In October 2020, the B2B (business-to-business) background music company Soundtrack Your Brand—formerly Spotify Business—launched the world’s first full-catalog on-demand streaming service for background music. Although background music providers have licensed, curated, and distributed music to businesses for nearly a century, they have only recently started embracing the new possibilities of streaming. Now, streaming is rapidly influencing the background music industry’s features, music selection practices, and economics. While scholars in music and media studies have extensively studied B2C (business-to-consumer) streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, they have largely neglected streaming’s impact on background music.

This article investigates how streaming is impacting the B2B background music industry, drawing upon platform analysis, marketing materials, and interviews with background music CEOs and researchers. After reviewing background music’s history and effects, the article examines how streaming is influencing business-oriented background music features, such as scheduling, zoning, messaging, and monitoring. It then considers streaming’s impact on background music selection practices, demonstrating how businesses are increasingly using features popularized by mainstream consumer services, such as playlists, algorithmic recommendations, and massive catalogs of music. The final section explores how streaming is shaping the economics of the background music industry, particularly for rightsholders who have historically been underpaid billions of dollars in public performance royalties. I argue that streaming may improve background music’s efficiency for businesses, but it also potentially reifies broader concerns about social control, surveillance, and inequitable artist remuneration that have become increasingly prevalent in the streaming age.

In 2013, a group of well-established music tech entrepreneurs—Ola Sars, Andreas Liffgarden, and Joel Broms Brosjö—approached Spotify’s CEO, Daniel Ek, with a business opportunity: a background music service designed for the streaming era.1 Sars and his team proposed that they would build the business-facing software while relying on Spotify’s back-end infrastructure to deliver music. Ek saw the potential and agreed, leading to the joint venture Spotify Business, a B2B (business-to-business) streaming service designed to license, curate, and deliver background music for a recurring subscription fee.

Spotify Business launched in 2013 in Sweden, Norway, and Finland for proof of concept, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Inspired by this success, in 2018 Sars made the company independent, rebranded it Soundtrack Your Brand, and launched globally in seventy-four markets. This process took five years and roughly 16,000 deals with record labels and publishers, paralleling Spotify’s own arduous negotiations years earlier.2 Soundtrack Your Brand now serves more than 50,000 businesses, including massive brands and franchises, such as McDonalds, Lululemon, J Crew, Uniqlo, and W Hotels.

Soundtrack Your Brand initially offered only non-interactive streaming, meaning that businesses could not select, order, and skip individual tracks in real time. In October 2020, however, the company finalized deals with the major record labels and introduced “Soundtrack Unlimited,” the first full-catalog on-demand background music streaming service. Just as on-demand streaming disrupted the B2C (business-to-consumer) music market through companies like Spotify, it now has the potential to reshape the B2B background music market—a niche but economically and culturally significant segment of the music industry that Sars describes as “the part of the music industry that God forgot.”3

Background music (variously referred to as Muzak, elevator music, piped music, canned music, and sonic wallpaper) is nothing new. For almost a hundred years now, background music providers have charged businesses recurring subscription fees to broadcast recorded music, license that music for commercial use, and provide curation and management tools to maximize its effects on branding and consumer behavior.4 The first successful background music provider, Muzak, began systematically implementing recorded music in businesses as early as the 1930s, and since then music can be heard in most commercial spaces, whether that is a coffee shop, grocery store, or doctor’s waiting room.5 Over the past century, the infrastructure, features, and economics of background music have developed alongside new music formats and distribution technologies, including telephone cables, terrestrial and satellite radio, magnetic tape, CD players, digital music devices, and, most recently, streaming music over the internet.

Soundtrack Your Brand is the first company with a full-catalog on-demand service, but non-interactive streaming has been the default for background music providers over the past decade. There are currently dozens of B2B providers using non-interactive streaming, including Cloud Cover Music, Custom Channels, Jukeboxy, Mood Media, My Instore Radio, Rehegoo, Rockbot, Sirius XM for Business, SoundMachine, Soundsuit, and Startle Music.6 There are also several background music resellers—such as Activate the Space, Couture Media, Dynamic Media, and Marketing Melodies—that set up first-party B2B providers for businesses and offer additional services like technical support and hardware installation. The scalability of streaming allows providers and resellers to serve clients across the globe, often with only a handful of employees. As a result, there is currently a thriving background music industry relying on streaming.

In recent years, scholars in music, media, and cultural studies have extensively studied on-demand consumer streaming services like Spotify, demonstrating their effects on music industry power dynamics, listening habits, and artists’ livelihoods. There has also been substantial research on the background music industry of the past, with particular focus on how companies like Muzak have used music as a form of social control. But although the background music industry is rapidly changing in response to streaming and its new affordances, this phenomenon has gone largely unaddressed, despite its implications for businesses, listeners, and artists.

In this article, I investigate the impact of streaming on the B2B background music industry, drawing upon platform analysis, marketing materials, and interviews with background music CEOs and employees.7 I begin by reviewing background music’s history and effects to contextualize streaming’s innovations. Next, I consider how streaming’s real-time, cloud-based distribution model is influencing business-oriented background music features, such as scheduling, zoning, messaging, and monitoring. In the third section, I examine streaming’s impact on background music selection practices, demonstrating how businesses are increasingly using tools and features normalized by mainstream consumer services, including playlists, algorithmic recommendations, and access to massive catalogs of music. Finally, in the fourth section, I investigate how streaming is shaping the economics of the background music industry, particularly for artists and other rightsholders who have historically been underpaid billions of dollars in public performance royalties. Ultimately, I argue that streaming is enacting a paradigm shift for the B2B background music industry. While this shift may improve background music’s efficacy and efficiency for businesses, it also potentially reifies broader concerns about social control, surveillance, and inequitable artist remuneration that have become increasingly prevalent in the streaming age.

Background music has been used throughout history to accompany meals, dances, ceremonies, wars, and more, but its association with business first intensified during the late nineteenth century. At this time, many businesses in the United States and elsewhere began employing organists, choirs, orchestras, and other musicians to accompany shopping experiences.8 These performers were initially on display, but businesses eventually concealed them, realizing that “any visible musicians would distract customers from their purchases.”9 It was not long before recording technology allowed businesses to avoid the expense and inconvenience of live performances altogether. Music historian David Suisman notes that in the U.S. in the 1880s and 1890s, only a few years after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, “commercial agents were placing coin-operated cylinder phonographs, powered by electric batteries, in public waiting rooms, drug stores, hotel lobbies, train depots, summer resorts, and county and state fairs.”10 While such devices would have been regarded as novelties at the time, this indicates that late nineteenth-century audiences were primed to hear recorded music in any and every space.

The growing ubiquity of recorded music paved the way for Muzak, the company responsible for cementing background music in the public consciousness—so much so that the term “Muzak” is still synonymous with background music nearly a century later.11 In the 1930s, Muzak began delivering recorded music to businesses via telephone cables. To avoid excessive licensing fees, the company used an in-house band to make thousands of recordings—typically easy-listening arrangements of popular and classical standards—establishing an aesthetic that many people still associate with background music. This new approach proved massively successful, and it was not long before Muzak could be heard everywhere: department stores, waiting rooms, elevators, public transit, factories, offices, and even the White House.

Muzak’s success led to an entire background music industry full of B2B providers. This industry was (and remains) in constant flux, with companies being continuously founded, acquired, merged, and liquidated in response to external investors and shifting market conditions. After a decades-long process of consolidation, Muzak—along with competitors AEI, DMX, PlayNetwork, Trusonic, Yesco, and more—is now part of the Mood Media Corporation.12 Mood Media remains one of the world’s largest background music providers, and its rampant expansion demonstrates both the turbulent nature of the B2B music industry and its perceived value.

The history of Muzak also sheds light on the background music industry’s technological developments. Over the twentieth century, Muzak transitioned between multiple music formats, from phonograph records in the 1930s to magnetic tape in the 1950s, CDs in the 1990s, and digital music files in the 2000s. Alongside new formats, Muzak also implemented new distribution methods, moving from telephone cables in the 1930s to FM radio subcarriers in the 1960s, satellite radio in the late 1970s, and digital downloads and streaming in the 2000s. These technological advancements led to improved sound quality, storage capacity, connectivity, and distribution features.

