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Out-Of-Work Texans Spent Hours On Hold With Crappy Music. This Austin Composer Was Inspired By It.

Rip Shaub
Austin composer Justin Sherburn and his wife, Sara Nelson, created an album to convey the chaos and confusion of being on hold with the Texas Workforce Commission.

When you’re dealing with the soul-crushing inefficiency of a government bureaucracy pushed beyond its purposely limited limits, sometimes you have to make the best of it.

About a year ago, Justin Sherburn was on the phone with the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that handles unemployment benefits in the state.

“Nobody knew what was going on, and all I knew was that I was having my world fall apart and all my gigs canceled,” Sherburn, a musician and composer, recalls.

And like maybe hundreds of thousands of other people, he was getting either a busy signal or a long time on hold with the Workforce Commission.

“They were just swamped," he says. "You know, epic level of calls.”

But in the midst of that frustration and dread — his world falling apart — something planted itself in the back of his mind. A seed of an idea that wouldn’t bloom until months later.

He was inspired to channel that feeling into music.

And so was born the Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music project (and no, this project is not affiliated with the Texas Workforce Commission).

“Definitely the inspiration for the album was the chaos and confusion — the catch up of administrative bureaucracy to the crisis,” Sherburn says.

The album is kind of an ambient synth and cello arrangement exploring that feeling of chaos — and everything that came after.

“It’s reflective of that really disorienting experience of quarantine and being locked down in that static nature — psychological stasis," he said. "And just everything, you know, you’re just locked inside this bubble."

Sherburn collaborated on the album with his wife, Sara Nelson. They’ve spent the past year locked inside their bubble, but they managed to make something out of it.

“It’s really the story of us being a couple, a married couple, and being in quarantine together and plotting and planning this album. And then, you know, spending some time recording it,” Sherburn says. “I think a lot of people have gone through that silver lining to working with the ones you love — but here’s definitely an upside, being able to collaborate, make music during a pandemic.”

Now, listening to hold music just isn’t the same if it’s not on the phone. It’s that tinny, distant quality that makes music into hold music.

So Sherburn created a way to experience it that way. Just dial 512-559-4739 and you, too, can be put on hold — literally and existentially.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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