Muzak is getting an AI upgrade. This time, let’s try to appreciate it more

Polignano a Mare, on Italy’s Puglian coast, has a Volare problem.

Just off its main beach is a statue of the town’s most celebrated son, the singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno. Nearby is a loudspeaker rig that plays on loop his most famous work: a wistfully surreal song whose real name, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu”, nods to the paintings of Marc Chagall and whose fame hangs on a one-word refrain from its chorus.

The Volare is constant. It’s carried by the wind across the beach. It seeps from every café and souvenir stall. Three-wheeler taxis circling the town offer the possibility of escape, only to start playing Volare as soon as they are boarded. Every public space in a one-mile radius is either an active or dormant source of Volare. Each moment spent not hearing Volare is heavy with dread of next hearing Volare.

Polignano a Mare is an extreme example of a global scourge, so is a strong contender for the title of Hell on Earth.

Is any part of our cultural heritage as casually mistreated as music? Authorities will occasionally push back against the commoditisation of significant art, seeking bans for kitsch such as Tower of Pisa underpants and Angkor temple ashtrays, but no one ever thinks to defend a tune from the corrosive effects of ubiquity. Everything popular is available to be exhausted, from Pachelbel’s “Canon” to what Mariah Carey wants for Christmas.

Censors seek to protect us from music, but never to protect music from us. France has rationed imports, Britain tried to criminalise repetitive beats and Vietnam outlawed bolero for being too soft. But the only anthems with state protection are national, and the only UK government measure to stop the overplaying of a tune applies exclusively to ice cream vans.

We only have ourselves to blame. Music streaming services have shown how much we want familiarity and invite repetition, inventing a whole new asset class along the way.

Just 1 per cent of an online catalogue provides more than 90 per cent of the streams delivered. The churn of new and recent material only ever accounts for a third of the market, approximately, whereas about half of streams were released more than a decade ago. This year and every year, millions of us will receive annual Spotify Wrapped alerts with rightfully embarrassing quantities of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Mr Brightside” and “Wonderwall” (the app’s 27th, 62nd and 83rd most streamed songs, respectively).

But investment funds that farm music royalties were a low-interest-rate phenomenon. When government bonds were yielding 0 per cent or less, a sales pitch of taking ownership of some culturally immovable classic, then earning into perpetuity a few cents per play, had some appeal. Bidding wars broke out for songbooks based on the current value of future cash flows, as if the cost of debt was never going to rise. Then it rose.

Now that the tide’s gone out, royalties holders are having to work harder to extract value from the back catalogue and pummel newer acquisitions into our shared consciousness. What results is payola with a narrowing target.

Hype squads no longer care much about radio, but will crush bystanders in the rush whenever there’s a slot available on a choice retailer’s playlist or among the incidental music for a reality TV show. And if the artist’s life work can be concentrated into a single default choice, even better. What matters is saturation. A song heard once is a novelty, but any song played a million times is a securitisable asset. Respite is possible. But it needs a rebrand, because at the moment it’s called Muzak.

It’s 60 years since Muzak Holdings lost the battle for our public spaces to radio so comprehensively, its trademark became a byword for banal. Pop is our incidental soundtrack through being familiar yet hip, whereas Muzak’s need to be unintrusive came across as sinister. And so began the compilation of our shared playlist of audio wallpaper that gradually numbs all feeling to a few thousand songs (and in December, about 12 songs).

What’s left of Muzak’s corporate shell is now part of Mood Media, a US company that calls itself “the world’s leading in-store media solutions company dedicated to elevating the customer experience”. It can find no use for the brand.

The challenge is to put a sound under forgettable moments that breaks the irksome silence, but not so much that it risks causing a distraction. Generative artificial intelligence is the answer. It’s a giant leap forward in mediocrity. First prize in this year’s AI Song Contest went to a team that analysed Eurovision entries and created their average. You wouldn’t listen twice to the product by choice, but it’s comfortingly derivative enough to disappear if hearing by accident. Situation-tailored streams of similarly processed audible mulch could be piped through every PA system in the world, and the only people who’d notice enough to care would be rentiers.

Generative AI terrifies the music industry, but what doesn’t? Everything to them is copyright protection. From metal-disc music boxes to digital rights management, everything is manipulated to open a new front in the format wars. The potential of each innovation is stunted for profit.

Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company, wants the streaming platforms to ban cloneworks as well as the data scrapers they use for training. UMG says it has “a moral and commercial responsibility to our artists to work to prevent the unauthorised use of their music”, which on principle is fair enough. But when what’s at stake is a future free of involuntary exposure to Jeff Buckley in Starbucks and Candi Staton in Aldi, the “commercial” argument is carrying a lot more weight than the “moral” one.

Background music may be the most benign application for AI. We’re months at most away from a text prompt such as “1950s Italian pop-opera, theme of flying” having the power to create a kaleidoscopic substitute for a depleted cultural resource. We mustn’t stall this opportunity by caring too much about those who profit from our creeping ambient torture.

Bryce Elder is the FT’s City editor, Alphaville

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