As background music’s technology changed, so did its music. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the companies AEI and Yesco challenged background music’s reputation as bland and inoffensive by switching to “foreground music”—that is, licensing and playing hits instead of instrumental mood music.13 Around this time many background music providers also began offering personalized curation services to businesses in addition to a fixed selection of “channels” or “stations.”14 Licensing popular music remains the norm today, despite the higher costs, and the massive catalogs that streaming enables give businesses even more control over what music is played.15

Background music has proven lucrative because of its ability to shape atmosphere and mood. As critical theorist Theodor Adorno puts it, “When café music falls silent, it sounds as if a miserly waiter is turning off a couple of electric bulbs. Background music is an acoustic light source.”16 Research on recorded music’s impact on mood has been conducted since at least the 1920s with Edison’s studies on “the effects of music.”17 Dozens of subsequent studies have specifically focused on music’s influence on retail, indicating that background music can drive sales by affecting customer behavior and temporal perception.18 But Soundtrack Your Brand’s former Head Researcher, Jasmine Moradi, tells me that methodological limitations make it challenging to conduct large-scale studies of background music even now, often still requiring manual methods, such as interviews.

It is worth noting that much research on background music’s effects has been conducted by B2B providers themselves as a way to strategically market their value. Muzak’s own psychologists, for instance, conducted (pseudo)scientific research to develop the “stimulus progression” system in the 1950s (designed to optimize worker efficiency by sequencing songs according to their intensity) and the “quantum modulation” system in the 1990s (designed to stimulate retail sales by creating soundscapes that seamlessly transition between songs based on their musical parameters).19 More recently, Soundtrack Your Brand has sponsored many of its own studies on background music, taking advantage of streaming’s ability to synchronize music across locations and monitor usage in real time.20 While such studies indicate music’s ability to influence customer behavior and sales, they should be examined critically given the company’s clear economic stakes in their results.

Background music has demonstrable value for businesses, but it has also been the subject of much critique on both ideological and aesthetic grounds. Scholars have argued that background music is a way of manipulating consumer behavior either without their awareness or against their will, making it a mechanism of social control that facilitates ongoing capitalist consumption.21 What makes this potential manipulation so pernicious is that background music, as the name implies, is often relegated to the background; as Adorno writes, “The first characteristic of background music is that you don’t have to listen to it.”22 This resonates with Anahid Kassabian’s concept of “ubiquitous listening,” which describes how passive listening experiences can generate affective responses in listeners.23

Ubiquitous listening and music’s ability to regulate affect are well documented in personal uses of music.24 In the mid-twentieth century, many listeners would tune in to “beautiful music” FM radio channels or spin mood music LPs.25 Later, portable listening devices such as the Walkman, iPod, and smartphones granted listeners greater control over their listening environment.26 Now, the on-demand access provided by services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube is leading to countless contextual playlists designed to elicit moods or accompany activities.27 Indeed, many scholars argue that streaming services engender more passive listening experiences, suggesting that listeners are now using streaming services to curate their own private background music soundscapes.28

Parallels between the background music industry, ubiquitous listening, and on-demand streaming have not gone unnoticed. For example, Paul Allen Anderson describes mood-based streaming as “neo-Muzak,” arguing that streaming services and their playlists enable “microspheres of work and leisure” that enable workers to “forestall bodily fatigue and nervous collapse in the context of global digital connectivity through a rigorous regime of affect management.”29 Other writers have similarly drawn attention to how streaming services and contextual playlists are reminiscent of Muzak.30 Yet despite the prevalence of the Muzak metaphor, little attention has been devoted to how streaming is influencing the actual background music industry. The following sections demonstrate how the background music industry’s distribution features, music selection practices, and economics are changing due to streaming.

Because businesses use music for different purposes than individual listeners, background music providers require distinct features from consumer services. This includes the ability to schedule music for different days of the week or even parts of the day (“dayparting”) to match different “vibes”—say, a rowdy Saturday night versus a relaxing Sunday brunch. Background music companies also provide “zoning” features for businesses with multiple locations, allowing them to set different music depending on the store or in-store region (e.g., a hotel’s lobby and its bar). Additionally, many businesses require background music to be interspersed with in-store messaging or announcements and may want to filter out explicit song lyrics or avoid repetition. The need for consistency and centralized control means that background music also has unique infrastructural demands, often requiring specialized hardware.

Many of these features have been around for decades, introduced alongside new formats and distribution technologies. The internet proved especially influential around the turn of the millennium with the company Trusonic.31 While limitations in connectivity, speed, and bandwidth initially postponed widespread adoption of the internet, in 1999 Trusonic introduced the MBOX, a hardware device that connected to the internet using dialup or broadband “to receive programming instructions, return play information, and retrieve new audio content if necessary.”32 Rather than streaming music in real time, Trusonic used a process called “store-and-forward”: clients could select and schedule music through a web portal, and the MBOX would then download digital music files and messaging instructions up to once a day and broadcast them into businesses.33 Competing background music providers quickly introduced their own devices, making the internet the new standard for background music.

It was not long before background music providers began to experiment with streaming music in real time. Custom Channels’s Director of Operations, Kurt Oleson, tells me that Custom Channels was “the first music streaming company for business,” initially broadcasting online radio to companies in the early 2000s. This method of music streaming is also often referred to as “internet radio” or “webcasting” because it is non-interactive (similar to early consumer streaming services, such as Pandora). Some businesses continue to use legacy distribution methods like CDs or satellite radio—especially in areas with less robust internet infrastructure—but almost all background music providers have offered non-interactive music streaming since at least the early 2010s. Despite the massive popularity of consumer services like Spotify, on-demand streaming is just now beginning to be implemented in the background music industry. This is partially because many businesses prefer a “set-and-forget” approach, but also due to on-demand streaming’s complex licensing and royalty requirements.

Streaming’s real-time delivery, centralized cloud-based servers, and data-tracking functionality increase the control that businesses have over music compared to physical media or “store-and-forward” downloading. Most B2B providers that use streaming have online software that business owners can access via a browser or smartphone to set music selections, scheduling, zoning, and volume. With streaming, these can be synchronized across multiple locations and updated instantly, as seen with Soundtrack Your Brand’s drag-and-drop scheduling tool in Figure 1.34 Streaming’s centralized approach also allows businesses to monitor where music is being played, view status reports, and determine if there are outages.

Figure 1.

Soundtrack Your Brand’s drag-and-drop scheduling feature.

Figure 1.

Soundtrack Your Brand’s drag-and-drop scheduling feature.

Close modal

Following predecessors like the MBOX, many background music providers also offer optional proprietary streaming hardware (sometimes called “streamers”) used to remotely control what, where, and when music is played.35 Unlike individual listeners, businesses often need to broadcast music reliably and securely in large spaces and potentially even across thousands of locations. Streaming devices can store and cache music files—often hundreds of hours of content—preventing audible gaps or buffering if there are connectivity issues or the internet is unstable. These devices come with a wide range of features designed to accommodate different business types; a small office with a receptionist may be better off with Sirius XM for Business’s device, which has an interface that allows an employee to manually control the stations, whereas enterprises with multiple locations are more likely to want a buttonless device, like Soundtrack Your Brand’s player, which can only be controlled remotely by an administrator.

Streaming’s new distribution features have proven desirable for businesses. Ryan Santangelo, CEO and founder of Dynamic Media—a reseller of both Sirius XM for Business and Soundtrack Your Brand—tells me that Soundtrack Your Brand is driving a lot of new business, claiming that

enterprise accounts we used to fight for are now embracing this new technology because it offers greater value and performs significantly better. The impact of real-time management alone is remarkable. With this technology, you can monitor the health status of your players from anywhere in the world, see the currently playing song, and instantly pause or change the playlist. When I discuss these features with clients using older background music platforms, they become genuinely excited.

But while B2B providers and resellers tout the new technology for its potential to make background music more effective and efficient for businesses, streaming also has troubling implications for social control and power relations. Streaming’s ability to schedule and synchronize music at scale may be convenient for business owners, but as Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook note, background music designed for “fit” rather than customer preferences “aims at shaping the behavior of the shopper in ways required by the retailer” and becomes “something done not with and not for but rather to customers.”36 With streaming, it becomes easier than ever for businesses to impose standardized background music on customers as a way of encouraging consumption, controlling taste, and enforcing social boundaries.37 The centralized control of streaming software and hardware—especially buttonless devices that can only be controlled remotely—also further restricts the agency that employees have over their sonic environment, subjecting them to the decisions of a manager or owner.38 Additionally, the data-tracking capabilities of background music streaming echo concerns raised by scholars about data harvesting and surveillance.39 Although many of background music’s features—and attendant concerns about how they are used to manipulate customers and control the workforce—have been around for decades, streaming offers unprecedented control over how, when, and what music is broadcast. This, in turn, is affecting how B2B providers select music and distribute royalties to artists.

