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No More Muzak: Alaska's Hold Music Now Features Local Bands

Goodbye, elevator music!

Portugal The Man band concert
John Gourley with Portugal. The Man, one of the bands that is now featured on the hold music for the state of Alaska.
(AP/Katie Darby/Invision)
Callers to state offices in Alaska will no longer be subjected to tinny elevator music or sleepy smooth jazz while they're stuck on hold. Starting last month, the state has replaced its mundane hold music with snippets of songs from local bands.

The plan was the brainchild of Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a 29-year-old state representative about to start his fourth term in the Alaska House. Kreiss-Tomkins says he got the idea to change the hold music shortly after he arrived in the state capitol in 2012.

“There are probably tens of thousands of hours of people put on hold every year," he says, adding that he was inspired by his local NPR station. "I thought about how public radio stations often patch in a live feed of their stations [or their own hold music]."

Alaska isn't the first government to make such a move.

The city of Seattle in 2006 switched its hold music to feature local musicians, although the program was later scrapped. In 2010, Portland, Ore., partnered with music licensing company Rumblefish to create its Listen Local program, which features local bands on the city's hold music. The city of Austin, known for its vibrant music scene, launched an effort through its Economic Development Department called Music on Hold. And Boston adopted a new hold music program in 2013.

One big challenge for these governments is music licensing. Because the hold music counts as a performance, the publishers are entitled to royalties.

The state of Alaska purchased a license from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers so it would be in legal compliance. ASCAP licenses are relatively inexpensive; depending on the type of venue, they can cost as little as a few hundred dollars a year.

Alaska's other costs were modest as well: Converting the phone lines cost the state $2,500, and the state's phone vendor, General Communications Incorporated, contributed another $1,000 to the efforts. The Alaska State Council of the Arts and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council picked the bands and used grant funding to pay for the licensing of the music.

The new playlist includes the song "Feel It Still" by Alaska rock band Portugal. The Man. The song won a Grammy earlier this year for best pop duo/group performance. The band actually lent the song to Alaska's hold-music project free of charge; the band is not seeking ASCAP performance royalties.

Another song greeting callers is “Flicker of Light,” by Whiskey Class, a duo made up of Alaska natives Liz Snyder and Patrick Troll. The song is about one of the most Alaskan things there is: salmon swimming upstream to spawn. As Troll notes, it's a journey that ultimately kills the fish.

“The salmon die for love, man,” Troll says.

For Kreiss-Tomkins, the new music is a way to enliven an experience that many residents dread.

“It’s an infusion of humanity in an interaction with the public,” he says.

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