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For a discerning music fan such as John Lute, the only thing worse than being stuck in the elevator of an office tower, is being forced to listen to Muzak while trapped inside.

"If it's supposed to make the time pass faster, it had the opposite effect on me," Mr. Lute, a Bay Street communications adviser, said of an ordeal many years ago when he was trapped in an elevator. "It felt like I was in solitary confinement for about a week."

Such ordeals may soon be consigned to history.

On Tuesday, Muzak Holdings LLC - the makers of the ambient instrumental music that has been a staple of elevators, supermarkets and the waiting rooms of thousands of dentists for 75 years - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid efforts to refinance its heavy debt load. Like videotapes and CDs, Muzak's music is in danger of being reduced to irrelevancy by the digital age. The Fort Mill, S.C., company is struggling to find audiences for its unobtrusive, watered-down versions of pop songs in a changing world where video screens are omnipresent, everyone is plugged into iPods and retailers are signing lucrative deals to play and promote the latest Top 40 hits.

Although Muzak is best known for its elevator music, in recent years the company has shifted its focus toward music-related services, such as designing playlists and installing sound systems in retail stores.

"I've worked in this industry and in downtown office buildings for many years and I don't recall when it [Muzak]was last in use, quite frankly," said Steven Sorensen, a vice-president at real estate development firm Cadillac Fairview Corp. who is responsible for Toronto's TD Centre tower.

Office towers are increasingly turning to video screens with scrolling news feeds to entertain elevator passengers - many of whom couldn't hear the Muzak over their iPods if they wanted to.

Many of those video screens are supplied by Captivate Network, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in what it calls "digital out-of-home news." The company has 8,700 screens in more than 830 office towers across North America, including 169 buildings in Canada between Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.

Muzak's offerings were once so prevalent in elevators that the company's name became synonymous with the term "elevator music."

One of the first pop songs to receive the Muzak treatment was Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1984. Today, Muzak works with retailers to create specialty channels that is says convey a certain feel. Retailers choose the artists, styles and eras of music they believe define their brand and Muzak's "audio architects" then take that data and build the list into a sequence to be played through the retailer's sound system.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in Delaware, claiming total debts of between $100-million (U.S.) and $500-million and assets of just $50,000, its court filing says.

With a report from The Associated Press

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