Just as businesses have distinct needs from consumers when it comes to music’s effects and distribution features, they have different requirements for how that music is selected. To be effective, music must match a business’s brand, clientele, and product or service. Moradi tells me that studies she has conducted with Soundtrack Your Brand reveal that “brand-fit” music tangibly increases sales, but playing music that clashes with a brand decreases sales—even more than playing no music at all.40 This is certainly a convenient conclusion for a company whose product is selecting and broadcasting music for businesses, but it does make sense that background music is most effective when congruent with a business’s image (consider, for instance, the cognitive dissonance caused by a luxurious spa blasting extreme metal or a dive bar broadcasting soothing classical music).

Although background music from the Muzak era was designed to be heard but not listened to, many contemporary B2B providers and businesses resist the association of background music with passive listening. Discussing Custom Channels, Oleson says, “I think there’s a balance in what we do between the attentive side and the passive side. We would like people to be as attentive as they are if they’re just listening in their car or something, but we also don’t want it being so forward in their mind that they’re saying ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’” Background music still relies on ubiquitous listening, but how the music is selected—and what that music is—is now changing in response to the new features popularized by consumer streaming services, including playlists and algorithmic recommendations.

The baseline level of music curation that most background music providers offer is pre-made “stations,” collections of songs generally based around themes. Background music providers have offered different options since the 1930s, but these selections have expanded dramatically and are increasingly designed to imitate the playlists of contemporary streaming services, such as Spotify. As with consumer playlists, stations are often themed around particular artists, genres, moods, activities, demographics, and more. A few examples of Soundtrack Your Brand’s stations include “Sweater Weather Pop,” “Dinner and Drinks,” and “Music for Generation Z,” as seen in Figure 2.41 Like radio stations, however, these are non-interactive; a business can select a station but cannot freely pick individual songs within it or the specific order in which they will play. Stations offer businesses a hands-off solution to music selection: all they have to do is select a station that fits their “vibe.”

Figure 2.

A sample of Soundtrack Your Brand’s stations.

Figure 2.

A sample of Soundtrack Your Brand’s stations.

Close modal

In the past, background music stations were all curated by humans. Now, it is common for companies to also use algorithms to offer a wider range of content at a larger scale, paralleling developments in consumer streaming.42 Soundtrack Your Brand, for example, allows subscribers to design their own stations based on a “Sound Tag” system, seen in Figure 3. Users select which tags they desire for their playlist from categories such as “Energy Level,” “Genre,” “Sound,” and “Decade” and a station will automatically be generated.43 Santangelo reflects on his experience using Soundtrack Your Brand’s Sound Tag feature to create a semi-custom station for a large medical client:

The marketing team initially planned to build their own playlists but, due to their busy schedule, they sought my assistance. I asked them to provide their desired audio vibe, and they promptly responded with specific preferences: “We want pop music with the newest releases, medium tempo, and family-friendly content.” Based on this feedback, I selected the Sound Tag parameters “pop,” “latest,” “clean,” and “happy.” Within seconds, the Soundtrack system generated a semi-custom station, which the marketing team previewed and adored. With just two clicks, I deployed the playlist to all their locations. The playlist automatically updates every few days and has been operating autonomously for over a year, and the client loves it.

In the same way that Spotify and other consumer streaming services began implementing playlists and algorithmic recommendations to personalize music selections for individual consumers at scale, background music companies are now using similar technology for business applications. Though certainly useful for businesses, algorithmic music recommenders have been widely critiqued for their opacity, bias, and commodification of consumers; businesses are subject to different concerns than individual listeners, but it is important to acknowledge that these issues are also present within the B2B space.44

Figure 3.

Soundtrack Your Brand’s Sound Tag system, used to generate semi-custom stations.

Figure 3.

Soundtrack Your Brand’s Sound Tag system, used to generate semi-custom stations.

Close modal

Although algorithmically generated background music stations are becoming increasingly common, some businesses—especially large franchises or specialty stores—seek personalized curation services. Many background music providers and resellers, such as Custom Channels, SoundMachine, Soundtrack Your Brand, Mood Media, and Dynamic Media, offer a service where music experts work closely with a brand to establish and maintain a soundtrack.45 Just as the division between human curation and algorithmic recommendation has been a point of contention in consumer streaming, many background music providers are skeptical of relying on algorithms.46 SoundMachine’s CEO Matteo Luppi tells me that

when it comes to our view in B2B, we don’t think that algorithms work that well. We actually think they don’t work at all, to be honest.…There’s no way on earth you can curate for a high-end luxury brand using an algorithm. It just will not work, it’s impossible. You either end up with something that doesn’t make any sense, or you end up with something that’s completely mainstream.…At least that’s our experience. I’m sure there are people out there who will tell you “yes, it can be done,” but the technology that we have used has not worked. Where we see AI helping is in organizing the content that is available, thus helping our music curators find the kind of content they are looking for.

Oleson similarly stresses that all of Custom Channels’s music is screened by a person, uploaded by hand, and coded by music programmers rather than metadata algorithms. He says, “Our business doesn’t rely on a consumer library, we have our own music library. A lot of these other services rely on algorithms to produce these playlists, and they rely on third-party data and libraries, so it’s just a little bit more of a toss-up of what you’re going to get.” Moradi believes algorithms are important for scaling background music but need to be complemented by an understanding of a store’s physical space, claiming that “you can choose the music, you can get the AI to do it quickly, but if you have no idea about the flow and action of the store, the music, according to me, will never match.” In other words, though playlists and algorithms are beginning to play a bigger role in the background music industry, human curation is still valued by many B2B providers and businesses.

In addition to selecting appropriate music, it is also necessary for businesses to have enough content. Because music will likely be playing in a business for hours on end, repetition can become an issue for frequent customers and employees (as anyone who has worked a retail job during the holiday season can attest to). Most background music playlists contain 400 to 600 songs, with a ten percent refresh rate every month (i.e., forty to sixty songs are replaced per month). These new songs used to be uploaded to hardware players through physical media or downloaded on a scheduled basis, but as discussed earlier, streaming now allows these to be updated instantly.

Although it takes too much time and expertise for most businesses to assemble and maintain their own background music, some music-savvy business owners are drawn to the ability to manually create or import their own playlists.47 The control and access that users are now accustomed to with consumer streaming services is beginning to drive change in the background music business: Soundtrack Your Brand’s “Soundtrack Unlimited” subscription tier offers a full-catalog on-demand streaming for businesses and allows users to migrate their existing Spotify playlists, while SoundMachine’s “Business Premium” tier lets users import playlists from services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music.48

These features are only possible due to developments in consumer streaming. Luppi tells me that “there has always been and always will be demand that is driven from innovation that is happening at the consumer level that then moves over into the B2B space.…Creating this level of consumer experience with the features of a B2B solution is what has driven [SoundMachine’s] development over the past three to four years.” Santangelo similarly emphasizes that these features bring commercial background music in line with consumer music services, explaining that “Soundtrack [Your Brand] has bridged the value gap by bringing features that were previously only available in the consumer music space and making them accessible to businesses on their background music platforms.”

To summarize, music selection has been an important part of the background music industry since its inception, but streaming is rapidly changing how that selection takes place. Pre-made stations are increasingly coming to resemble the contextual playlists that dominate mainstream streaming services, and although many companies still offer personalized curation, algorithms are now frequently used to select music at scale. Business owners have come to expect the control and convenience of streaming services like Spotify, leading more B2B providers to adopt the features they have normalized.

Despite being a niche segment of the music industry, background music is currently valued at over one billion dollars, with a predicted growth of several hundred million dollars over the next few years.49 There are, however, significant issues with how background music royalties are distributed; a 2018 study conducted by Nielsen and Soundtrack Your Brand estimates that more than 2.5 billion dollars per year are not being delivered to rightsholders, including artists (results that strategically work in the company’s favor).50 While the economics of consumer streaming services—and especially royalty rates for artists—have been heavily debated in popular and scholarly discourse, background music royalties have been largely overlooked.51 But streaming’s ability to accurately track usage and the widespread illegal use of consumer streaming services for background music are affecting how musicians earn money from the public use of their music.

The licensing and royalty reporting guidelines for publicly broadcast music—including background music—differ markedly from those for personal use. The basic legal framework for playing live or recorded music in public spaces has existed for at least a century in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world (although the details frequently change in response to technological and legal developments).52 Anyone who performs or broadcasts music publicly is legally required to license that music through Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), which are copyright collecting agencies that represent publishers and songwriters.53 PROs can issue blanket licenses to businesses to use music in their catalog; depending on the size and type of business, the costs can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars a year. PROs are then responsible for distributing “public performance royalties” to rightsholders.54 In Canada and the U.S., public performance royalties are only paid to songwriters and publishers, but in many other parts of the world they are also paid to performers and record labels. Additional royalties are required for streaming music: non-interactive music streaming generates “digital performance royalties,” which are handled through the PRO SoundExchange, while on-demand streaming generates “mechanical royalties.”

