#musicatwork – Part 2: Consumption Music

The first part of this post collated music that soundtracked work activities. I differentiated ‘work songs’ from ‘workplace background music’. The lines drawn between these categories are a bit blurry in traditional oral cultures but, since the ‘workplace’ as such is strongly associated with industrial capitalism, they still (ahem) work. Once recorded music comes along, and we move more into white collar work, things start to get a bit messier. Though there might remain strong differences between company and worker, the dividing line between production and consumption definitely starts to fade. The company song and the corporate anthem are songs about working environments, for instance, but aren’t exactly a worker’s reflection on that work. Indeed, they seem to encourage workers to consume the idea of the company and the idea of work.

The production/consumption division also gets muddied from the other side as well, with music being an important gelling agent in retail and hospitality spaces, or circulating in intra-industry circles to strengthen a brand, for instance. The below brings together ways in which music is put to work to aid the process of buying and selling, alongside a quick survey of popular ‘songs about work’ – that is songs that comment on the nature of work more critically while themselves being offered up for consumption – or, in a pleasing return to the times of the Light Programme, played on the radio in the office background.


III. Music while you shop

Background music or atmospheric music works for consumers as much as workers. This could be in shops, where ‘retail density’ is affected by musical ‘tempo and intensity’, according to one marketing psychology paperHere’s another article analysing the explanations of musical effects offered by those working in hospitality. The PPL offers plenty of inspiring videos about how the consumer experience is enriched by music, such as this one:

Related to this is the vast sea of hold music. The largest supplier of this is Applied Media Technologies Corporation, which specialises in ‘business music, messaging and sound products’ (their contact page gives a phone number but I haven’t checked out their hold music yet). The industry body the On Hold Messaging Association (who are not as famous as they should be) suggest that hold music can ‘build or reshape your company image’ and ‘shorten perceived hold times’. The most famous piece of hold music is undoubtedly ‘Opus Number One’ from Cisco’s CallManager system – of which Cisco’s PR team are themselves disappointingly aware, although Wikipedia reliably informs us that the composer has ‘yet to make any money or pick up any chicks’ from his track.


IV. Songs about work

In oral traditions, songs particularly about industrial work often had a bitter, critical tenor – these were commentaries on working life, rather than songs to work to, like Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch magazine in 1843…

…and echoes of which found their way into songs like ‘I’m a Working Chap’.


The tradition finds more militant expression in the songs associated with trade unions. The most famous of these is Joe Hill, the song named after the organiser of the Industrial Workers of the World. Paul Robeson (himself also well-known for his activism) sings it here:


It is also found in the Internationale (written after the Paris Commune and later becoming the national anthem of the Soviet Union), with its spirited opening lines, ‘Arise ye workers from your slumbers…’


Workplace airspace may be filled with mainstream radio but there are radical critiques (and rejections) of work to be found in popular music too. Dolly Parton’s 1980 album ‘9 to 5 and Odd Jobs’, for instance, with its famous title track not the only criticism of the inflexible strictures of the organisation – particularly in relation to women’s roles.


In the 1980s, British counterparts seemed to call explicitly for a politics of anti-work:


Meanwhile, the allusions to sex work in being a ‘working girl’, a ‘pro’, is by no means lost – and figures in several instances, which seem to bring out the implications of work in a hypersexual culture of a libidinal economy:


Perhaps most jarring and symptomatic, finally, are musicians making tracks that explicitly draw on the aesthetic banality of hold music and sonic logos; or drawing attention to the disjointed and melting digital-physical collapse of working from home:


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