Perfect Sound Forever


A comedic foray into the nebulous heart of 'Hold Music'
past, present, real, imagined
by Domenic Maltempi
(June 2009)

Hold music has been cheaply cheated of its own account as many ancillary things are. No matter. I had become slightly infatuated with listening to hold music as a way of not bringing attention to the fact that I had little work to be done. Sometimes one just needs to feel busy for themselves... to avoid fatigue, or something like that. I wanted to find the best hold-music around.

It was a busy day feigning work in the office. I was dialing numbers, looking for the worlds, or at least North America's 'Best Hold Music.' What criteria would I use? Did it make a difference? I must abandon the idea of the best, but rather collect worthy sonic swatches of what had always sounded to me like bloated carcasses filled with hard candy that had never known sweetness. Witches getting it on with cheaply taped mummies... Hold music....looking for it, evaluating it, judging it professionally, wondering about its future, having it travel through me with its lazy gait, and crispy waylaying. I cottoned to this untidy but fetching idea fast, and began dialing, and dialing. My boss must have thought me filled with the holy-smoky business-dove-meat-spirit-early-bird-special that week.

I began dialing and holding, or hoping to hold, to listen, to evaluate, to try to evaluate something very often impervious to any sort of evaluation due to its mystifying stiffness. Hold music was a place I needed to visit that none of the carriers were offering anymore. Would that place be impervious to my visitation volleys? Writing about hold music in some sort of critical way is akin to drowning a colony of enormous Pacific Island monarchs in the skimpiest shoals, or reciting Herman Melville's Civil War poetry in some rapt and inimitable eructative feat of feats in front of a chamber of time traveling traumatized noble ladies from some long expired Chinese Dynasty.

I began dialing and dialing. This was harder than I thought. I kept getting real people, or was left stranded on the phone line with no music at all. REAL PEOPLE, no hold music, beeps, voids, REAL PEOPLE, courteous, horribly crisp and courteous. No more direct operator pick ups! Please, for fuck's sake send me to a different department! I wanna speak to a goddamn manager! I would begin saying anything, confecting the droopiest excuses just to get a tiny spoonful of hold music. A transfer, I needed a transfer. My desperation, my yearning, my pathetically miniaturized joy-exhalations, was beginning to match, to find its corollary in the very idea of writing 'hold music' criticism itself.

What solace it would be to wait accompanied by some sort of overly vacuumed sound, odoriferous of no particular genre or anti-genre, or spuriously genre-bending torsion, some sonorous squeaking air pumped with a few plashes of mildly distasteful keyboard sounds, rounding themselves into a torpor. I called 1800-FlOWERS. They must be busy. It's Holiday time. I can count on them to PUT ME ON HOLD. PUT ME ON HOLD MOTHERFUCKER. The crazy thoughts conceded to the more pacific zany thoughts, then the reverse.

Dialing..... pickup, and after the perfunctory English or Spanish Selection instructions, a static hum of operator-wind blowing opened my weakened senses. An affable guy (we will call him Rodger) finally answers my call. Desperate, not knowing if I would ever hear any hold music. I had been at this for ten solitary, intense, ennui gargled, mid-afternoon office minutes! I ask Rodger if he would please let me listen to the hold music. No answer. I said it in a flat, earnest voice. I really wanted to hear it. I did not want to gag a fellow working person like Rodger. He must have heard something different, as he asked me to spell 'Hold Music.' Rodger wanted me to be an angry customer named Hold Music I suppose, demanding where my order was, or at least in need of some sort help with flowers. Did I not like my flowers? Did a potential girlfriend eat them, and make herself vomit in my Datsun necking citadel? No. He would have no such luck. Amazingly, after realizing that I had spelt 'hold music,' and after asking again to listen to this hold music, he sent me to that long pined for place for exactly ten seconds. It was enough. It is in fact the recommended sample time as per Hold Music Critics of North America (HMCNA.) When I returned, he asked me if I wanted to order flowers. Specifically he said: "Hope that was ok, now, do you need flowers?" I told him, no, no, not flowers, not today."