For small businesses, navigating the labyrinth of music licensing, negotiating deals with PROs, and reporting usage can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. A major benefit of background music providers in Canada and the U.S. is that they can purchase blanket licenses from PROs on behalf of businesses.55 B2B services often have discounted licensing rates with PROs, meaning that it is typically cheaper to subscribe to a background music provider than pay those fees directly as a business. B2B companies are also responsible for reporting usage to the PROs so they can distribute royalties. This service dates back to Muzak in the 1930s; according to Joseph Lanza, “As Muzak spread, musician licensing grew more complicated. It became difficult to keep tabs on when, where, and how often a song was broadcast or played for any kind of public function. Establishments that wished to play music used Muzak to avoid legal tangles with musician and composer unions.”56 Nearly a century later, many businesses continue to rely on background music providers for licensing and reporting.

To accurately report music usage, however, requires a system that can track which songs are broadcast, how many times they are played, and who holds the rights. Historically, this has proven difficult—if not impossible—since legacy distribution technologies can only estimate usage. Luppi claims that

to be able to [report accurately] you need to have a central database. If you’re working as they used to with satellites and CDs, that kind of technology doesn’t even feed information back.…I have a player that can store 15,000 songs but doesn’t give me information about what songs play. There’s no way for that player to feed information back in a timely and organized fashion. That’s exactly how it used to work in the past. [Background music providers] would say, “I’ve loaded that player with 15,000 songs, but I don’t know which songs played more, I don’t know what people like, I have no idea. I just know that I loaded 15,000 songs.”

This is not an issue of the past, either, as many B2B companies continue to supply businesses through satellite radio and CDs.

The inability for B2B companies to accurately track usage leads to widespread underreporting and, in turn, to rightsholders being underpaid. Many artists are completely unaware when their music is broadcast in public spaces, rarely receiving royalties for its use. Sars is confident that most artists are not being compensated from background music, saying, “Ask any artist if they’ve ever, on their royalty statements, seen anything from any of the major providers of background music.…If you find anyone, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”57 Santangelo believes that artists are gradually becoming aware of underreported royalties, suggesting that “there is a grassroots revolution happening among artists now. They are saying, ‘Hey, I know my music is being played in businesses,’ and they are approaching licensing organizations to demand their background music royalty payments. We are witnessing the initial stages of this movement, and issues like underpaid royalties gain momentum quickly within the artist community.”

Unlike previous forms of distribution, streaming can meticulously track what, when, and where a song is played in real time. Usage reports can then be delivered to PROs, which use that information to compensate rightsholders. As Santangelo says, “Streaming is what enables accurate reporting. When music is played from a CD, for example, it is impossible to track how many times the CD has been played, let alone track every song that has been played. However, with streaming, it is now possible to report on every track played.” This system is not perfect—there can be issues with faulty metadata, and this is a massive amount of data for PROs to sift through—but it is significantly more accurate than previous practices.

Music streaming’s potential for reporting usage and generating royalties is relatively new. Many B2B companies continue to operate according to old reporting systems, but Soundtrack Your Brand has been adamant about revamping background music royalties by compensating artists according to the royalty model popularized by services such as Spotify. Sars is highly critical of the legacy background music model, saying,

It’s broken, in my humble perspective. It’s not a functioning flow-through model. It’s an analog manual structure with multiple instances of potential inefficiencies and mistakes, and there’s no transparency. So why not apply the streaming model? It’s transparent—you can think what you want about it and the rate structure, but at least it’s based on paying the artists and the creatives if their art is used. I prefer paying them ten times more.58

Soundtrack Your Brand’s website similarly claims that “performers and songwriters make up to ten times more for each song streamed to a business than when streamed to a home. So, tracking this information is really important to make sure that your favorite artists can keep making the music you love. This is why we’ve built the most ethical music service around. It’s fair-trade music.”59 This appeal for ethical payment is clearly a marketing tactic, encouraging businesses to “do the right thing” by subscribing to the service, but does point to streaming’s ability to accurately track usage and distribute royalties.60

While streaming may result in more accurate reporting than previous methods, it is unclear how equitable the payment rate is. Many scholars have noted that on-demand streaming’s pro rata royalty model—which pools revenue and distributes royalties to artists based on the number of times their tracks have been streamed—disadvantages all but the most popular artists.61 Indeed, consumer streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have been widely criticized for meager payout rates (largely determined by major record labels) that perpetuate longstanding music industry inequalities. B2B services might theoretically generate more royalties through on-demand streaming than consumer services since their higher subscription fees (typically $25–50 per month) would mean that more money per subscription is sent to rightsholders, but this rate still undervalues musicians and reflects the need for a broader structural reform of artist payments—especially on the part of major record labels.62 And, once again, streaming’s royalty system necessitates gathering granular consumer data and therefore raises concerns about surveillance.63 In other words, streaming’s usage tracking is a possible solution to the inaccuracies of background music royalties, but is not without its own serious problems.

Reporting models account for large losses in royalties, but a separate issue is that many small- and medium-sized businesses do not license music for commercial use in the first place. A 2018 study conducted by Nielsen with Soundtrack Your Brand estimates that over twenty million businesses worldwide are not paying for music licenses, resulting in a loss of approximately $2.65 billion in royalties per year.64 In some cases, non-compliance may be an intentional evasion of legal obligations, but it is typically due to a lack of awareness; small business owners are often unfamiliar with their responsibilities when it comes to broadcasting music.65 Oleson claims that “the big stores and big brands definitely know they are open to liability if they don’t [license their music], but if you take into account all of the one-off businesses, there are definitely more that don’t know or don’t care than there are that actually pay a license.” Given the scale of the issue, it is logistically unfeasible for PROs to track down and enforce licensing for millions of small- and medium-sized businesses.

It is not surprising that many businesses have failed to legally license their background music. It is now incredibly easy for business owners to broadcast music themselves; with a smartphone, speaker, and internet connection, any business can use a streaming service like Spotify and have on-demand access to tens of millions of songs. Furthermore, most streaming services already have thousands of ready-made playlists that business owners can choose from, eliminating the need to constantly curate the music. Broadcasting recorded music has never been as cheap, accessible, and feature-rich as in the streaming age, and business owners understandably expect the same degree of functionality from their background music providers. As mentioned earlier, however, the B2B sector has lagged behind the consumer sector. Luppi tells me that

when it comes to small- and medium-sized businesses, our competitors are not really the other B2B services. They are the products like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal. Products that people are familiar with and just think that because they buy the premium service they’re entitled to play in their business.…If you look at the markets, our industry should be probably ten to one hundred times bigger if everyone were to comply. The difference between compliant and non-compliant businesses is huge.

Many B2B music services are now trying to bridge the gap between business and consumer experiences through aforementioned features like algorithmic recommendations, importing playlists, and on-demand access.

Concerns over business owners neglecting their licensing responsibilities predate streaming—businesses have long played their own radios, tapes, and CDs illegally—but the popularity and convenience of consumer streaming services have exacerbated the issue. Moradi claims that “unless you can prove the value of music, people will always choose the cheap music. Radio has always been free. That’s another problem with the music industry: music is always available.” Some business owners also mistakenly believe that paying a subscription to a consumer streaming service grants them the right to use it in any context, even though the terms and conditions indicate that they are only for personal use. As Sars puts it, using a consumer streaming service in a business context is “the equivalent of opening a cinema on your Netflix account.”66

This focus on delinquent businesses conceals deeper structural issues with the record industry by placing blame on small business owners instead of the inequitable conditions established by major record labels and streaming services. The situation recalls debates around the turn of the millennium regarding peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing services such as Napster, in which individuals were targeted for pirating music and blamed for the record industry’s supposed economic crisis. But, as David Arditi notes, “The piracy panic narrative is a rhetorical construct that helps to obscure the material reality of the recording industry by positioning major record labels and their recording artists as the victims of widespread crime in the form of piracy.”67 Just as Spotify “saved” the record industry from consumer piracy, many B2B companies are adopting the same rhetoric to position themselves as saviors of the background music industry.68 Indeed, Sars equates the challenge Soundtrack Your Brand faces in the B2B space with Spotify’s need to be “better than piracy” in the consumer space.69 With this in mind, Soundtrack Your Brand’s aforementioned findings about underreported background music royalties are also a tactic for market expansion, encouraging PROs to go after delinquent businesses so that those businesses are obliged to subscribe to a B2B provider. Artists should undoubtedly be fairly compensated for the public use of their music, but targeting individual delinquent businesses is realistically more advantageous for B2B providers and major record labels than it is for the livelihoods of artists.

