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We all know elevator music when we hear it. But could you actually describe or define what makes a song elevator-y?
Is it the tempo? The arrangement? Does it have to be slow jazz?
The answer might surprise you. Elevator music hasn’t been restricted to elevators in a very long time — even though it did actually start that way.
You’ll find this kind of music everywhere these days. It’s the stuff you hear from overhead speakers in a lot of public places — like malls, restaurants, doctor’s offices, and even some corporate lobbies.
There are two big reasons why elevator music has become such a recurring (and overlooked) part of our society. First, the songs are written to be inoffensive. And second, it’s an entire genre structured to help maintain a calm mood without the distraction of lyrics or guitar solos or EDM beats.
You can think of it as very intentional background music. Which might make this post’s title seem counterintuitive. Why would people write music that people aren’t really going to listen to? And why should you, as a content creator, put that into your videos?
Well, when it comes to elevator music, that’s kind of the point.
Elevator music’s current “success” can be traced to the creation of the company Muzak.
This organization was founded waaay back in the late 1920s — around the same time elevators became widely accepted and buildings grew taller and taller.
(If you’re interested in some background details, the history of elevators is surprisingly interesting.)
Now you might have heard the term “Muzak” being used to define this sort of music. In some circles, the brand has become synonymous with what we think of as “elevator music.” But the company is actually known for creating a system of radio that used a building’s electrical wiring.
That might sound boring, but it went a long way to changing how people think of, plan for, and react to social/public environments.
Muzak’s electrical wire-based radio system found instant success. The company was so successful, in fact, that it has been sold multiple times over the last 100 years. During that time, each new owner took the idea of playing music for customers and introduced it to new settings and environments.
But back in its earliest days, elevator music was implemented to help maintain productivity in office environments. The music was programmed into blocks (usually a few minutes long), and each piece would incorporate different tempos and tones.
Muzak’s plan was to use these controlled environments as a way for employers to control the ambiance of their offices. The music’s pacing would gradually build, and that would subconsciously encourage employees to work faster.
These “block” sections would rotate every few minutes. And by adding in scheduled silent periods, the entire process could be a controlled system without the risk of listener fatigue. Muzak coined this idea as the “Stimulus Progression.”
Now if that sounds a little devious to you, it probably should. And when people discovered what the background music was doing to them, they were pretty unhappy. Whether or not Muzak’s plan worked has never been factually proven, but nobody likes being manipulated at work.
As this wired radio system spread across America, its primary use shifted from subconsciously “managing” employees’ work habits. Instead, elevator music became a way to fill silence in public places and set a calm atmosphere for customers.
It took a long and sometimes-controversial road, but it’s not hard to mentally track Muzak’s progression from then to now. The interesting thing to remember is that the concept of elevator music spread to other industries just like Muzak’s wired radio became a staple for most businesses.
One unique aspect of elevator music is that we really only hear it in situations where we have no control over what we’re listening to. And for a long time, that was okay because wired radio systems were still a novelty in stores and offices...but not so much nowadays.
Think about it. In these situations, there’s no volume button, no song skip, no channel selection — we’re basically subjected to whatever is programmed into the elevator, store, etc.
That’s a big reason why elevator music is often played in situations where the audience is captive but not really paying attention to it. These places attract a wide variety of customers and clients, and each one has a unique set of interests, disinterests, and general music preferences.
Some people love the standard “smooth jazz” style of music, while others find it infuriating. And that is also why most people don’t think very highly of elevator music. It’s the butt of every joke at the music genre holiday party, and it’s something that elicits some kind of response from everyone.
In some ways, that could tie into the social anxieties — and unconscious biases — that each of us develop during our life. Music we hear in the dentist’s office could trigger something negative or uncomfortable, while hearing a stereotypical Italian song (complete with accordion) makes us crave pasta.
We won’t address the psychology of music here, but the important thing to know is that you can’t just throw elevator music into your videos all willy-nilly. If you took that route, you’d run the risk of setting off those anxieties or biases in every person who watches your content.
So when in doubt, ask yourself: How do you handle being on hold with a giant company that plays the same 60-second loop during a 2-hour call? Because there is a real possibility that your reaction to that is the same association people might make to the elevator music you use.
However, this genre does work well in some instances. It’s perfect for corporate videos, especially whiteboard/explainer clips that need something to make people focus.
