Vinyl Meltdown (Version)

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MuzakBIT grey 69a

Music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming (Adorno; 288)

We don’t sell music; we sell programming

The dissolution of the Muzak brand in 2013 brought to an end a history that stretched back over 70 years, with the brand first appearing in 1934. Although synonymous with influencing the behaviour of consumers, Muzak spent much of its formative years manipulating workers on the factory floor with vinyl transcription records.

Muzak recorded thousands of 12″ and 16″ discs, building up a large library of material. In the 1930s artists’ songs were usually recorded at Muzak studios in a single take and cut straight to a lacquer master ready for duplication. In 1934, one of the first Muzak releases to be recorded featured the ‘National Fascist Militia Band’, a touring Italian brass band. During this session over 25 songs and marches were recorded, including ‘March on Rome’ ( Anthem of the young Fascists ), and ‘To Arms’, ( Fascist Anthem ). It is unclear whether this recording of the ‘Pan American Brass band’ (as the band was later aliased for release) influenced the direction that Muzak was to take, but what is clear is that around this time Muzak saw in the disciplining function of music commercial opportunities that they argued would assist companies and factories in increasing worker productivity.

Up until the mid 1930s Muzak had been distributing music to hotels and restaurants, but in 1936 they started to target factories and offices with the idea that worker productivity could be manipulated and regulated using programmed music. Muzak began developing what it later called ‘Stimulus Progression’: background music that was played in fifteen minute blocks. Each segment was made up of five or six tunes, with particular segments timed to coincide with particular times of the day, calming or upbeat sounds were played when deemed appropriate. Muzak successfully encouraged workplaces to wire in Muzak amplifiers, backing up their marketing spiel with scientific research that claimed to show that by piping ‘functional music’ into workplaces worker fatigue could be suppressed, ‘petty grievances forgotten’, and productivity increased by up to 11%. Using vinyl records as sound sources Muzak was essentially distributing an extension to the principles of Taylorism, whereby the worker as cog was held in place and worker efficiency was kept at optimum levels using a mixture of cutting-edge technology and a crude type of what would later become known as industrial psychology.

After the US became involved in WWII in 1941 thousands of shipyards and factories were signed up to receive the benefits of Muzak on the production line. Muzak’s marketing materials from the 1940s used the reactions of labourers forced to listen to Muzak as a way of touting for new business. For example the Employee Union President is quoted as saying:

‘Muzak is an outstanding fatigue-killer, especially when they hit the slow time around 3:30. It’s the best morale builder they’ve ever had in our plants. You can notice the people on the night shift. They used to drag when they came on for their ten-hour shift. Now they practically dance up to their machines.’

Muzak carefully chose the tracks that were played to workers, avoiding those that led to workers’ active engagement with the sounds they were hearing; the focus was on music as background noise that washed over, but at the same time regulated the listener. Occasionally Muzak misjudged the tracks selected and the focus of workers attentions shifted to sounds they were hearing affecting the levels of production: for example, workers were noted as clapping to the tunes they were hearing instead of working. This worry for the Muzak programmers is captured well by a remark from one of their executives: ‘Once people start listening they stop working’. Engaged listening connoted system failure.

Technics and dialectics: vinyl as intensifier

The dialectical nature of music as both a controlling and liberatory force has a long history. Brueghel’s painting ‘Carnival’s quarrel with lent’ is used by Jacques Attali to illustrate the antagonism between the spirit of Carnival and the culture of abstinence and piety of the Catholic church. The noise and life of the carnival procession winds round, clashing with the sombre muted churchgoers. Attali suggests that:

‘“Carnival’s Quarrel with Lent” is a battle between two fundamental political strategies, two antagonistic cultural and ideological organizations’ (Attali; 21 )

This struggle was taken up some 20 years ago by the Teknival and squat-rave scenes that followed in the spirit of festival and carnival, a counter-culture that built on decades of sound-system developments. Soundsystem noise activated spaces and the gatherings of listeners therein. DJs inverted the methodology of the Muzak Corp using vinyl records to transmit radical noise that aimed to intensify the listener and the situation. Viewed in contrast to Muzak’s aims to mute workers’ desires on the assembly line, collective experience momentarily removed the atomisation of everyday life. The record in this instance was a carrier of critical noise, a consumable whose use-value was emphasised and exploited for its counter-cultural possibilities. The vinyl medium functioned as a tool that intensified sound, ideas and networks.

