The Strange Story of Cisco's (Sort of) Beloved Hold Music

Two nerds, a four-track recorder, and 65 million Cisco phone systems. 
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flickr/andreassolsberg

Hold music is a replacement for silence that delivers one message, "Yes, you are still on hold." This is all it has to say, and in that sense, it only has to be noise. Yet on this shriveled cactus of purpose, baubles hang that delight anyway.

This is the lesson Ira Glass taught me in the latest episode of This American Life in which reporter Sara Corbett gloriously spins out the story of her father-in-law's obsession with Cisco's default hold music.

Yes, Cisco! The leading purveyor of fine corporate phone systems. And on these systems, there is hold music. It sounds like this:

Groovy, no? 

You probably hate it. I mostly do. At three minutes, there is this horrifying funky Michael Bolton breakdown played on a xylophone synth. 

In the stale elevator descending slowly into hades, this is what pours from the padded, yellow walls.  

But some people love it! 

And if you leave it on in the background while you're working, just sitting in a tab, and then you turn it off, you may notice a curious absence. Perhaps this tune is better than silence. If you can hear this song, you are still alive. 

In any case, the most wonderful thing about this piece of music is that a Yanni-loving 16-year-old computer nerd composed it. 

Yes, it is true. 

His name is Tim Carleton, and he's now a mostly ungoogleable IT guy here in the Bay Area. The song was recorded on a four-track and forgotten for almost a decade until some time in the '90s.

That's when Carleton's friend Darrick Deel, who had gone to work for Cisco, called him up and told him that this song could become Cisco's default hold music. Carleton assented and into the system the song went, eventually set as the default on millions of phones. 

People record this music, post it to YouTube, and people like Corbett's father-in-law discover it and put it on in the background while they sweep the kitchen.

It may not be the future of music distribution but this is how the world works. 

Corbett asks Carleton if he'd ever gotten anything from his composition's spread.

"Has it ever yielded anything good for you? If it hasn't made you money, has anyone ever bought you a drink in a bar? Have you picked up women with it?" she asks. "Is there any rockstar application?"

"No," he says, "I don't think I've ever tried the, 'You know, I wrote the default hold music for a lot of companies, so...' "

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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