Meaningless Star Rating System: ****

Over-Easy pizzicato insouciance, wafting itself over effortlessly through the listening devices of people with Fragrant Freesia, or Distinguished Delphinium, or other flowers, racing through their mind, appearing on lists in scrawled or gorgeous hand.... 1-800-Flowers Hold Music ultimately does not stand up to some of the more original Hold Music quelling the nerves of callers today, being played on certain Hold Lines in Helsinki, or the current bastion of overrated trendy hold music, Ivory Coast (sorry Francophonos!). Its sonic anchoring in Iberian faux classicism is no more or less than Jerry's Kids taffy stuck in the pathetic haircut of poorly appropriated and particularly shoddy 'world element heads.' These sounds neither improved my sagging posture, nor assuaged my debt savaged state of impatient aggressive snappishness. Everything is a little too eye patch germ on sourdough. It's all consummately half-assed, but only in the ways that don't add up to anything worth while.

We are just beginning our trespassing into this thicket of sound, and all its possibilities. Stay with us children. Wrap your cold fingers in ours.

It became the antithesis of Muzak: it became hold music that was to be given private plaudits and praise. Was this true? I scribbled the above with a fading green sharpie on a lampshade I was throwing away. I'm wondering if any garbage collectors read it and pondered the trajectory of hold music, its beginnings, its spanky one legged adolescence, its ductile young-middle age and pretend or not pretend maverick advancing middle age.

On-hold music sprung from the silvery nostril hairs of Muzak. Most commentary on mood or background music that this company is famous for and whose name is synonymous with is filled with scorn, flippancy, or amusement. Dwight D. Eisenhower was no friend of the military industrial complex, but he sure was chummy with Muzak, introducing it to the White House. Can you imagine JFK having this shit ripped out of the joint as soon as he got his key just as Ronald Regan would order the solar panels stripped off the roof of the white house that Mr. Carter had put on? The idea of Muzak would eventually wend itself into new tributaries to form among other things the world of on-hold music during the early 1970's with its introduction to the retail industry. This industry had become much more reliant on phone sales or the telephone in general during this time. Hold music's primary function was most certainly to soften the impatience of callers who might end up being just a lost dollar to the company. The concern at this point, or the strategy, was not to feed the lightly enthralled call waiter with marketing messages, or company information. The older systems employed reel-to-reel tape players and cassettes for that delightful loop of gruel and blah. There were no pretensions or claims of sweeping musical diversity, empowered branding possibilities, or the deception of sanctified consumer agency and 'choice' being exercised, just boring-ass instrumental ships launching forlornly again and again.

Rating ****

I call. A person greets me with: "It's a beautiful day in Alabama." I already knew this fact, miles away in Long Island, NY, home to Lou Reed and Ralph Macchio. I wasn't sure, but my conceit was correct. This was the number for the Alabama tourism department. I hung up, unsure about how to get this (most likely bored stiff soul) to put me on hold so I can water my sensory apparatus with their hold-music goodies. I call again quickly. It rings for six gelatinous turns, the supine voice returns with the same muddy-orange Omni-optimistic assertion: "It's a beautiful day in Alabama." I knew this Christ all-mighty, and went on with my mission unperturbed by the possibility of it being proven in any appellate court and its delicious appellate water.

Here was my surreptitious path towards hearing the aural-sunshine behind the line: "Oh, this is the line for tourism in Alabama. I wasn't sure if I had the wrong number before, or if my phone is seriously broken. I just got this phone from my Uncle before he died (He was from Birmingham, damn me, I never made it there,) and I heard some god awful sounds coming from this dead uncle's phone before. That couldn't be you're hold music could it? Did you put me on hold before? I'm really sorry to bother you mam, but would you please put me on hold to see if my dear uncle's phone is broken?

Eureka! It fucking worked. She said yes. I was there packing my bags to the sound of the place that would be a place soon, to me, to me. I almost buckled up in my swivel chair, preparing myself for who knew what! But I was not out of the briar patch yet. Trepidation skipped rope around my nerve HQ. There was no music to be heard! There was just prattle about being a teacher in Alabama, great opportunities to buy a 'winter home' in Opp. It was talk, promotional talk! Any second the woman would return me back to Egypt so to speak, and out of the underworld where Pharaohs play catch with spry Anubis clones, and make love as the hold music creates the conditions to sustain a pleasing sensual ostinato, acting as a cusping-orgasm with durability.

