• Muzak’s Physical Archives

    Archive AlbumsSo where are these archives and what’s in them?  Gee Bruce, I’m glad you asked.

    I first became acquainted with our music archives in the late ‘90s.  It was brought to my attention that we had lots of Muzak produced master recordings from 1934 thru the ‘80s.  The only written information we were aware of at that time about these archives was a spreadsheet with vague descriptions for each of the over 2,000 archive boxes, and a memo from a past Muzak executive.  The spreadsheet was a listing of what was written on the outside of each box, which was vague and not very accurate.  The memo, written by Rod Baum, Muzak’s VP of Programming in the mid-1980s, was a short summary that captured what these archives were, how they were organized and generally what they contained.  It’s a four page memo that became our passage into understanding these historic archives.

    So we had a list of the boxes and an explanation of what was in them, but no real specifics.  To add to the mystery, these archives have been moved over 7 times since Rod had written his memo: from New York where they originated, to several locations around Seattle, then 3 places in Charlotte, where they now rest.  Two years ago, during our 75th anniversary celebration, we spent over 3 months re-boxing more than half of these archives, which gave us greater exposure to the content.

    So, here’s what we found.  We have nearly 2,000 master recordings on 12” discs, from 1934 to 1937. We have approximately 8,000 master recordings on 16” discs from 1934 to 1958.  Then from the mid 1950s to the late 1980s we have over 10,000 master recordings on ¼”, ½” and 1” tape.  We also have thousands of compilation discs we manufactured for our Muzak franchises and radio customers.  Forty pallets of American pop culture, most of which have been untouched for over 60 years.  To date, we have only digitized 500 tracks, leaving over 19,500 to go.

    We are working on some exciting partnerships to speed up our digitizing process – you’ll have to stick around for more details on that!  The steps to bring these historic master recordings back to life demand expertise and time, but we can finally say that at long last, we are moving forward with unveiling these musical treasures.

    This is heaven for a music buff like me. I love my job!

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • A Lot to Process

    Muzak Master Recording

    Muzak Master Recording

    I think it’s time to take a breath… and see where we’ve been and where we’re going with this music archive voyage we’re on. In past blogs we’ve explored Muzak’s early years, looked into the contributions of our founder, Gen. George Squier, and legendary Muzak producer, Ben Selvin. We’ve visited our earliest recording sessions in Manhattan and discovered some of the amazing recording artists we brought into these sessions. We’ve followed the track for this physical archive collection and found out what we’re doing to bring it back to life.

    With over 75 years in our rear window, we have barely scraped the surface. We’ve unearthed information about our first decade, but haven’t touched the ‘40s yet, which many believe was our most impactful decade. Every decade has its own musical story and we have the recordings to prove it.

    So, before I move on, I’d like to first thank you for joining me on this journey. Next I’d like to make sure you’re up to speed on my past archive blogs. Go to the top of the page and click “Blogging the Archives”. There you’ll find over 10 blogs about this intriguing subject. Have fun!

    I’ll be back in a few days to continue our voyage.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • Inventing a Business Model

    444px-Waldorf-Astoria_1904-1908bBy the 1920’s, the administration of music rights had become a major business.  The American Society of Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded, serving as a member-owned organization to fight for fair compensation when recorded work was publicly performed.

    While radio stations could license programming for personal performance, they could not track where music was being played and take responsibility for its licensing. Muzak’s business model, however, was ideal for this task. Because every Muzak receiver could be uniquely identified, it was easy for Muzak to track who was using their service and what the service was being used for.

    In the late 1930’s Muzak moved to New York City and began to cater to the hotel and restaurant market in such famed venues as the Chambord, the Stork Club, and the Waldorf Astoria. Audio would subsequently be sent to clubs through leased telephone lines. Speakers would be hidden amongst large plants, thereby making the music seem to come out of nowhere and lending the name “potted palm” music. With the disappearance of any visible means of sound production, Muzak exceeded the gramophone’s capacity to make sound autonomous. In delivering programming to the workplace, Muzak soothed the minds of employees, enhancing their productivity while eliminating the distractions caused by commercials, scripted programs, and other verbal content.

