Friday, April 22, 2005

Elevator Going Down

Piped-in music isn't what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.

My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown's "Sex Machine" as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling the big mug was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.

(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter, now 19, we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing "Sex Machine." He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)

Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store's music, at a barely audible level, was playing "Saturday Night" by Earth, Wind and Fire--another pretty decent funk record. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone's great 1971 hit "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show (Part 1)." Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.

The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music--those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music (known officially as "beautiful music") is largely dead, too--because its target audience is largely dead.

I worked at an elevator music radio station for a while, back in the late 80s, when I still felt as though I had a career in radio, and hadn't crossed the line into taking radio jobs until I could find something else. It wasn't quite as tomblike a place as you might expect--I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. And some of the other personalities were indeed colorful. One was a fairly vocal Christian with shoulder-length hair, who was quickly nicknamed "Junior Jesus," and once lent a CD to a colleague with the provision that the colleague not tape it because that would be a violation of copyright. He also hosted the Sunday morning religious-music show, and the bluehairs in his audience used to send him money even though he didn't ask for it--thus fulfilling the dream of low-paid radio guys everywhere. Another was the only person I have ever met whom I would have forgiven for abandoning his family--an incredibly high-maintenance wife and anywhere from two to five incorrigible children (we were never sure quite how many), whose considerable talents were overwhelmed by the chaos in his personal life.

The most indelible characters at this station, however, were in the sales department. I once shared an office with a new rep who had spent the previous several years living in Central America. One fine winter's day, a dusting of snow fell, and she asked me, "Should I use the four-wheel drive on the way home?" "That won't be necessary," I told her. "When it's time, you'll know it." She once asked me if I'd ever written any spots advertising artificial limbs--and preceded to call the Radio Advertising Bureau seeking sample copy for artificial limbs, only to be surprised when they laughed out loud at the idea just as I had. My favorite story, however, is about the time she got kicked out of the office of a store owner who haughtily told her, "I don't need to advertise. I already have more business than I can handle." "Good," she shot back. "Let's go out front and take your sign down."

One member of the sales force once landed a major client who had been reluctant to buy our station, and when asked how she'd done it, admitted that she slept with him. Yet another was an artist capable of knocking off beautiful abstracts in a few minutes using only a ballpoint pen on the back of a message slip. Admiring a drawing he'd given another colleague, I asked him, "Would you draw something for me sometime?" "Of course," he said. Then I asked, "Can you do the one of the dogs playing poker?"

The biggest problem the station had was one it shared with other elevator-music stations during those dying days of the format: 23-year-old media buyers at ad agencies. Our audience was the wealthiest in our market, but we couldn't shake down much beyond token agency buys, and we were convinced that it was because the buyers simply couldn't understand the format's appeal. The Mrs., who was a media buyer in her late 20s at this same time, denies that this could have been true, but we weren't making it up. Elevator music PDs across the country, in markets of all sizes, were saying the same thing.

We countered the stereotype of our listeners as Ben Gay-scented and waiting for death with the following true story: We once ran a contest in which the prize was two tickets to a show, dinner beforehand, and a limo ride to and from your house. The winners were a couple in their 50s who couldn't have been more typical. We found out the next week that they'd had sex in the limo on the way home.

Well. I seem to have digressed from where I began, which is one of the risks inherent in this gasbaggery. When I started, I intended only to list some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes. They include Waylon Jennings' "Luckenbach, Texas," "Synchronicity II" by the Police, and--I swear it's true--"Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss. None of those were on the station I worked for, however. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no Kiss or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" and a remake of Tiffany's cover of "I Think We're Alone Now," which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren't all bad. You'd get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck's "Take Five" or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's "Desafinado." However, there's no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing "Red Roses for a Blue Lady." No wonder you'd get sleepy on the night shift.

Please contribute your favorite piped-in music moments by clicking "Comments."


At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked as a "tape changer" at WAHC/Oshkosh in the early 1980s and recall a beautiful music version of "Every Breath You Take" from the Police. Years later, I seem to recall
Steely Dan's "Josie" on WEKZ/Monroe, courtesy of the Century 21 orchestra.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous reechie said...

Never had the pleasure of working at a "Beautiful Music" station. I did start at an automated A/C place, back when that meant Barry Manilow and Barbara Streisand.

The oddest beautiful music cover I ever heard had to be while browsing through a J.C. Penny's store in the early 90's: Squeeze's new wave non-hit "Another Nail In My Heart" More obscure than that? Michael Nesmith's "Rio" at a Denny's around 1987.

Our local supermarket has been rocking the aisles these days, too. Aerosmith's "Same Old Song And Dance," Issac Hayes "Theme From Shaft" (complete with the "Bad Mother...Shut your mouth" line), and you should have seen the smiles that suddenly broke out at the checkout lines when "Smoke On The Water" started fooling!


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