Twas the month of December and all through the shops the scholars were preparing a Seeburg Christmas History.
It may be true that big box retail stores are getting smaller, and the concept of malls or giant department stores is becoming less important. There was a time when these establishments were where one would go to get holiday gifts and everyday necessities. I start this way because this article is about a part of that experience that many of us take for granted. The quiet, often purely instrumental, slow and calming background music that nearly all shops and stores play while we buy our goods.
We now think of the term “muzak” as a style of music, but it was really the name of a company that started in the 1930s. Muzak got its start producing original background music for businesses that was sold for commercial use. The company was the first known business entity to produce exclusive music for businesses. Much of their music consisted of down tempo re-arrangements of classical music and instrumental recordings of popular songs. Their music became so popular that “muzak” wound up in the English vernacular as a generic term for the style of music the company produced.
Alongside Muzak, another company named J.P. Seeburg was happily making its money on early coin operated jukeboxes, orchestrions and phonographs. These were also used to provide tavern and office music. These folks managed to invent a unique, mechanical derivative of the phonograph in 1959 called a Background Music System 1000. The BMS1000 used special 16-2/3 RPM vinyl records within an enclosed metal cabinet measuring 22 inches wide by 14 inches tall by 12 inches deep. It was so called because it played both sides of 25 records, each side containing 20 songs (hence 1,000 songs) and then recycled through them again continuously. This system was so reliable, and so affordable that it became nearly ubiquitous amongst offices, restaurants, retail businesses, factories and similar locations. If you went into a mall or a department store in the 60s, 70s or 80s you were almost certainly listening to a BMS1000.
Now you are wondering where this giant history lesson is going. I promise you I will tie it together in just a moment.
The Seeburg company quickly realized that since it seemed to corner the market on background music players they needed to also make the music these machines would play as there was now a considerable market for it. They struck a deal with Capitol Records where much of the music was recorded and employed an assemblage of L.A. studio musicians to produce the music they would rent. Yes, I said RENT. Even though everything was recorded in mono, it was superb, well-done music. The records were then distributed quarterly in boxes of seven with instructions that each record is to be returned to Seeburg after use. Upon return, the records were destroyed. They also supplied a holiday box every December. These albums are highly sought after today as they were never made available to the public in any way.
When I think of Christmas music, the sounds of that background music being played in the malls and department stores is what I think of, which is how this all ties into the holidays themselves. As you can imagine, the company amassed a huge catalog of music and did produce one true holiday album. “The sound and color of Christmas”. This album was provided as a promo to owners of an existing machine or to prospective buyers of a new Seeburg machine.
All good things tend to wane and fade into history, so too did the Seeburg company which went out of business after being sold to Stern Electronics in 1982.
I have so many fond memories of wandering the malls, Woolworths, Sears and JCPenney stores with my mother on the hunt for that perfect gift while enjoying the lovely decorations and music. Now you know where it came from.