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Songs to Shop By: Years of Kmart Background Music posted on the Internet

In the 70s Lily Tomlin had a lot of great one-liners in her act including “I fear that the man who thought up Muzak is thinking again.” But these I days, I wonder if Lily ever has to go to the supermarket or the mall or even an elevator and whether she likes the music being played there better now?

In the last decade most stores and businesses have replaced old-fashioned shopping music with satellite radio channels that pump out the latest hits. So as Lily reaches for that pint of half-and-half, does she enjoy the castrato screechings of Justin Bieber or the emo stylings of…I dunno, whoever that is I hear whining in Safeway all the time.

Well, if like me, you have a soft place in your heart for Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” played by a clarinet and strings, with nary a guitar to be heard, then you might be happy to discover that archive.org has provided a place for collectors of Muzak memories to share their goods with the rest of us.

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Former K-Mart employee Mark Davis has uploaded his wonderful and bizarre collection of commercial-use-only cassette tapes to the web. Made by a company called Tape-Athon, the cassettes contain background music and promotional messages to shoppers designed to be played over the K-Mart stores’ speaker systems. Later another company, Tower Sound & Communications, brought a slightly younger, hipper sound to the music. As Davis himself explains on his page “Attention K-Mart Shoppers” on the archive.org site:

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I worked for Kmart behind the service desk and the store played specific pre-recorded cassettes issued by corporate. This was background music, or perhaps you could call it elevator music. Anyways, I saved these tapes from the trash during this period…The older tapes contain canned elevator music with instrumental renditions of songs. Then, the songs became completely mainstream around 1991. All of them have advertisements every few songs.

In 2014, Davis digitized the entire collection to 320 MP3. Now the 56 cassettes have a home online. For more of the background story, Davis has posted a video about his collection. And breaking news! As I wrote this, Davis found and posted a 3 hour Kmart Reel to Reel from 1988.

Sadly, for me at least, the really retro instrumental music from Tape-Athon makes up only a small part of the collection before it shifts over to bland 90s pop of the Bruce Hornsby and the Range variety. Still, there are some nifty highlights: Kmart Pharmacy Spots from May 1988; the heady excitement of Kmart Dutch Boy Paint Vendor Messages; and the not to be missed Kmart 30th Anniversary Program!

But mostly the tapes are song-song-ad-song-song-ad. In college sociology classes in the 80s, I remember suspicions discussions where we theorized that under that velvety blanket of orchestral strings, advertisers had secreted subliminal message to buy more, more, more! But no, the ads as well as the music are pretty tame. Innocent even, by today’s standards.

So the collection may not be exactly a blast from the past; more like a snore from yore. But Davis has done us all a great service by sharing this often overlooked bit of commercial-art history.

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5 thoughts on “Songs to Shop By: Years of Kmart Background Music posted on the Internet

  1. Prof. Mitch says:

    Thanks Eagles, Good link! It’s kinda amazing the way this story is breaking out all over. Davis must be a gobsmacked.

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