Then it came, the hold music, a nubile saint with creamy skin, saponaceous, exiting her warm candle lit bath at eleven PM on a beautiful winter night. It surprised me.... Gaelic gilded auto-harp softening its southern wings, not so much on a loop, but a lullaby string being yanked teasingly, taut and soothing. I was not able to identify the other string instruments employed, but it all added up to the shape of a rising ethereal fan. Thank you 1-800 Alabama! Here was a hold music that beckoned you to believe in the revitalizing power of place. Evocative of glowing embers dueling just above the soft brown ground gracefully, peaceful as dead mosquito's levitating to mosquito heaven, a possible contender for the top 10! I knew where this was going, nowhere, and was enraptured by a freedom that can't ever feel like the tricks of an impossible freedom.

The history or lack of any real history or account of hold music in particular is easy to understand. There is something about pre-recorded or background music that rebuffs any type of concerted narrative, or soothes into debilitating lassitude any forays attempted towards one. Would there be a time when one would be put on hold waiting to dispute a fraudulent charge on their credit card, and find that they were upset that the hold music had ceased? Yes! There must be hold music that would have you asking the perplexed customer service person to put you on hold again to try to find out what the tune was, or stemmed from. Yes, it was difficult to find any account of hold music in and of itself. Perhaps the very idea of such a thing is too dull to contemplate. But I have seen historical or quasi historical accounts of more banal subjects from academics or magazine writers. I mean, aren't there scholars writing dissertations on the power of broken furniture in Don Dellillo novels or something? Okay, maybe my topic is not so achingly straining for a dubious unchartered angle as that... but.... I wish I was that old proverbial fly on a cream colored royal blue striped wall. I can see my antennae twitching perfervidly, witnessing the first caller to be put on hold for an extended period of time hearing the very first on-hold music. Were they reassured that they were still connected by hearing what might be something approximating a type of life-support-system music, or just quickly rattled by an experience that grew around them as a gauzy holding pen mummifying rather than mollifying their frayed if not fried patience? It surely must have had a different effect than simply walking into a select hotel circa1938 where that Muzak stuff was swirling about the lobby, masking the naked footsteps. It was no longer a background music that you most likely would listen to with others in a scarred art deco elevator cab, but one which you alone heard with perhaps a voice thanking you for calling every three minutes or so.

There were no speaker phones for the average Jane back in the early 70's. One would just have to cradle that neck-cramping little bitch to their ear till the hold music stopped. This was embryonic hold-music. It was far different from what one would hear now with the all digitized On-Hold Marketing Messages, to use the current parlance, with custom scripts for business's and rampant specialization of services. Far had the concept and technology behind Muzak traveled from its uses in the early forties, where it would be used to buoy morale in factories producing war items, playing Sousa stomps to the dedicated day and night shifters!

The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line at 1-800-BUTTERBALL
Plump and Juicy holdy-holdy or the same old moldy treacle?
A lesson in Hold-Music imaginary onanism *******

I begged the nice woman to put me on hold. It was the old familiar for this experienced hold-music critic (Licensed 2002-2009.) She refused to give me hold, she refused with that species of politeness born of not knowing what else to fucking do, as well as a perfunctory 'I'm being monitored for quality assurance... sticking to the script-ness of it all.'

I tried the usual ploys, rolled out the safe and daring chestnuts, sallied forth with my no-bad-feelings trickery... Butterball... wait, wait a sec... I just need to answer this other phone; would you please put me on hold for a second? I've been waiting so long, but I have to take this, and I don't want you hear it, please. I need to speak to you. Would you wait? My other phone is on the fritz, and I'm not sure if it's your phone or.....

"No sir, I'll just hold the line. I'm not putting you on hold."

I felt as if a pantheon of personal heroes had been assassinated in front of me and my imaginary child who I was just then exhorting to follow the example of these incredibly brave men and women from the ages.

"But you don't understand Miss. Something is wrong with my phone. I'm not sure if what I'm hearing, this noise... is my phone or if I am being continually/accidently placed on your hold.... Wait Darla, please. Miss, please; I don't want you to hear this, place me on hold for just a minute, please, it's personal. Do you have hold music at Butterball? I'll be fine. Trust me.

