That Muzak piped into your local mall or neighborhood grocery store might not sound much like elevator music. It might, in fact, be original Latino pop or Caribbean calypso, B.B. King or Foo Fighters, Whitney Houston or Nirvana.
Today's Muzak, unlike the original single channel of re-recorded, instrumental pop songs, offers dozens of diverse channels, programming flexibility -- and, possibly, a chance to influence the shopping environment.
The ability to tailor programs to suit specific store departments or times of day is appealing to more and more area retailers, said Barry L. Freedman, vice president of Baltimore-based Audio Communications Inc., a subsidiary of Audio Communications Network Inc. in Orlando, Fla. The network, a publicly traded affiliate of Muzak with $17.5 million in sales last year, operates through Muzak franchises in Maryland, California, Florida, Georgia and Missouri.
Freedman, who has worked for several Muzak affiliates over 20 years, has programmed and installed systems for about 3,000 clients in the Baltimore region.
The company is planning about 40 installations, including the new Barnes & Noble book and music emporium at the Inner Harbor's Power Plant. Freedman has watched the number of new clients steadily increase in the year and a half since he came to Baltimore.
Between 65 percent and 75 percent of clients are retailers, from grocery stores to department stores to entire malls, among them Ann Taylor, Burger King, Cosmetic Center, Food Lion and J. C. Penney Co.
"Music is a very powerful tool," Freedman said at his office in Essex, where easy jazz wafts through the speakers. "We can target it to do the right job. You can change the music to match the time of day and demographics."
Freedman calls it audio architecture, part of the consultation clients get with equipment and installation of systems that can range in price from $65 a month for a music signal from a single source to several hundred dollars a month for services that can include Muzak, telephone hold messages or video.
Audio Communications programs music aimed at the customers and desired image, or leaves it to the retailer to program at will.
It's not uncommon for department stores to use several types of music, Freedman said, for instance rock in the juniors department and classical jazz in other women's departments.
A fast-food restaurant might play big band music for senior citizens at breakfast and rock for the high school students at lunch. Ads can be woven into the music, a practice popular with gas stations and convenience stores.
As part of a consultation, Freedman might recommend that a restaurant switch to a more up-tempo channel during busy times to help keep the patrons moving, or a slow tempo for a fine dining atmosphere.
Before the number of channels mushroomed to 60, before "classical ambience," "concert classics" and "light classical," before "all that jazz," "New Orleans jazz" and "jazz traditions," before "modern rock," "power rock" and "classic rock," there was just one channel, Environmental Music by Muzak, better known as elevator music.
The second channel didn't come along until 1985, when Muzak introduced its adult contemporary channel. Several years later, direct broadcast satellite technology made it possible to expand the number of channels and to do more individual programming.
In February 1997, the background music company doubled to 60 the number of channels it sells, adding selections such as New Orleans jazz and genres as diverse as oldies, Latin, hip-hop, country and show music, much of it aimed at retailers trying to attract a diverse clientele.
The company distributes its music programs, data and video signals via telephone lines, radio signals, through a tape service or through direct broadcast satellite.
Recent studies have bolstered some of Freedman's theories about how music can influence shoppers.
A study by Muzak and the University of Washington Business School found that the environmental and contemporary music styles increased the number of shoppers making purchases in a Hallmark store while listening to music most appropriate for their age group.
The Journal of Marketing watched shoppers in a nationally known supermarket chain over nine weeks and found a 17 percent increase in the amount of time shoppers spend in a store while slower-tempo music plays, compared with faster-tempo music or no music. Sales rose 38 percent when slow music was played, the journal found.
Freedman stresses the importance of using music in appropriate ways. He believes that playing a radio, with commercials, or randomly selected compact discs can be distracting and counterproductive.
Despite the proliferation of Muzak channels, many retailers say they prefer to stick to one of the originals. Adult contemporary -- Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Sting and Celine Dion -- remains one of the most popular.
That is what shoppers hear in Towson Town Center and in Mars supermarkets.