Of course records as commodities have exchange-value, hide a fetish character, and are fetishised. As distribution networks moved the releases around, micro-cultures were generated around the stores and sellers of vinyl. The DJs were consuming audio objects, but they were also part of a concrete network that reproduced itself through the flow of tangible objects. For a short period these networks were self-sustaining drawing resources into a counter-cultural situation.

The strange loop

In 1999 it was rumoured that more turntables were sold than guitars (Collins;2003). True or not the turntable was by this point an acknowledged performance tool and for decades had been an important part of sound system culture. 1999 was also the year that Napster launched as a crude software tool that allowed peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing of digital copies of MP3s. MP3 compression was a standard developed by and for the culture industry, and together with the transmission potential of the internet and the advances in digital audio recording appeared to enable a ‘democratisation’ of the means for distribution. The possibilities for the distribution of audio were emphasised by those interested in self-organising at the time. As Douglas Kellner and Steven Best pointed out in an essay written in the late 90s:

‘In the case of new MP3 technologies, both known and unknown artists can directly release their music to a listening audience without the mediation of the record industries that exploit artists, control artistic expression, and often enforce a bland homogeneity of available music. MP3 also allows any person with a computer, the right software, and a little technical savvy to be their own DJ and radio station.’ (Best, Kellner;1999)

Thrown into crisis by Napster’s rise, the RIAA (Recording Industry of America) acting on behalf of major labels, and a number of ‘stars’ passed intellectual property court cases against Napster that effectively resulted in the company closing down in 2001. However, the two teenagers that had coded Napster had set in motion a short-circuiting of the distribution model of the wider music industry, a feedback-loop between technical reason and experience. The demise of the first incarnation of Napster was quickly followed by the development of more advanced, fully P2P clients such as Kazaa and Gnutella that decentralized traffic flow. Andrew Feenberg makes use of the concept of the ‘strange loop’ to describe the way in which ‘technologically mediated groups influence technical design through their choices and protests’. The ‘strange loop’ or ‘entangled hierarchy’ describes actor and the object being acted on. Feenberg uses MC Escher’s famous image of a pair of hands simultaneously drawing each other to illustrate the entanglement and continuous interaction of society and technology. For him:

‘[..]feedback from society to technology constitutes the democratic paradox: the public is constituted by the technologies that bind it together but in turn it transforms the technologies that constitute it.’ (Feenberg;2010)

The mainstream music industry was subsequently forced into a restructuring that re-purposed physical audio commodities as intangible objects; part of a wider strategy to recapture the market from the free-flow of digital copies, and to adapt to changes in the way that audio and visual commodities were expected to be exchanged in an increasingly networked society. Now a decade and a half later it is clear that the entire media-ecology that existed around tangible sound objects experienced a major shift in moving toward intangible recordings, shifting first to a phase of file downloads, and then to the inevitability of streaming content. For the majority of consumers music has moved from ownership of audio objects to access as a service: from ‘being in having’, to ‘being in appearing’.

Exterior design

While the wider music industry had by the 90s already transitioned to tangible digital objects (CDs), dance music and DJ culture continued to revolve around (and evolve the production of) vinyl records. Recorded music is of course not a pure transmission of the original signal, the mastering and cutting process greatly adds to the character of the object, and the entangling of these processes with the artists intentions can amplify or mute those intentions. Audio mastering must carefully work with the limitations of the sound container to exploit its potential. In the case of the vinyl record, a ‘strange loop’ developed whereby artists brought productions to mastering engineers, and engineers used the tools available and the character of the record to intensify the artists’ productions. When pressed, these objects moved through networks, and DJs in turn used them in the dance to create situations of intensity. Digital formats often skip these stages of post-production by releasing unmastered tracks, removing the power and reach of the sound object, in what seems to be a regressive step.

If one is to achieve the most effective sound object, Musical carriers/containers matter. This is not to say that the digital container will never be as effective, but that that moment hasn’t yet arrived.

