Rock 'n' roll beginning to dominate Muzak's airwaves

September 14, 1990|By Liz Lufkin | Liz Lufkin,San Francisco Chronicle

WHEN CARDIOLOGIST Dr. Dominick Curatola opened hi own office in Los Altos, Calif., a few months ago, he knew exactly what he wanted. Muzak.

Not just any old Muzak, though. At 37, Curatola is a self-described "Dead Head" who grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, Motown and Grand Funk Railroad.

Now Curatola has acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, Rod Stewart and Janet Jackson beamed directly into his office, via a program on Muzak's direct satellite-broadcast system called Foreground Music One, nicknamed FM One.

These are not syrupy string renditions of pop hits that used to have rock fans climbing the elevator walls back in the '60s. These are today's tunes by the original artists -- M.C. Hammer, George Michael, Taylor Dayne and Wilson Phillips.

As baby boomers move into boardrooms, all three major music programming companies -- Muzak, AEI and 3M Sound Programming -- have attempted to ease the jarring transition from blue jeans to button-downs. AEI calls it StarTracks; 3M offers Star Channel II. Even Muzak, whose name once stood for the epitome of canned music, plays Elvis Costello and Depeche Mode.

"I decided if I was going to be working my tail off, I'd better hear good music," Curatola says. "My staff loves it, I love it, and we deliver dedicated care. If it keeps us churning during the day, why not?"

Grocery stores, shopping malls, even banks and businesses are increasingly coming to the same conclusion.

Safeway offers the equivalent of an in-house radio station at 805 grocery stores nationwide, programmed by Broadcast International in Midvale, Utah. Each store in the chain has a choice of country, easy listening, light rock or pop oldies music, but the rock and oldies channels are easily the most popular, says Milo Bishop, marketing vice president of Broadcast International.

Even McDonald's is switching over, in this case to 3M's combination light rock/instrumentals format, says Jack Beattie, president of TSI in San Jose, an independent music programming distributor that handles the company's Bay Area accounts.

"Baby boomers were brought up on the music industry," he says. "They hate elevator music, and they won't pay for it."

The arrival five years ago of satellite broadcasting technology, which allows music programming companies to beam high-quality sound directly to their customers rather than rely on tapes or phone lines, has fueled the rock 'n' roll crossover.

Satellite transmission also eliminates the hassle of changing tapes and offers different programming daily. But the music is the main selling point.

As of last month, only 27 percent of Muzak's 11,000 satellite customers were signed up to its "environmental" channel, while more than 50 percent subscribed to either FM One or Hitline, the company's Top 40 channel.

At AEI, which has grown from 15,000 to 65,000 customers in the past four years, medium-tempo timeless pop is now the top seller. And 3M's 2-year-old satellite light rock channel is now its second most popular selection.

"It's not like you get older and you don't like rock 'n' roll anymore," says Jim Wessel, vice president of Seattle-based AEI. "You don't all of a sudden start listening to Lawrence Welk because you're 38 years old."

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