In all, the popularity of on-demand streaming in the consumer space has a significant impact on the economics of the B2B background music industry. Streaming’s accurate data tracking may facilitate more equitable remuneration for background music than legacy distribution methods, but its royalty model suffers from the same issues that plague consumer services like Spotify: low payout rates and a data-driven, surveillance-oriented approach to usage and compensation. Additionally, the convenience of consumer streaming services is leading many businesses to stream background music illegally without paying public performance royalties, though B2B providers are attempting to address this by raising awareness and catching up to developments in the consumer sector. Streaming has the potential to expand the background music market and revamp its reporting structure, but it remains to be seen who will benefit most from the transition to an on-demand B2B background music industry.

In many ways, B2B background music providers were precursors to contemporary on-demand streaming services and the listening practices they engender. Companies like Muzak established a music subscription model based on access rather than ownership long before streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.70 B2B providers also helped invent and popularize new distribution technologies and features due to the technical requirements of broadcasting music in businesses. Moreover, background music companies pioneered the widespread use of “mood music” to regulate the affect of customers and workers, foreshadowing the “neo-Muzak” of mood and activity playlists.71 Now the influence is being reciprocated, as advances in the consumer streaming market are reshaping the background music industry.

In that sense, the launch of Soundtrack Your Brand’s on-demand “Soundtrack Unlimited” service in 2020 marked an important moment for the background music industry. Based on his eighteen years of experience in the industry, Santangelo observes that

during technological evolution cycles, we often witness the entry of numerous competitors once a new paradigm is established. What I see here is Soundtrack Your Brand setting a new technological and licensing paradigm. Once these paradigms become established and understood, there will be intense competition in this space. Meanwhile, the outdated models will fade away. Everyone will pursue this new model.

A restructuring of the music industry around streaming has already started taking place in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic’s mandated business closures, which catalyzed the consolidation of many B2B providers and threatened others—including the industry titan Mood Media.72 In the same way that technologies like telephone cables and CDs gradually gave way to satellite radio and digital downloads, on-demand streaming will likely become the new standard for the background music industry.

Streaming represents both continuity and rupture for the background music industry. On one hand, background music providers’ services have remained largely consistent since the 1930s, and streaming is just the latest in a long line of technological developments. On the other hand, streaming’s affordances and the widespread popularity of consumer services are reshaping background music’s distribution features, selection practices, and economics. These changes largely aim to improve business efficiency through increased control and convenience, but also bring with them some of the problems associated with platformization and on-demand streaming. This includes centralized control at an unprecedented scale, increasingly granular data collection, and distribution of royalties based on a potentially inequitable model (though arguably an improvement over the underreporting of legacy distribution models). Similar issues have been widely documented for consumer services such as Spotify, but it is also imperative to consider streaming’s influence where it is less noticeable: in the background.

1.

These three co-founders are well-known figures in the music tech space: Sars (co-)founded Pacemaker, Let’s Mix, and Beats Music (the latter of which was acquired by Apple in 2014, becoming Apple Music); Liffgarden was Global Head of Telecom Business Development at Spotify; and Broms Brosjö was the design director at Beats Music. For the history of Spotify Business and Soundtrack Your Brand, see Jasmine Moradi, host, interview with Ola Sars, “B2B Music Licensing: Stop Giving Away Music for Free as it is Hard Work Done by Artists and Composers,” The Power of Audio + Science + AI with Jasmine Moradi, November 2020, podcast audio, https://open.spotify.com/episode/2oltssChz5uEjkidu0aWRqSu?si=e435124229b34677.

2.

For more on Spotify’s history, see Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars, and Patrick Vonderau, Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Services (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019).

3.

Dorian Derezic, host, interview with Ola Sars, “The Challenges and Opportunities of B2B,” Highway to Scale, February 2022, podcast audio, https://open.spotify.com/episode/6cLmoCmqlEUSoSFL2RfsNP.

4.

There is also a distinct market for live background music, but I will only consider recorded background music in this article.

5.

For the history of background music and Muzak, see Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, 4th ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); and Hervé Vanel, Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

6.

I focus specifically on background music providers in this article. Still, there are other types of B2B music streaming companies, including those that license music for apps or build white-label streaming services for other businesses.

7.

Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this article are taken from interviews I conducted in 2021 and 2022. Quotes and interviewees’ names are used with permission.

8.

Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 25–26; and Vanel, Triple Entendre, 18. In early twentieth-century France, Erik Satie became one of the first composers to explicitly write background music for live performers with his musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”). See Vanel, Triple Entendre, 10–45.

9.

Vanel, Triple Entendre, 18.

10.

David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in Recorded Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 95.

11.

For more on Muzak’s history, see Lanza, Elevator Music; Vanel, Triple Entendre; and Mood Media, “The History of Muzak,” 2022, https://moodmedia.com/en/blog/inside-mood-media/history-of-muzak/.

12.

A timeline of Muzak’s business and technological developments from 1922 to 2022 can be found on Mood Media’s website. Curiously, digital downloads and streaming are absent. See Mood Media, “The History of Muzak.”

13.

Muzak introduced its own foreground music service powered by Yesco, “FM1,” and rebranded its traditional background music as “environmental” music. Muzak and Yesco merged in 1987. See Mood Media, “History of Muzak.”

14.

Muzak originally offered only three channels; now many background music providers offer hundreds of stations.

15.

Some B2B providers continue to produce their own music to avoid licensing fees, but this is uncommon.

16.

Theodor W. Adorno, “Music in the Background,” in Essays on Music, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, [ca. 1934] 2002), 508.

17.

Eleanor Selfridge-Field, “Experiments with Melody and Meter, or the Effects of Music: The Edison-Bingham Music Research,” The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (1997): 291–310; and Tony Grajeda, “Early Mood Music: Edison’s Phonography, American Modernity and the Instrumentalization of Listening,” in Ubiquitous Musics: The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice, ed. Marta García Quiñones, Anahid Kassabian, and Elena Boschi (London: Routledge, 2013): 31–48.

18.

A few representative examples include Charles Chebat, Claire Gélinas Chebat, and Dominique Vaillant, “Environmental Background Music and In-Store Selling,” Journal of Business Research 54, no. 2 (2001): 115–23; Robert E. Milliman, “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers,” Journal of Marketing 46, no. 3 (1982): 86–91; and Richard Yalch and Eric Spangenberg, “Effects of Store Music on Shopper Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Marketing 7, no. 2 (1999): 55–63.

19.

See Paul Allen Anderson, “Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood,” Critical Inquiry 41, no. 4 (2015): 822–23; Lanza, Elevator Music; and Jonathan Sterne, “Sounds Like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space,” Ethnomusicology 41, no. 1 (1997): 22–50. For more on the use of music in the workplace, see Marek Korczynski, “Music at Work: Towards a Historical Overview,” Folk Music Journal 8, no. 3 (2003): 314–34.

20.

See HUI Research and Soundtrack Your Brand, “The Impact of Music in Restaurants,” 2018, https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1643727401-soundtrack_impact_of_music_report.pdf; MRC Data and Soundtrack Your Brand, “Background Music: The Untapped Promotional Avenue for Music,” October 2021, https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1646216407-soundtrack_your_brand_2021.pdf; and Nielsen and Soundtrack Your Brand, “The Hidden Value in Music for Business,” 2018, archived at https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1649674832-soundtrack-the-hidden-value.pdf. Other reports can be found at https://www.soundtrackyourbrand.com/research/.

21.

A few examples include Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook, “Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go? A Critical Consideration of the Consumer Culture,” Consumption, Markets, and Culture 11, no. 1 (2008): 24–43; Tia DeNora, After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 118–50; Simon C. Jones and Thomas G. Schumacher, “Muzak: On Functional Music and Power,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 9, no. 2 (1992): 156–69; and Jonathan Sterne, “Sounds Like the Mall of America.” For a more ambivalent consideration of Muzak’s role in society, see Ronald M. Radano, “Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life,” American Music 7, no. 4 (1989): 448–60.

22.

Adorno, “Music in the Background,” 507.

23.

Anahid Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

24.

Tia DeNora, “Music as a Technology of Self,” in Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 46–74; and Mack Hagood, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

25.