And elevator music could be a great match for a vlog, either to bring comedic value or to add calming background music.
But however you use it, spend time considering why. That way, if your song choices do come off as cliche, it’s because you planned the video to elicit that response from your audience.
Once you figure out the tone you want to set, it’s time to start browsing for songs that might be a good fit. And if you’re looking for the most convenient and affordable option, you’ll want to start looking for royalty free elevator music.
Now that you’re an expert on all things Muzak, you’re ready to go to work. You’ve spent the past few weeks planning and filming your next video, and now you’re in a dark room with coffee and your best editor-ish clothes. It’s time to put the pieces together and finish this thing.
...except you haven’t chosen the music yet. You know you want something lighthearted and calm, and of course that is right up the alley of our good friend Elevator Music.
If you’ve gone through the hassle of finding music for videos before, you might assume this part of the job would be easy. After all, most of these songs sound similar, right? How hard could it possibly be to find a cheap song without spending the next 24 hours binge-listening to jazzy hold music?
The truth is that getting access to royalty free elevator music isn’t any less complicated than if you wanted a classic rock song or the latest pop hit. That’s because copyright law applies to any piece of music, even if it sounds like 10 other songs you’ve heard before.
So, before we move forward, let’s spend a minute clearing up what you need to know about copyright, music licensing, and how royalties work.
This is a kind of legal protection for intellectual property. Music copyright provides very specific rights to the creator of a specific song.
In most cases, it can include the song writer, lyricist, recording artist, production team, and literally any other person who can prove they played some kind of role in the song’s creation.
And yes, it starts to read like a laundry list after awhile. But these are all people with a stake in the song, and that means they’re entitled to profit from its success.
This is the process of purchasing the legal right to use someone else’s music. It’s an official agreement between everyone else with a claim to the song and an outside creator or company wanting to use that song.
In other words, if you want to use a Billie Eillish song in your next video, you can’t just take an .mp3 or .wav file and drop it into your project. (And for the sake of this post, the same goes for that jazzy-but-still-chill elevator music track you just found.)
Traditional music licensing would mean reaching out to a record label or a music artist and discussing some sort of agreement. It can be a timely process with lots of back and forth, but in the end you’ll both (hopefully) settle on a licensing fee and then you pay to use the song.
This is basically profit sharing between the music artist (who made the song) and you (who used it in a video, podcast, or other media project).
While some songs will be restrictive licenses for either non-commercial, commercial, or both uses, the truth is that any project could one day become a source of income.
If you become a YouTube Partner, then any video on your channel could create revenue. The same goes for the podcast you and your friends record in your basement, or the short film you forgot you submitted to a festival, or the 30-second promo you made for a friend’s startup.
And when you do generate some kind of revenue, the song’s copyright holders will expect a piece of that. In fact, there will be a listed percentage in the licensing agreement. Your job will be sending them that portion of the profits each month.
Oh, and you’ll need to do that for all of the songs you license.
We ended on a pretty dramatic note, but clearly there’s a lot that goes into licensing music. This is the “traditional” model, and it’s how big companies and independent filmmakers have functioned for decades.
Thankfully, times have changed. Life in the 21st century is all about being agile and having choices, and music artists are taking advantage of that. We’re seeing a total shift in how licensing works thanks to the rise of royalty free music.
Between things like Netflix, Disney+, Spotify Premium, and Adobe’s Creative Cloud, we almost need a checklist of our subscription services these days. They’re convenient, they’re affordable, and they just feel like a match for our needs as consumers.
Music licensing can be the same way.
Soundstripe is one of a few companies trying to change the game. We’re a team of creatives who want to help other creatives do what they love, and we believe a royalty free music platform is the best way we can do that.
Obviously, it all starts with hiring fantastic artists and paying them to produce high-quality music. But because those artists are part of our company, that means we own our licenses. No drawn-out negotiations or $10,000 agreements here. We don’t even charge royalty fees.
Instead, when you sign up for a Soundstripe subscription, you’ll get access to a library of thousands of songs curated by professional mix engineers. Then you get to download as many of those songs as you want, put them into your projects, and keep creating without worrying about copyright disputes.
When it comes to finding music for your projects, you really can’t go wrong with an option like this. And whether you need royalty free elevator music, interview music, or inspiring music, you’ll be able to find what you need all in the same — and easy to access — place.