Austin Gives Music On Hold a Novel Spin
By Travis Putnam Hill
Call Austin Energy or any other city department, and you’re likely to be put on hold before someone answers. A recorded voice will thank you for your patience, and then you’ll hear music intended to ease the tedium of the wait.
But it won’t be the generic elevator music callers typically hear. It will be local music, brought to you by the City of Austin’s Music on Hold program.
Whether you’re waiting to talk to the mayor or report aggressive coyotes to 311, you’ll hear a rotating playlist of low-fidelity recordings by Austin musicians. It’s an inventive, albeit oblique, approach to promoting local music.
Austin’s program is unique in the world of on-hold music, says Rich Moncure, principal of On Hold Marketing, a firm based in Richmond, Virginia. One sticking point: Callers aren’t told who the bands are, let alone that they are local.
“There ought to be a note in the form of a spoken voice telling people that they’re listening to local artists,” said Moncure. If the city isn’t telling callers who they’re listening to, he added, then “the only one benefiting seems to be the City of Austin.”
Music on Hold isn’t new—it’s been around for at least 10 years, though nobody seems to know exactly when it started. Yet the service may be in store for an update as city leaders look for ways to reinvigorate the local music industry as it faces rising rents and stagnating pay. The program isn’t going to solve these problems, but a few tweaks, some believe, could yield a quick, low-cost support for struggling musicians.
“We’re happy that we’re able to do this and showcase musicians in this way,” said Stephanie Bergara, music program coordinator in the music and entertainment division of the city’s Economic Development Department, which manages Music on Hold. “It’s a great program, and it’s a surprising thing that I think people are happy to find out about.”
She says the music office does not spend any of its budget on Music on Hold. It costs only staff time.
The on-hold playlist consists of about 900 songs by more than 400 artists in genres as diverse as soul and conjunto, though most of the music is of the steel-string-guitar strumming, singer-songwriter variety. The recordings include Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The list also features lesser-known acts such as MilkDrive, which calls itself “Austin’s progressive acoustic quartet,” and blues guitarist Al Monti, who installs hardwood floors for a living.
All of the music currently on the playlist was submitted by the artists or copyright holders to Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the music in public places coordinator, or the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. Going forward, Bergara says, the city will adjust its usage policy to reflect the changes in music licensing practices since Music on Hold got its start.
Considering the lack of public information about the program, even frequent callers to the city would be forgiven for not knowing it existed.
Even featured musicians don’t know about it. “I wasn’t even aware of the program, to be honest with you,” said Monti, who plays live a couple of times a month with his group, the Al Monti Band.
Not every musician is in the dark, however. Celebrated Tejano artist Ruben Ramos once told Bergara that he heard his songs on the on-hold music.
According to Bergara, Toronto is considering emulating the program with its own local music. The Canadian city and Austin maintain a partnership in which they share information and best practices to support their music industries.
“I think Toronto was impressed by the way that we were able to take music from Austin and implement it into this program,” Bergara said. She noted that Toronto intends to borrow other Austin programs, such as live local music to kick off City Council sessions.
The City of Austin doesn’t know how many hours people log waiting on hold and thus listening to the music. But the communications office recently told Bergara that callers spent nearly 40,000 hours on the phone with the city in March. At least some of that time was on hold.
Bergara and others who work in the city’s music office are unsure how Music on Hold started, but it may have been conceived at the airport.
In the early 2000s, Nancy Coplin was in charge of booking bands at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. She also curated the music on the intercom system. Bands that played at the airport would submit their music for the intercom playlist. At some point Coplin—she doesn’t quite remember when—started sending CDs with the playlist over to the music office so it could be added to the on-hold service.
By default, Coplin, who now runs her own consulting and marketing business, was charged with vetting the music that would appear on hold. Since the music would, in a sense, be forced on people, the songs had to adhere to certain standards: “No profanity. Good quality songs,” Coplin said. Hip-hop and free jazz didn’t make the cut.
Despite city efforts, a few songs with curse words or salty themes have slipped through, and some citizens have complained.
Gary Luedecke, an audio consultant for the city, has had to respond to such complaints. But it’s hard to pinpoint which song the callers found objectionable.
“If you can’t tell us what the song was, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” Luedecke said.
A couple of years ago, Bergara’s team conducted a cleanup of the playlist.
“I had three interns that summer who had the very unfortunate task of listening to music for a full week straight, just listening for swear words,” she said.
That seems to be the last time the program got much attention. The playlist hasn’t been updated since Coplin retired in 2014.
Bergara said the music office wants to rehab the program as a small part of its response to Mayor Steve Adler’s Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, which proposes measures to support the city’s creative sector.
“We’re looking at things that we can do immediately that don’t require too many resources, or too many things that we have to wait on,” Bergara said. “The Music on Hold program is something that we can revamp within a realistic time frame.”
That will involve establishing a streaming radio station that includes more current acts across all genres, but Bergara said she doesn’t know whether that will involve an application process or some sort of open call. Her team hopes to launch the new on-hold programming in early 2017.
While Music on Hold clearly won’t save Austin musicians from their financial woes, it certainly won’t hurt.
As Luedecke put it: “It’s more appropriate to be playing our local musicians than some English rock band.”