Lanza, Elevator Music, 68–132 and 167–82; and Jennifer Messelink, “Mood Albums,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 33, no. 3 (2021): 45–49. For more on mood music and its relation to class and gender, see Keir Keightley, “Music for Middlebrows: Defining the Easy Listening Era, 1946–1966,” American Music 26, no. 3 (2008): 309–35; and Rebecca Leydon, “The Soft-Focus Sound: Reverb as a Gendered Attributed in Mid-Century Mood Music,” Perspectives of New Music 39, no. 2 (2001): 96–107.

26.

Arild Bergh and Tia DeNora, “From Wind-Up to iPod: Techno-Cultures of Listening,” in The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. Nicholas Cook, Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, and John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 102–15; Michael Bull, Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2000); and Hagood, Hush.

27.

Streaming services have also led to renewed interest in ambient music, which often functions as background music. See Andy Cush, “Inside the Ambient Music Streaming Boom,” Pitchfork, March 25, 2022, https://pitchfork.com/features/article/is-the-ambient-music-streaming-boom-helping-artists/.

28.

See, for instance, Christina Baade, “Lean Back: Songza, Ubiquitous Listening, and Internet Music Radio for the Masses,” Radio Journal 16, no. 1 (2018): 9–27; and Robert Prey, “Background by Design: Listening in the Age of Streaming,” Naxos International 1, no. 1 (2019).

29.

Anderson, “Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood,” 816, 824. Similarly, Marie Thompson and Eric Drott argue that contextual playlists on streaming services reflect music’s function as a “technology of social reproduction,” used as a form of care to maintain daily life. See Marie Thompson and Eric Drott, “Music Is Still at Work Even If Musicians Aren’t: Care, Reproduction, Crisis,” Working in Music (blog), October 8, 2020, https://wim.hypotheses.org/1430; Eric Drott, Streaming Music, Streaming Capital (Durham: Duke University Press, 2024), 193–234.

30.

David Hesmondhalgh, “Streaming’s Effects on Music Culture: Old Anxieties and New Simplifications,” Cultural Sociology 16, no. 1 (2021): 1–22; Sofia Johannson, Ann Werner, Patrick Åker, and Gregory Goldenzwaig, Streaming Music: Practices, Media, Cultures (Milton Park: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017); and Liz Pelly, “The Problem with Muzak: Spotify’s Big to Remodel an Industry,” The Baffler, December 2017, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-problem-with-muzak-pelly?src=longreads.

31.

Trusonic began as the business division of MP3.com, an early music-sharing website that shut down in 2003. Trusonic was acquired by the Canadian company Fluid Media Networks in 2007, which then acquired the European-based background music provider Mood Media in 2010. Fluid Media Networks took over the mantle “Mood Media Corporation.”

32.

Avaya, “AudioSonic MBOX® Product Manual,” archived by the Internet Archive on September 25, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20100925213018/http://magic-on-hold.com/manuals/avaya-audiosonic-user-manual.pdf.

33.

For more information about Trusonic’s services and features at the time, see Trusonic, “Trusonic: Total Control of Music and Message,” archived by the Internet Archive on December 5, 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20041205083044/http://www.trusonic.com/.

34.

Screenshot from Soundtrack Your Brand’s “Scheduling Playlists and Stations” video. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjN2r_WN9Lw&.

35.

Many B2B providers also have partnerships with other hardware companies. Deals with speaker companies, like Sonos, are especially important because they allow a seamless integration of the B2B software and streaming device with a business’s sound system.

36.

Bradshaw and Holbrook, “Must We Have Muzak,” 30.

37.

Sterne, “Sounds Like the Mall of America,” 41–45; and Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 111–12.

38.

A recent study using Soundtrack Your Brand’s app indicates that when employees have control over a business’s music, it negatively impacts sales. The study concludes that managers should educate employees on brand image and limit their ability to choose in-store music, but it neglects to consider how music is being used as a mechanism of control. See Sven-Olov Daunfeldt, Jasmine Moradi, Niklas Rudholm, and Christina Öberg, “Effects of Employees’ Opportunities to Influence In-Store Music on Sales: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 59 (2021): 102417.

39.

Eric Drott, “Music as a Technology of Surveillance,” Journal of the Society for American Music 12, no. 3 (2018): 233–67; Martin Scherzinger, “The Political Economy of Streaming,” in The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture, ed. Nicholas Cook, Monique M. Ingalls, and David Trippett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 274–97; and John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

40.

HUI Research and Soundtrack Your Brand, “The Impact of Music in Restaurants.”

41.

Screenshot from Soundtrack Your Brand’s “An Introduction to Soundtrack” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJUUweDqJ4Y&.

42.

For more on the human curation and algorithmic recommendation, see Nick Seaver, Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022); Tiziano Bonini and Alessandro Gandini, “‘First Week Is Editorial, Second Week Is Algorithmic’: Platform Gatekeepers and the Platformization of Music Curation,” Social Media + Society 5, no. 4 (2019): 1–11; Eric Drott, “Why the Next Song Matters: Streaming, Recommendation, Scarcity,” Twentieth-Century Music 15, no. 3 (2018): 325–57; and K. E. Goldschmitt and Nick Seaver, “Shaping the Stream: Techniques and Troubles of Algorithmic Recommendation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture, ed. Nicholas Cook, Monique M. Ingalls, and David Trippett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 63–81.

43.

Employees manually tagged thousands of songs to train the algorithms, a practice resembling Muzak’s “quantum modulation” system and Pandora’s “Music Genome Project.”

44.

Robert Prey, “Nothing Personal: Algorithmic Individuation on Music Streaming Platforms,” Media, Culture & Society 40, no. 7 (2018): 1086–100; Nick Seaver, Computing Taste; and Georgina Born, Jeremy Morris, Fernando Diaz, and Ashton Anderson, “Artificial Intelligence, Music Recommendation, and the Curation of Culture,” white paper, 2021, https://841.io/doc/cifar-ai-music.pdf.

45.

There are also separate audio branding companies, such as Epidemic Sound, Studio Orca, and Music Concierge, which often work on jingles, advertising music, and more.

46.

For more on attitudes toward algorithmic recommendation, see Nick Seaver, Computing Taste.

47.

One restaurateur I spoke with informally told me he used to spend hours each day updating the Spotify playlist for his restaurant but was skeptical of B2B providers because he found their music selections too generic.

48.

SoundMachine uses its own licensed digital audio files and third-party playlist converters, such as Soundiiz, to recreate the playlists on its service. For legal reasons, these playlists need to meet certain criteria for length, and not all songs will be able available based on licensing agreements. More details can be found at https://sound-machine.com/blog/2022/04/04/easily-import-spotify-playlists-to-soundmachine/.

49.

Many market insights on background music are freely available online. See, for example, Verified Market Research, “Background Music Market,” July 2022, https://www.verifiedmarketresearch.com/product/background-music-market/. Sars calculates that on-demand streaming could grow the background music market by as much as $30 billion to $40 billion, though these projections are self-serving. See Ola Sars, “Can This Swedish Entrepreneur Unlock $40 Billion in New Money for the Music Business?” interview by Tim Ingham, Music Business Worldwide, April 4, 2023, https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/podcast/can-entrepreneur-unlock-40-billion-in-new-revenue-for-the-music-business/.

50.

Nielsen and Soundtrack Your Brand, “The Hidden Value in Music for Business.”

51.

For more on streaming’s economic impact on artists, see Eric Drott, “Fake Streams, Listening Bots, and Click Farms: Counterfeiting Attention in the Streaming Music Economy,” American Music 38, no. 2 (2020): 153–75; David Hesmondhalgh, “Is Music Streaming Bad for Musicians? Problems of Evidence and Argument,” New Media & Society 23, no. 12 (2020): 3593–615; and Lee Marshall, “‘Let’s Keep Music Special. F—Spotify’: On-Demand Streaming and the Controversy over Artist Royalties,” Creative Industries Journal 8, no. 2 (2015): 177–89.

52.

Russel Sanjek, American Popular Music and its Business: The First Four Hundred Years: Volume III: From 1900 to 1984 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

53.

Each country has its own PROs, and regulations and rates may vary. Some PROs are not-for-profit, including ASCAP and BMI, while others are for-profit, such as SESAC. For a history of PROs, see Cyril Ehrlich, Harmonious Alliance: A History of the Performing Rights Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

54.

The amount of money generated from public performance royalties varies based on the PRO. Public performance royalties are also collected for the use of music on TV, radio, social media platforms, consumer streaming, and many other sources. Additional licenses are also required when music is a primary function of a business, such as fitness classes or karaoke. Some exceptions exist for physically small businesses. For more on public performance royalties, see Donald S. Passman, All You Need to Know About the Music Business, 10th ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 225–31.

55.