    Sending music to the workplace was in keeping with the vision that General George Squier had left for the company. As Chief Signal Officer of the US Army Signal Corps, Gen. Squier used music to increase the productivity of his secretaries. Afterward, he investigated ways that music could recapture the benefits of pre-industrial song, in order to soothe the nerves of employees while increasing their output. The idea of using music to improve an environment was not uncommon by the 1930s, when dentists employed music to augment or even replace anesthetic. Even though a compliment to the power of music, I wouldn’t try this at home!

    Muzak soon proved effective in locations beyond the office or factory floor. As skyscrapers reached ever taller in North American cities, building owners employed Muzak to calm anxious elevator riders; quickly earning its programs the name “elevator music.”

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • Muzak Vs. Radio

    WJW_Radio_jpg[1]The initial concept of Muzak arose from a vision by General George Squier. He was a renowned innovator, inventor and communications genius who patented the delivery of audio content via electrical (and eventually telephone) lines, using multiplex technology. Gen. Squier was not satisfied with the commercial structure of radio, because programs were funded by intrusive commercials. He envisioned a new network, void of commercials and supported by a fee. Sound familiar?

    Even though Muzak had hundreds of distinguished Cleveland area residents as customers in 1934, success was not immediate. The start-up Cleveland company fell victim to the Depression. Cash strapped middle class consumers were more inclined to stick with a one-time radio purchase over the expense of a long-term lease.

    Additionally, radio companies opposed the idea of Muzak competing for their listeners. In 1938, the Federal Communications Commission severely restricted Muzak’s market in radio’s favor by forbidding the company from using electrical power lines for broadcast directly into homes.

    Although Squier’s inventions of wired wireless and signal multiplexing would later be widely adopted by cable and satellite broadcasters, by the late 1930’s Muzak would be restricted by law to commercial venues only.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • General, Scientist, Inventor

    George_Owen_SquierIn my haste and excitement to get right to the early days of the incredible music recorded at Muzak, I’ve jump right over the person who made it all happen. His name was General George Squier.

    Major General George Owen Squier (March 21, 1865- March 24, 1934) was born in Dryden, Michigan. He graduated from the US Military Academy in 1887 and received a Ph. D from Johns Hopkins University in 1893. Squier wrote and edited many books and articles on the subject of radio and electricity. A renowned inventor, his biggest contribution was that of multiplexing, a system of transmitting several messages simultaneously on the same circuit or channel, for which he was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1919.

    Gen. Squier approached the North American Company, then the nation’s largest utility company, to transmit music over their lines. North American responded positively and in 1922 formed Wired Radio, Incorporated. To avoid problems with broadcast rights to music, North American purchased Breitkopf Publications, Inc., a European music-publishing house, and renamed it Associated Music Publishers.

    Under the direction of Gen. Squier, North American Company changed the service’s name from Wired Radio to Muzak in 1934.  Liking how “Kodak”, a highly technological and reputable company, made up its name, Gen. Squier merged of the word “music” with “Kodak”.

    Unfortunately Gen. Squier died later that year from complications of pneumonia, never to see the full success of his invention.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • Not The Muzak You Thought

    Galli SistersI’ve spent the last few posts getting you up to speed on the Muzak recording sessions held in our Manhattan during the late 1930’s. But why did Muzak need to record so much music… and in so many genres? Wasn’t Muzak primarily into instrumental versions of traditional songs?  You know, “elevator music” versions of classic melodies?

    Well, in the early years of Muzak, our business model was much different than you might think.  Starting in 1934, Muzak’s business model was created not only to offer high quality music to businesses, but also to homes. Muzak’s means of distributing music was via telephone lines (the broadband cable of its day) offering customers clearer and more consistent reception than by the less reliable radio. And, since radio stations could not broadcast records sold to the public (due to licensing restrictions) most of the music was performed live, which had its own quality issues.

    So just imagine: Muzak’s transcription recordings were high quality soundtracks by exquisite musicians and arrangers, broadcasted via state-of-the-art telephonic technology. And Muzak’s library was building by leaps and bounds on a weekly basis. With such high quality content delivered by a high quality signal, businesses and residences were lining up to get their subscription.

