By ED GEBERT

Times Bulletin news writer

egebert@timesbulletin.com

You've spent week after week listening to dozens of renditions of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as you shop. But now that Christmas is over, retail stores all over the country are returning you to your regularly scheduled background music.

It used to be simply called "elevator music". Lots of violins and soft horns, occupying the minds of shoppers with instrumental versions of songs old and new. That industry has grown since those days, and background music in retail establishments come in all shapes and sizes, often designed to define the image of a business.

The big name in background music is still Muzak. As you walk the aisles at the Van Wert Marsh store, that's Muzak you hear, although it is much more contemporary. Mike Tipps, store manager, said that the corporate office gives him three different channels of music to choose from. "We like the ones with singing, so people don't fall asleep out here," he joked.

Across the street at Tractor Supply Company, Roger Shubert said that he also has three channels to pick from, but his choices are much different. At TSC, you're more likely to hear Toby Keith and Tim McGraw than Rod Stewart and Elton John. That's because TSC customers are generally more likely to relate to country music than Top 40 pop. "We're a niche shopping destination," Shubert pointed out.

The Muzak website lists 50-65 different music channels which can be purchased for broadcast in retail stores. Depending on the store's target demographic, a large variety of musical styles can be dialed in - from swing and jazz to salsa and hip-hop.

Still, in the conservative midwest, most businesses opt for music that is enjoyable (or at least tolerable) to most people, and above all, safe and non-offensive.

Some companies have taken the next step. At Big Lots, the background music comes straight from corporate headquarters in Columbus. It's the same idea at Wal-Mart, although in the morning hours a DJ hosts the music which is broadcast to Wal-Mart stores all over the country.

Company-run music stations occasionally feature commercials, although at Wal-Mart the commercials play on the video screens rather than the music channel.

Even Muzak feeds can have an occasional "word from the sponsor." Tipps noted that at Marsh, a short ad will play every 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it is a Marsh commercial, but usually it is an ad for one of the products carried at the supermarket.

The days of elevator music are gone, but the presence of background music is still felt and appreciated by shoppers everywhere.