In other parts of the world, businesses need to acquire these licenses themselves but can still hire a B2B service for music selection and broadcasting.

56.

Lanza, Elevator Music, 45.

57.

Samantha Hissong, “Stores are Misusing Background Music and It’s Costing the Recording Industry Billions,” Rolling Stone, August 18, 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/universal-licensing-deal-background-music-usage-soundtrack-your-brand-1045465/.

58.

Moradi, “B2B Music Licensing.”

59.

Soundtrack Your Brand, “Can You Play Spotify in Your Business?” March 1, 2022, https://www.soundtrackyourbrand.com/guides/can-you-play-spotify-in-your-business/.

60.

A study Soundtrack Your Brand conducted with MRC Data indicates that most younger customers care about fairly compensating artists. See MRC Data and Soundtrack Your Brand, “Background Music.”

61.

Drott, “Fake Streams”; Hesmondhalgh, “Is Music Streaming Bad for Musicians?”; and Lee Marshall, “Let’s Keep Music Special.”

62.

For example, music industry analyst Glenn Peoples indicates that for a $50 monthly subscription to Soundtrack Your Brand, roughly $25 goes to record labels, and $6 is divided among publishers and PROs (whereas approximately $7 of a $10 consumer subscription goes to rightsholders). See Glenn Peoples, “Analysis: How Soundtrack Your Brand Can Boost Artist Payouts with Retail Royalties,” Billboard, October 16, 2020, https://www.billboard.com/pro/soundtrack-your-brand-retail-music-royalties/.

63.

Drott, “Music as a Technology of Surveillance”; Scherzinger, “The Political Economy of Streaming”; and Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data.

64.

Nielsen and Soundtrack Your Brand, “The Hidden Value in Music for Business.”

65.

Anecdotally, many local businesses I informally surveyed were using Spotify and did not know about their licensing requirements.

66.

Jeff Peterson, host, interview with Ola Sars, “Episode 18: Bringing the Beats with Ola Sars,” Interstate of Music, February 2022, podcast audio, https://open.spotify.com/episode/2KjVsWS9vY5zcieJkRGsgw.

67.

David Arditi, “Downloading is Killing Music: The Recording Industry’s Piracy Panic Narrative,” in Civilisations 63, no. 1 (2014): 14. See also Martin Scherzinger, “Toward a History of Digital Music: New Technologies, Business Practices and Intellectual Property Regimes,” in The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture, ed. Nicholas Cook, Monique M. Ingalls, and David Trippett, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 33–47.

68.

For more on how Spotify constructed a narrative of overcoming piracy—despite having its roots in piracy—see Eriksson et al., Spotify Teardown, 31–67.

69.

Moradi, “B2B Music Licensing.”

70.

Before pivoting to background music for businesses, Muzak (originally Wired Radio) was a subscription service that delivered music to individual homes through telephone cables. For more on how streaming’s subscription model facilitates “unending consumption,” see David Arditi, “Digital Subscriptions: The Unending Consumption of Music in the Digital Era,” Popular Music and Society 41, no. 3 (2018): 302–18.

71.

Anderson, “Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood.”

72.

Mood Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020, leading to a restructuring of the company. See Mood Media, “Mood Media Restructuring,” 2020, archived by the Internet Archive on July 17, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200717053834/http://www.moodmediarestructuring.com/.