I said 'hold' so many times, it was turning me on, and I think her. Would she budge me into Young Turkey Hold Paradise? Was Paradise always something hopelessly past even when spoken of as if it's some impossible future?

"I don't think so. What do you want me to do sir? I'm not clear on why you want me to put you on hold."

At this point, the operator had clearly been winded with my confusing sprints down the hold-music track. Not clear? Was I enshrouding my wish in some goopy ambiguity that had never been felt before? I answered her question minus anymore spacey meandering.

"I just want to listen to you're hold music for a few seconds. I'm writing a piece for about America's best hold music. I'm a music critic."

Would she believe me?

(A manager seems to be now listening in on the line, as I hear concerted breathing, two distinct breathing styles, one much more obstreperous, possibly male?)

No one was really buying any of this. It seemed I would have more success talking a serial killer into buying me a kitten for my birthday. The turkey talk line didn't feel like syringing my smack today. It was post thanksgiving after all, and the Ball-line wasn't getting tapped with customers looking for 'fun ideas.'

Well, I called back about five minutes later. This time I got 'Melony.' She sounded as sweet as a falling star of cooling molasses from a jolly firmament. Would she be ready to whisk this caller to that Butterball hold music sweet spot? I ask the usual questions; fiddle the same finagling string, suffused with the same nervous faux confusion that will hopefully disarm the customer care person into giving into my flighty request. Melony agrees to put me on hold, and I hear the click, and get ready for it all!

Here it is; A hold-music resplendent of a stirring string section that could empty the viscera of the stoutest miser and turn him/her into an angel of flurrying rises and falls of the most golden rapt sound. Amen! All of this unorthodox sound is not disturbingly gridded in some truncating slicer of sound prison. The hold piece is arranged richly by a mad and misunderstood maestro behind the Butterball Hold Music Orchestra, Dinali Moskowitz. It begins in a somber but sobering vein, with atmospheric orchestral strings.

The first movement, shrouded in quizzicality, is brilliantly sustained. The solo line transits over laudably, not least when engaging in sad dialogue with dark lower woodwind. A gutsy Butterballish Scherzo follows. Yes! A fucking scherzo! At last, hold music not shorn of scherzo. The prolonged cadenza is superbly executed and the jaunty closing Burlesque is sibilantly played. All in all, an exciting, beautifully put together bit of hold music, the kind that makes you forget the line you were holding on, let's you walk on it blindfolded and panting.

(Sadly, this was all just a hold music fantasy. 1-800-BUTTERBALL has no hold music. I might be wrong. I certainly tried. At the end, only my imagination barricaded me between a nasty snap of apoplexy.)

The song: "Now I can die, so fuck your hold-music," plunged into my flagging spirit. It was a song I had written about three years ago with the hope of having the vocals recorded while listening to various companies or entities hold music. My band mate and I always tried to create a musical home for these refugee lyrics, but we never did for many reasons. It was his idea to attempt this writing mission. We will call him 'Q.' Q began leaving hold music on my voice mails. Some of the hold music was extraordinarily awe inspiring qua hold music. How could they make hold music that really sounds like the ideal 2nd tier airport smoking room in a make believe Caribbean island? I knew 'Q' was sending me 'hold music,' because of the reassuringly dry peppermint rubbed voice that periodically dipped into the fabric of the HM, thanking one for patience, or loyalty, or reminding us to smile, or cut our nails, to maximize our time like a healthy 21st century Auto-Taylorist.

I imagined hold music as more of a place, no doubt an uncomfortable antechamber that still managed to pacify some minor beast dipping its nose in one's bucket. An antechamber where one will certainly not run into Beetle Juice or Popeye's third wife Stephanie, sitting around in a fidgety somber mood, stealing old magazines. Instead, in this most unhallowed of places, one would find a fictional someone that might resemble Pavarotti's dead bastard son Gambi, a dullard of amorphous contours craving the all you can eat $7.99 special of starched gummy pip-popped anti-music, dangling his new Payless shoes in a tub of reproduced Dutch Slush.