    After only a few short years, it became extremely apparent that there was an additional revenue opportunity for Muzak.  In 1935 Muzak corporate introduced Associated Program Service (AMP).  This new business arm offered Muzak’s transcription library to radio stations, giving broadcasters a viable option for more cost effective and quality music programming.  Radio stations across the country immediately began to sign up for the service.  AMP provided a healthy revenue stream for Muzak for nearly two decades.

    All of this meant that executive producer Ben Selvin’s task was clear – record lots and lots of music for Muzak’s library:  a variety of artists, playing all kinds of musical styles for a multitude of business models and a broad listening audience.  And that he did – nearly 8,000 recordings in his 13 years at Muzak (1934-1947). No person and no company has produced more quality recordings by top artists than Ben Selvin and Muzak in the 1930s and 40s.

    Elevator music?  Not even close.  Muzak captured the soundtrack of American Pop Culture and we’ve got thousands of master recordings in our archives to prove it!

    I’ll be back in just a few days.  See ya then.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • The Early Studio Years

    Ben Selvin directing in the studio_jpgIn Muzak’s early years, 1934 thru 38, the recording studios were located throughout New York City.  Our earliest sessions were at two of the cities top studios, Electrical Research Products Inc (ERPI) in the Bronx and World Broadcasting’s Sound Studios in Manhattan.  We also recorded remotely from the Metropolitan Opera House, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu and several locations in DC.  Starting in June of 1936 Muzak began to scheduled sessions at RCA Victor Studios, 153 East 24th Street.  But it wasn’t until July of 1938 that Muzak moved into a permanent home: AMP studios, 151 West 46th Street, NYC, where we recorded until the mid-50s.

    All of these studios could house up to 50 musicians in one session.  Back in those days the orchestras and musicians were well rehearsed and ready to record each song in one take.  It was simply the norm.  Several microphones would be positioned in specific locations throughout the studio, as the conductor would work closely with our producer, Ben Selvin, to get the desired sound.  Then away they’d go.   A three hour session would produce up to 12 songs.  This is incredible output by today’s standards.  These musicians were top-notch and the arrangements were amazing.

    Each session was recorded onto a series of lathes, or master recording turntables. A blank 12”, 16” or 19” disc (either vinyl or metal with a lacquer finish) would be placed on each of four lathes. All lathes would be activated during each recording. This redundancy solved many early day challenges. First of all, recording onto disc had a high failure rate, so if one disc failed, hopefully the next disc was OK, and so on. Secondly, you could only get 10 to 20 plays from any master disc. These masters were fairly fragile, so they were used for duplication only.  This reduced the number of plays per disc and saved their lives as much as possible. And finally, having several masters insured that the management and storage of these masters (various locations) were secured and protected.

    Having up to four original masters for many of our early recording session has been a saving grace throughout our archive discovery process.  And what a discovery it has been.
    Until next time.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan
    For more Muzak archive information go to http://75.muzak.com

  • More Selvin Goodies

    Metronome 1 Cover 1934_jpg
    There are more stories about Ben Selvin, Muzak’s first VP of Programming and Music Production, than I could possibly tell in a blog.  Our editor, Brittany Lyke, reminds me daily I need to keep these segments short and sweet.  So I’ll just grab a few stories that should give you a feel for this legendary figure.

    Story #1:

    In the 1920s Ben Selvin became one of the most popular music personalities on radio, playing live several nights a week on a number of New York stations, including WJZ.  He performed on-air with several of his bands, including Ben Selvin’s Moulin Rouge Orchestra, his Woodmansten Inn Orchestra, as well as the Ben Selvin Novelty Orchestra.   It was during these days of airing on radio that his true colors were exposed.  In 1926 he wrote, “The tonal balance perfected in the phonograph recording studios is utterly lacking in radio productions.  When one the air some instruments always stand-out, to the complete exclusion of others.  The banjo, particularly, will often muffle the dulcet and sweet tones of the saxophone and other instruments prove similarly offensive.  Then, there is a harmful tendency on the part of many musicians, particularly amateurs, to ‘hog’ the microphone in their over-anxiety.  This, combined with the very poor balance achieved by the broadcasting orchestra, radio music is a really hideous thing.  Until these evils are remedied, I, for one, am going to let the radio alone.”