The record as container of soundwaves is a pregnant tangible object, what Evan Eisenberg calls a ‘sculpted block of time’. The passage of sound through time is carved into an oil byproduct and mass produced. Unmistakably physical, its vibrations are reactivated when contact is made with a stylus. Eisenberg describes how the record ‘shatters a public architecture of time’, modularising moments that the individual can use to construct an ‘interior design’ (Eisenberg;2005). Eisenberg’s sense is that the listener withdraws with a captured moment that can be re-experienced and re-contextualised; an experience that negates communal ritual. These oil rich blocks of time are of course encountered differently by DJs; they are used rather than listened to. DJs create an external sonic architecture that is intended to be consumed communally. For the vinyl DJ, interaction with the record object is direct and active. In a recent interview Jeff Mills explained his preference for vinyl as:

‘[..]the physical aspect of connecting with this motion, this clockwise motion of this disc, information, the frailty of it all. The needle is just tracking on the surface of this record. And that any jolt would totally disorient it, and everyone else, and myself.’ (The Wire November 2011)

The record is the result of a complex process, and like any commodity it hides more than it shows: ideas, social-relations, networks and intentions. Mills emphasises the physicality of the object, but also what it hides and its fixing of time. Just over a hundred years ago the phonograph solidified as commodity and gave music permanence and fixity, music’s thingness has in the last two decades, however, been unravelling.

[..]this is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things”

Post millennium, with the rapid rise of P2P sharing and the growth in the popularity of MP3s, independent labels that used physical sound carriers to distribute new releases saw a gradual decline which only became clear retrospectively. Consumption of the record-object became largely replaced by degraded digital audio characterised by low bitrates that were poorly reproduced in increasingly solitary ways (ipods, phones etc). So too tangible networks fell away with intangible objects becoming mediated by virtual networks: the web, social networking etc. With streaming usurping downloads, we see a double regression: a degrading of the audio object and a distancing of use-value.

For a long time vinyl was the primary format that DJs chose to use, but now it’s one of many sound containers; vinyl, CDs, lossy (MP3s, AAC), or lossless (WAV, FLAC, OGG) formats. Many of these options attempt to mirror the physical experience of DJing vinyl. The tactile action is recreated in systems like Serato where timecoded vinyl is played on a turntable, but is linked to a laptop holding a library of data files.

The virtual sound object promised much in the way of democratisation (bypassing the mechanisms of production), but a decade after file downloads began to solidify as commodities, it is clear that the mainstream music industry benefited most from this time of flux. The move to intangible commodities has been part of a wider restructuring of the music industry, and its accompanying media-ecology. While the Muzak Corp had decades earlier atempted to remove any possibility of engagement by workers’ to what they were hearing, here intangibility reveals itself in streaming as a move towards a more contemplative interaction, and a denial of power of the radical audio object. Paradoxically the democratisation of technology that enabled the removal of barriers to musical production, and made possible self-directed distribution, also has the potential to degrade and dilute audio production and auditory experience, directly and indirectly contributing to an increase in pacification and alienation.

‘That is the trap. The trap of false liberation through the distribution to each individual of the instruments of his own alienation, tools for self-sacrifice.’ (Attali;1985)

In the wider mainstream music industry vinyl sales have for the last five years seen year on year increases, peaking this year (2014) with a 40% increase on 2013 (US figures) (Nielson;2014). Looking at the list of top sellers, it’s clear that the majority of those consuming and contributing to this rise in sales of vinyl are uninterested in radical noise; the renewed interest in vinyl is not about acquiring fresh sounds. Independents have seen a negligible rise in sales with those wishing to buy new sounds looking first to digital formats. The reversion to physical commodities is an industry of nostalgia: a misguided attempt to recover ‘being in having’ rather than ‘being in appearing’. The virtual sound object has largely degraded and abstracted the recording into a lesser representation.

The virtual sound object can share some of the record’s thing characteristics, however, the supporting media-ecology is lacking. Although it’s possible to bring abstracted sound back to a physical manifestation, eg burning audio to CDs, using Serato or using Ableton as DJ tools, the commodity experiences a loss. Networked society opened virtual connections and virtual space, however virtual connections and virtual space can only supplement not substitute actual connections and actual spaces of possibility. Here is not to lament the passing of a format, but to bring into focus the urgent need to adapt critical processes and concepts immanent to the current configuration.


Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982. 288-317. Print.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985. Print.
Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas – “Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle”, SubStance, Vol. 28, No. 3, Issue 90: Special Issue: Guy Debord (1999), pp. 129-156. Article
Nicolas Collins, “Groove, Pit and Wave” Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 13, (2003), pp. 1-3. Article
Eisenberg, Evan – The Recording Angel. Yale University Press, 2005. Print
Feenberg, Andrew “Ten Paradoxes”, Techne 14:1 Winter 2010. Article
“Consider This | Straight to Plate.” Consider This | Straight to Plate. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013.
Nielson Entertainment and Billboard’s 2014 Mid-Year Music Industry Report. Web. 03October 2014

Originally published in two parts in Datacide Thirteen and Fourteen. Re-edited by the author for this publication in July 2015.

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