(An Aside)

1-800-712-5000 (The Reward Center...promotional deals...from 'branded' companies you can trust) -----Crap, not a note of hold to be had... A big stream of fatuous advertisements masquerading as 'help' for consumers in these tough economic times. How much longer will 1-800 numbers last anyway? I know it's not the same question as, 'how long will hold music be with us,' as if we were talking about something in the realm of the eschatologically tricky. Calling one of these toll-freebies, and getting routed into voice menus, has obviously pushed many people to go to a website first (some sites certainly do have a kind of hold music.) There's got to be some sort of teetering point, where companies won't pay out the dough for keeping these 1-800 lines...the whole industry is probably immanently doomed. On-line hold music is not hold music. It has the trappings, but it's a prostituted imitation. You don't feel....can you apprehend that feeling that even though you are waiting all alone on that phone line, following the trail of bread crumbs which are each bit of sound from the HM toward wherever, that you are not alone? You are somehow waiting however remotely, with others when you are on hold and there is music. The other holders are tapping into you in a way beyond anyone's ken....

Today many companies around the world not only will pipe music or news into your business or less likely your home, or provide the soundtrack for all you're customer service woes or highs. They will also install sounds systems for your business, or promotional music that joins the corporate phalanx of other techniques aimed at branding. The technological genesis of piped-in, or as the Brits might still call it Lift-Music, may be traced to the brain and fiery blood of a two star general named George Owen Squier. That's correct... the same old Squier who was the world's first airplane passenger (1908-Wright Brother Flight lasting nine minutes!) The word Muazk was not in public circulation till 1934, the year the technology really had its chops and mettle tested. As I write this, the company Muzak is filing for bankruptcy. The mood-music slathering machine's growth could not keep pace with its debt. Oh familiar bane in this comeback era of the banksters and their people! Let's see if Muzak gets through this crucible on its 75th anniversary.

Florida State Drug Facts - Call 1-800-468-6933 Florida State Drug Facts
(No Hold Music...but I Rate it anyway ***)

Much like there is no paradisal phone sex garden where the tree of good and evil Hold music shelters a horny little slither-star of the nether-heat; there is no hold music to be heard when you call the Florida State Drug Facts hot line. Yes, I tried to tease and wheedle my way to the velvety ropes of this HM, but guess what? There are only 'beeps' to be heard when one is put on hold. BEEPS! Yeah, I need to die now! Beeps, fucking beeps, beeps, beeps... Which leads me to believe that one is not put on hold for too long on this line...

What kind of a junkie, pot head, coke fiend, pill blizzard shovel tongue, is going to tolerate the heart beat shrinking, throat constricting b-dumbp-b-dumbp of quick beep blurties spaced two seconds or so apart? I certainly made the woman on the other end of the line chuckle a bit. She was not in the least confused, did not question herself on if FSDF did or did not have hold music.

Did it ever...? When did it stop Rachel? Can you tell me that? I was an in-patient about two years ago. Then I got released. When a relapse might come stampeding or crepitating back; I would constantly call this number with fear in my heart, and coke dripping off my girlfriends ears, and would always end up sitting cross legged, and with almost total restless peace in you're hold-music forecourt. While there, waiting, listening, all that hair metal air guitar arpeggios I could have begged for showed up to shoe my pulsing nomad's feet with its progressively taut mix of lowly hummed junkyard vocals, and battery operated skinny tie balladry. When did you guys ditch it? Please tell me Rachel. I could tell you who made that hold music for you guys back during that time, if you want to bring it up at the next breakfast meeting or something.

It was produced by Serbia Willsnackonyou, who is also known for his work on several Tummyscum albums. Serbia captured the Florida State Drug Facts Ensemble at their best. Keeping the guitar arpeggios in complete tight form among layers of vocals and occasional synth pads that did not batter a phone-holder into a sudden deep dish of waffle-mush before actually speaking to someone. I remember. It was easy on the ears, padding the seconds. Now what? Now what do you have? A beep, a circulating beep, no longer fragments of epical HM squirting the fetid doxa out of you're febrile brainmash.