    Even though Ben was persuaded back into radio in 1927 to become Columbia Broadcasting System’s (CBS) first program director for their newly formed radio network, his dedication to quality and technology was legendary.

    Story #2:

    When visiting with Ben’s grandchildren Emily and David Selvin, during our 75th anniversary in 2009, they brought with them some voice recordings of Ben in his 70s reminiscing about his early years.  On these recordings he mentioned that he had kept several cancelled checks from the 1920s and 30s that showed the amount of money he paid his musicians.
    •    November 10, 1924: to Eugene Ormandy, later conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, a check for $26 for one radio session.
    •    November 2, 1932 – to Bunny Berigan, legendary jazz trumpeter, and Tommy Dorsey, each a check for $25 to play on a Kresge Stores radio show.
    •    March 17, 1934 – to Benny Goodman for 6 radio dates for Tasty Bread Company, a check for $108.00 ($18 per session)

    These were pretty handsome fees during the depression.

    Story #3:

    In the late 1920s at one of Ben’s first recording sessions with Bing Crosby, it was reported that the lead saxophonist was a no show.  Having heard Bing whistle around the studio, Ben asked if Bing wouldn’t mind whistling through the previously arranged sax solo.  The bit worked and you know the rest of that story.

    Story #4:

    In a 1940s session at Capital Records with Frank Sinatra, Ben asked Frank to turn the words around while recording the song “Night and Day” to “Day and Night” in one of the refrains.  Frank didn’t like the idea at all, and wasn’t happy about making the change, but Ben insisted.  Frank left the session angry at Ben, but the lyrical turn-around, and the song were a big hit.

    Story #5:

    Finally, I’d like to quote Ben Selvin on remarks he made about Muzak.  “I worked for Columbia Records ‘til 1934.  I started a new company in 1934 called the Muzak company.  That was my baby!  We transmitted our Muzak music over telephone lines into restaurants and hotels.  Then came the rumblings of war.  I was sent out to make a survey to determine what kind of music could and should be played during wartime.  We went to the Peabody Company in Troy, the Ford Company in Detroit, Colonial Radial, the big corporations, and I talked to the employees, made certain experiments.  We came up with a program that I thought was suitable for the industry.”

    Yes Ben, those WWII Muzak programs you created were credited to have driven productivity up and absenteeism down in thousands of factories across America.  You not only change the face of the music industry during your 80 years, but many say you also played a significant role in helping win World War II.

    … and yes Brittany, I’m running long on this blog….. but give me a break.  It’s about my hero, Ben Selvin!

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan
    For more Muzak archive information go to http://75.muzak.com

  • My New Hero: Ben Selvin

    Young Ben Selvin Portrait_jpgI’ve been a huge Beatles fan all my life. As a left handed 14 year older, I took up bass in 1964 just like my idol Paul. The music of the Fab Four has had a profound impact on my music, my career and my life. But after digging into the history of Ben Selvin over the past two years, I have a new music hero. How about some highlights so you can see why I think so highly of this music genius?

    A few posts back, I took a look at Muzak’s first recordings in 1934, which were produced by VP of programming Ben Selvin. Ben orchestrated hundreds of recording sessions for Muzak over the next ten years, producing well over 7,000 songs. The more I look into his life, the more I’m amazed by the impact Ben Selvin had on this music industry of ours. Not only was he an exquisite musician, producer, arranger and band leader—he was also a wise and crafty businessman.

    Born March 5, 1898, he quickly became recognized as a child prodigy for his creative and unique fiddle playing techniques. His first appearance was in a New York nightclub, at the age of 5! Ben was playing on Broadway at 7 and had steady gigs by 15. He finally formed his own band at 19. In 1919, he signed to Columbia Records, and Ben Selvin’s Novelty Orchestra recorded “Dardanella”, which became the top selling record (5 million) over the first quarter century. But this was just the beginning. Through the next decade he recorded for over 9 record companies, including Vocalion Records, Paramount, Plaza Music Company, Banner, Brunswick and Columbia, playing several roles in over 2,500 releases.  Every label had him directing, producing, arranging, leading his own orchestras, as well as their other musical acts.  He was the darling of the industry, commonly titled “the Dean of Recorded Music” as he released several more hits through the 20’s including, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, “Blue Skies”, “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, “Oh, I Miss You Tonight”, “Manhattan”, “Happy Days Are Here Again”, and “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies”. I liken him to our current day Quincy Jones. Not bad company!

