: "This site provides information about shops, companies and public services using piped music (aural pollution) in the spaces occupied by their clients or customers, and it encourages you to complain about this abuse."

Then, kicking up the venom a notch, it goes on to say: "There is an associated section on the dumbing down of British culture - the link to the increasing use of Muzak is obvious and needs no explanation."

Whew. Still, there's no question that some people actually like Muzak, which I discovered some years ago while trapped in the elevator of a Los Angeles hotel. When the elevator first lurched to a stop between floors, there were four of us in there and we tried to remain calm.

We took the usual measures, of course. We punched the open-door button about 100 times. We punched all the floor buttons. We hit the alarm bell.

Then, realizing there was nothing else to be done, we sat on the floor and waited for help to arrive.

It was a surreal experience and I remember thinking: Here I am in Southern California. Outside it's 70 degrees and palm trees are waving in a gentle breeze.

But instead of enjoying all that, I'm stuck in an elevator with three other pasty-faced out-of-towners while a Muzak version of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" plays from somewhere over my head.

I don't know if you can imagine what that was like.

The Muzak played on in a never-ending loop: syrupy bastardized versions of the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda," Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do," Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" and so on.

We were trapped for 20 minutes or so. Finally, the elevator lurched to life. And as we descended, the woman next to me smiled and said: "At least we listened to some nice music."

And the other two nodded in agreement! I like to think some of that was almost a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. But you never know.

Now, all these years later, the company responsible for all that pain is having financial problems.

Oh, Muzak says it'll continue to operate, which means it'll still churn out easy-listening classics like a cello version of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind."

But if the Muzak biz is going south, what chance do the rest of us have?

By the way, I just heard that version of "Candle" in a convenience store the other day.

Not a drug dealer in sight, either.

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