Sure... one finds much information about how companies dealing in hold music such as the very successful Yesco, turned its back on the background, and its attention to foreground music. It is in the later 1980's when this foregrounding hold-music becomes prevalent, that you start seeing stories about companies that deal in hold music pop up. Attempt a search engine query on the topic or look for a book or periodical or something like that, and you will mainly just turn up web pages for the many businesses offering among other services, 'On-Hold Marketing Messages,' or something about Muzak. I called a few companies dealing with this business in the hopes of chancing on some guru of all things hold-music. Where was the dude or lady who might delight my ears and budding fascination with a wonderful oral account of how hold music went through some enigmatic metamorphosis in 1978 or 1985, who would lavish me with the fascinating and sociologically studied attitudinal shifts towards it adapted by consumers over the years? Where was that wizened and crazy bastard that had been waiting in some remote customer service underground chamber waiting for the one who sought to cull his or her impossibly rich tale? Where the hell are you freaks!

I did speak to a very kind woman from a company called On-Hold Marketing & Communications. She co-founded this company back in 1994. I was told that the industry had radically changed since she had been in the business. Like most other industries, the service offered had to be boldly customized in this ever growing niche market. Those that were looking for a service that provided something just a bit more gussied up than dead silence were not necessarily turned away, but hardly engaged with. What companies such as the aforementioned dealt with more widely was small of large businesses offering more than just one product or service. These businesses had at least 15 minutes a day where customers are placed on hold. The kind lady at OHM&C even reported the occasional fellow who was in his truck all day for business using his cell phone, who wanted a professionally scripted voice giving information or soliciting the caller about their business alternating with music that had some sort of affinity with the product or service or perhaps the person or people behind it.

Designer Dog Nail Polish: 1-800-226-3784

Would there be a correlation in 'great' hold music with a more grotesque or bizarre product(s) for sale? My grand hope would be that first and foremost, hold music existed somewhere on this line, I could access it, and that my utopian dream of finding a hold music somehow reflective of the 'idea' or product(s) associated in my mind with this line would be heard. I sucked down some decaffeinated green tea, tremulously dialing 'Canada Drugs.' I must make clear that I did not know of the companies name prior to dialing. I was only sure that this company dealt in, among other things, designer dog nail polish. I pushed one for English, and found myself being introduced to Joey. I quickly asked him about the Designer Dog Nail Polish. Bemused, he had me repeat what I was looking for as I scrambled for an excuse to be put in a hold orbit hopefully strewn with cocksure hold-music candy that would redound just enough on some central station of music gravity to swallow the tedium that usually quickly nibbles one's stamina up in an ordinary hold situation.

I needed no excuse to pull bull on this friendly Canuck in order to get to some HM. He needed to transfer me to a very real department entitled Pet Drugs Affiliated. I asked him if I should expect hold music in the transferring process. He assured me that although I should expect hold music, the brevity of this imposition would not buffet my nerves into week old rancid soup, or as he put it, 'it will just be a second.' I soured and sighed, digging into my derma with my unpainted human nails in ferocious impatience with the world, and a German philosophical resignation as cold as any suicidal two day old bath water.

Thank the stars for the Joey's of the world being wrong every now and then. I was on hold for a sample time of just over forty precious seconds. The hold music encountered was gold-cobwebbed classical backstroke swimming in a floating attic of just barely attainable earthly nirvana. Two currents dominated the sound. A very dulcetly and moon creamed piano part elevated one's sense of equanimity and assured them of their well being not being a play thing of some overly rouged angry six legged goddess. The other current pulled you downwards with a very standard but well recorded stringed instrument...possibly harp. It would be easy to castigate this experience as just the pitifully all too expected sounds of the same tiring hold music circa 1982. I refuse to do so. This HM piece spoke of our highest human aspirations, and though the tritone which medieval theorists called "the devil in music" haunts the work, it still defiantly keeps us readied for the next operator, jolting us out of our fashionable pessimism of the moments, telling us that we're still capable of great things. The music always starts and ends before the music starts or ends if it ends.

Your humble writer hopes that he has at least opened one's mind a bit more to whatever hold music you encounter on you're life's journey, or at least while waiting to dispute a bogus late charge.

Did you know that...?

* 70% of calls placed to most business' are placed on hold for some period of time.

* 60% of those callers will hang up within 1 minute, with most not calling back.

* Radio play while your callers are on hold is not only illegal, but your customers may be hearing commercial advertisements for your competitors while on hold!

This writer would be gladdened to hear about any interesting hold music you have come across...
Please click the e-mail link below to contact me.

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