    In 1934, newly formed Muzak was looking for the right guy to oversee its “transcription” recording operation in NYC, and Ben Selvin was the obvious choice.  Once hired, he simply opened his rolodex brimming with the best musicians and bands in the industry, and started booking recording sessions.

    Ben Selvin is said to have recorded nearly 20,000 titles over his 7 decades in the business. The Guinness Book of Records says that Ben Selvin has produced more records that anyone to this day. Ben passed away in 1980 at the age of 82.  I never got the chance to meet him, but last year I had the occasion to get together with two of his grandchildren, David and Emily Selvin. We shared stories, listened to lots of grandpa’s music and scratched our heads as to why he has yet to be recognized by the Recording Academy. It’s high time we changed that.

    I can’t imagine what the music industry would be like today without the vision, exquisite ear, business savvy and musical know-how that Ben Selvin shared over 3 quarters of last century.  Muzak would have never found its music man… and I would only have the Beatles.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

    For more Muzak archive information go to http://75.muzak.com

  • The Archive That Almost Wasn’t


    All 76 years of Muzak’s archives almost ceased to exist because of a misguided but fortunately overruled decision by an unlikely character: ME!

    Like so many people, I thought that the only content in Muzak’s musical past would be associated with the elevator.  Why would anyone be interested in cheesy instrumental versions of pop songs, especially if they worked for a company seeking to rid themselves of this stereotype? In 1995, when I first joined Muzak, those were my thoughts.  Muzak had been working diligently since the mid 80’s to shed themselves of the elevator music image. They had long since changed their programming model to contemporary music by original artists, moving away from those instrumental versions.

    The physical archive followed Muzak from New York to Seattle in 1987, as the corporate office moved. Muzak was intent on repositioning themselves into the 21st century, so this move to a thriving music city like Seattle was critical.  At the time a former VP of programming for Muzak, Rod Baum, organized over 50 years of archives for shipment to Seattle, knowing that they might some day have value to Muzak, if not to American pop culture.  Soon after being received in Seattle, the archives found themselves in the depths of Iron Mountain storage for 13 years.  Almost no one in Seattle was the least bit interested in digging thru over 2000 boxes of records and tapes of outdated, seemingly undesirable music masters.  So there they sat.

    In 2000 Muzak once again had their eyes on moving the corporate offices, this time to the Charlotte area. Our CEO at the time, Bill Boyd, asked me to move to Charlotte and help build our new location… and then move the entire company cross country.  I’ve moved many, many times in my career (I can hear my wife Beth shudder), so this task was in my wheel-house.  The rule of thumb for any move is to get rid of all things you haven’t touched in 5 years…. right?  I was disposing of mountains of items as we prepared for the move of 5 corporate offices (three in Seattle, one in Raleigh and another in Chicago) into one Charlotte facility.  You know where I’m going.  The archives hadn’t been touched for over 13 years… and who cared about that old elevator music anyways.

    Well, there was this one guy who did care.  In 2000 he’d been an employee at Muzak for over a decade and around during the time of our move from New York to Seattle in the late 80s.  He believed, as did former VP Rod Baum, that our archive would one day take their place in American pop culture.  I was intent on trashing our unwanted archives, but he was on a mission to save them. His name is Chuck Walker and somehow, against my will, he won the debate.  I thank Chuck to this day for convincing Muzak that we had something very special.

    It turns out that nine years later, in 2009, I was assigned to coordinate another milestone event at Muzak:  our 75th anniversary celebration.  I was reminded about our archives and that we might want to take a look at them, now located in an Iron Mountain climate controlled site in Charlotte.  What we found was, and continues to be, breathtaking.  If not for Rod Baum and my dear friend Chuck Walker, the real history of Muzak could not be told.  Chuck is no longer with Muzak, but his spirit and belief are with us every day…   and I’m honored to be the one to tell the story.
    For more Muzak archive information go to http://75.muzak.com

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