Adorno
,
Theodor W
. “Music in the Background.” In
Essays on Music
,
commentary and notes by Richard Leppert
. Translated by
Susan H.
Gillespie
.
Berkeley
:
University of California Press
[
ca. 1934
] (
2002
),
506
10
.
Allen Anderson
,
Paul
. “
Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood
.”
Critical Inquiry
41
, no.
4
(
2015
):
811
40
.
Arditi
,
David
. “
Digital Subscriptions: The Unending Consumption of Music in the Digital Era
.”
Popular Music and Society
41
, no.
3
(
2018
):
302
18
.
Arditi
,
David
. “
Downloading is Killing Music: The Recording Industry’s Piracy Panic Narrative
.”
Civilisations
63
, no.
1
(
2014
):
13
32
.
Attali
,
Jacques
.
Noise: The Political Economy of Music
. Translated by
Brian
Massumi
.
Minneapolis
:
University of Minnesota Press
,
1985
.
Avaya
. “
AudioSonic MBOX® Product Manual
.”
Archived by the Internet Archive on September 25, 2010
. https://web.archive.org/web/20100925213018/http://magic-on-hold.com/manuals/avaya-audiosonic-user-manual.pdf.
Baade
,
Christina
. “
Lean Back: Songza, Ubiquitous Listening, and Internet Music Radio for the Masses
.”
Radio Journal
16
, no.
1
(
2018
):
9
27
.
Bergh
,
Arild
and
Tia
DeNora
. “From Wind-Up to iPod: Techno-Cultures of Listening.” In
The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music
. Edited by
Nicholas
Cook
,
Eric
Clarke
,
Daniel
Leech-Wilkinson
, and
John
Rink
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
(
2009
),
102
15
.
Bonini
,
Tiziano
and
Alessandro
Gandini
. “
‘First Week Is Editorial, Second Week Is Algorithmic’: Platform Gatekeepers and the Platformization of Music Curation
.”
Social Media + Society
5
, no.
4
(
2019
):
1
11
.
Born
,
Georgina
,
Jeremy
Morris
,
Fernando
Diaz
, and
Ashton
Anderson
. “
Artificial Intelligence, Music Recommendation, and the Curation of Culture
.”
White paper
.
2021
. https://841.io/doc/cifar-ai-music.pdf.
Bradshaw
,
Alan
and
Morris B.
Holbrook
. “
Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go? A Critical Consideration of the Consumer Culture
.”
Consumption, Markets, and Culture
11
, no.
1
(
2008
):
24
43
.
Bradshaw
,
Alan
,
Pierre
McDonagh
,
David
Marshall
, and
Harry
Bradshaw
. “
‘Exiled Music Herself, Pushed to the Edge of Existence’: The Experience of Musicians Who Perform Background Music
.”
Consumption Markets & Culture
8
, no.
3
(
2005
):
219
39
.
Bull
,
Michael
.
Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life
.
Oxford
:
Berg Publishers
,
2000
.
Chebat
,
Charles
,
Claire
Gélinas Chebat
, and
Dominique
Vaillant
. “
Environmental Background Music and In-Store Selling
.”
Journal of Business Research
54
, no.
2
(
2001
):
115
23
.
Cheney-Lippold
,
John
.
We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves
.
New York
:
New York University Press
,
2017
.
Cush
,
Andy
. “
Inside the Ambient Music Streaming Boom
.”
Pitchfork
.
March
25
,
2022
. https://pitchfork.com/features/article/is-the-ambient-music-streaming-boom-helping-artists/.
Daunfeldt
,
Sven-Olov
,
Jasmine
Moradi
,
Niklas
Rudholm
, and
Christina
Öberg
. “
Effects of Employees’ Opportunities to Influence In-Store Music on Sales: Evidence from a Field Experiment
.”
Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services
59
(
2021
):
102417
.
DeNora
,
Tia
.
After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
,
2003
.
DeNora
,
Tia
.
Music in Everyday Life
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
,
2000
.
Derezic
,
Dorian, host
.
Interview with Ola Sars. “The Challenges and Opportunities of B2B.”
Highway to Scale
.
February
2022
.
Podcast audio
. https://open.spotify.com/episode/6cLmoCmqlEUSoSFL2RfsNP.
Drott
,
Eric
. “
Fake Streams, Listening Bots, and Click Farms: Counterfeiting Attention in the Streaming Music Economy
.”
American Music
38
, no.
2
(
2020
):
153
75
.
Drott
,
Eric
. “
Music as a Technology of Surveillance
.”
Journal of the Society for American Music
12
, no.
3
(
2018
):
233
67
.
Drott
,
Eric
.
Streaming Music, Streaming Capital
.
Durham
:
Duke University Press
,
2024
.
Drott
,
Eric
. “
Why the Next Song Matters: Streaming, Recommendation, Scarcity
.”
Twentieth-Century Music
15
, no.
3
(
2018
):
325
57
.
Ehrlich
,
Cyril
.
Harmonious Alliance: A History of the Performing Rights Society
.
Oxford
:
Oxford University Press
,
1989
.
Eriksson
,
Maria
,
Rasmus
Fleischer
,
Anna
Johansson
,
Pelle
Snickars
, and
Patrick
Vonderau
.
Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Services
.
Cambridge
:
MIT Press
,
2019
.
Goldschmitt
,
K. E.
and
Nick
Seaver
. “Shaping the Stream: Techniques and Troubles of Algorithmic Recommendation.” In
The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture
. Edited by
Nicholas
Cook
,
Monique M.
Ingalls
, and
David
Trippett
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
(
2019
),
63
81
.
Grajeda
,
Tony
. “Early Mood Music: Edison’s Phonography, American Modernity and the Instrumentalization of Listening.” In
Ubiquitous Musics: The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice
. Edited by
Marta García
Quiñones
,
Anahid
Kassabian
and
Elena
Boschi
.
London
:
Routledge
(
2013
),
31
48
.
Hagood
,
Mack
.
Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control
.
Durham
:
Duke University Press
,
2019
.
Hesmondhalgh
,
David
. “
Is Music Streaming Bad for Musicians? Problems of Evidence and Argument
.”
New Media & Society
23
, no.
12
(
2020
):
3593
615
.
Hesmondhalgh
,
David
. “
Streaming’s Effects on Music Culture: Old Anxieties and New Simplifications
.”
Cultural Sociology
16
, no.
1
(
2021
):
1
22
.
Hissong
,
Samantha
. “
Stores are Misusing Background Music and It’s Costing the Recording Industry Billions
.”
Rolling Stone
.
August
18
,
2022
. https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/universal-licensing-deal-background-music-usage-soundtrack-your-brand-1045465.
HUI Research and Soundtrack Your Brand
. “
The Impact of Music in Restaurants
.”
2018
. https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1643727401-soundtrack_impact_of_music_report.pdf.
Johannson
,
Sofia
,
Ann
Werner
,
Patrick
Åker
, and
Gregory
Goldenzwaig
.
Streaming Music: Practices, Media, Cultures
.
Milton Park
:
Taylor & Francis Group
,
2017
.
Jones
,
Simon C.
and
Thomas G.
Schumacher
. “
Muzak: On Functional Music and Power
.”
Critical Studies in Mass Communication
9
, no.
2
(
1992
):
156
69
.
Kassabian
,
Anahid
.
Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity
.
Berkeley
:
University of California Press
,
2013
.
Keightley
,
Keir
. “
Music for Middlebrows: Defining the Easy Listening Era, 1946–1966
.”
American Music
26
, no.
3
(
2008
):
309
35
.
Korczynski
,
Marek
. “
Music at Work: Towards a Historical Overview
.”
Folk Music Journal
8
, no.
3
(
2003
):
314
34
.
Lanza
,
Joseph
.
Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong
, 4th ed.
Ann Arbor
:
University of Michigan Press
,
2007
.
Leydon
,
Rebecca
, “
The Soft-Focus Sound: Reverb as a Gendered Attributed in Mid-Century Mood Music
.”
Perspectives of New Music
39
, no.
2
(
2001
):
96
107
.
Marshall
,
Lee
. “
‘Let’s Keep Music Special. F—Spotify’: On-Demand Streaming and the Controversy over Artist Royalties
.”
Creative Industries Journal
8
, no.
2
(
2015
):
177
89
.
Messelink
,
Jennifer
. “
Mood Albums
.”
Journal of Popular Music Studies
33
, no.
3
(
2021
):
45
49
.
Milliman
,
Robert E. Milliman
. “
Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers
.”
Journal of Marketing
46
, no.
3
(
1982
):
86
91
.
Mood Media
. “
The History of Muzak
.”
2022
. https://moodmedia.com/en/blog/inside-mood-media/history-of-muzak/.
Mood Media
. “
Mood Media Restructuring
.”
2020
.
Archived by the Internet Archive on July 17, 2020
. https://web.archive.org/web/20200717053834/http://www.moodmediarestructuring.com/.
Moradi
,
Jasmine, host
.
Interview with Ola Sars. “B2B Music Licensing: Stop Giving Away Music for Free as It Is Hard Work Done by Artists and Composers.”
The Power of Audio + Science + AI with Jasmine Moradi
.
November
2020
.
Podcast audio
. https://open.spotify.com/episode/2oltssChz5uEjkidu0aWRqSu?si=e435124229b34677.
MRC Data and Soundtrack Your Brand
. “
Background Music: The Untapped Promotional Avenue for Music
.”
October
2021
. https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1646216407-soundtrack_your_brand_2021.pdf.
Nielsen and Soundtrack Your Brand
. “
The Hidden Value in Music for Business
.”
2018
.
Archived at
https://www.datocms-assets.com/57355/1649674832-soundtrack-the-hidden-value.pdf.
Accessed May 4, 2023
.
Passman
,
Donald S. Passman
.
All You Need to Know About the Music Business
, 10th ed.
New York
:
Simon & Schuster
,
2019
.
Pelly
,
Liz
. “
The Problem with Muzak: Spotify’s Big to Remodel an Industry
.”
The Baffler
.
December
2017
. https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-problem-with-muzak-pelly?src=longreads.
Peoples
,
Glenn
.
“Analysis: How Soundtrack Your Brand Can Boost Artist Payouts with Retail Royalties.”
Billboard
.
October
16
,
2020
. https://www.billboard.com/pro/soundtrack-your-brand-retail-music-royalties/.
Peterson
,
Jeff, host
.
Interview with Ola Sars. “Episode 18: Bringing the Beats with Ola Sars.”
Interstate of Music
.
February
2022
.
Podcast audio
. https://open.spotify.com/episode/2KjVsWS9vY5zcieJkRGsgw.
Prey
,
Robert
. “
Background by Design: Listening in the Age of Streaming
.”
Naxos International
1
, no.
1
(
2019
).
Prey
,
Robert
. “
Nothing Personal: Algorithmic Individuation on Music Streaming Platforms
.”
Media, Culture & Society
40
, no,
7
(
2018
):
1086
100
.
Radano
,
Ronald M
. “
Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life
.”
American Music
7
, no.
4
(
1989
):
448
60
.
Roquet
,
Paul
.
Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self
.
Minneapolis
:
University of Minnesota Press
,
2016
.
Sanjek
,
Russel
.
American Popular Music and its Business: The First Four Hundred Years: Volume III: From 1900 to 1984
.
New York
:
Oxford University Press
,
1988
.
Sars
,
Ola
. “
Can This Swedish Entrepreneur Unlock $40 Billion in New Money for the Music Business?
Interview by Tim Ingham
.
Music Business Worldwide
.
April
4
,
2023
. https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/podcast/can-entrepreneur-unlock-40-billion-in-new-revenue-for-the-music-business/.
Scherzinger
,
Martin
. “The Political Economy of Streaming.” In
The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture
. Edited by
Nicholas
Cook
,
Monique M.
Ingalls
, and
David
Trippett
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
(
2019
),
274
97
.
Scherzinger
,
Martin
. “Toward a History of Digital Music: New Technologies, Business Practices and Intellectual Property Regimes.” In
The Cambridge Companion to Music in Digital Culture
. Edited by
Nicholas
Cook
,
Monique M.
Ingalls
, and
David
Trippett
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
(
2019
),
33
47
.
Seaver
,
Nick
.
Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation
.
Chicago
:
University of Chicago Press
,
2022
.
Selfridge-Field
,
Eleanor
. “
Experiments with Melody and Meter, or the Effects of Music: The Edison-Bingham Music Research
.”
The Musical Quarterly
81
, no.
2
(
1997
):
291
310
.
Soundtrack Your Brand
. “
Can You Play Spotify in Your Business?
March
1
,
2022
. https://www.soundtrackyourbrand.com/guides/can-you-play-spotify-in-your-business.
Sterne
,
Jonathan
, “
Sounds Like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space
.”
Ethnomusicology
41
, no.
1
(
1997
):
22
50
.
Suisman
,
David
.
Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in Recorded Music
.
Cambridge
:
Harvard University Press
,
2009
.
Thompson
,
Marie
and
Eric
Drott
. “
Music Is Still at Work Even If Musicians Aren’t: Care, Reproduction, Crisis
.”
Working in Music
(
blog
).
October
8
,
2020
. https://wim.hypotheses.org/1430.
Trusonic
. “
Trusonic: Total Control of Music and Message
.”
Archived by the Internet Archive on December 5, 2004
. https://web.archive.org/web/20041205083044/http://www.trusonic.com/.
Vanel
,
Hervé
.
Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus
.
Champaign
:
University of Illinois Press
,
2013
.
Verified Market Research
. “
Background Music Market
.”
July
2022
. https://www.verifiedmarketresearch.com/product/background-music-market.
Yalch
,
Richard
and
Eric
Spangenberg
. “
Effects of Store Music on Shopper Behavior
.”
Journal of Consumer Marketing
7
, no.
2
(
1999
):
55
63
.