Some musicians were surprised to see their songs cut from the playlist when the Alaska Music on Hold project returned this month.
Alaska Music on Hold replaces the state’s more typical hold Muzak with music by Alaska artists. It went live Nov. 25 last year, and was paused sometime in January because of complaints that some songs included in the mix were inappropriate for public use, according to a state Department of Administration response to a Juneau Empire inquiry.
The music’s return was announced via a May 17 press release, and when it came back a pair of songs — “Flicker of Light” by Whiskey Class and “Mother Carries” by Harm — were no longer on the list of hold music. One new selection, “Bravura Variations on Alaska’s Flag Song” by Paul Rosenthal, is now part of the lineup.
“Nobody emailed us, no one called us,” said Heather Warren, lyricist and percussionist for Harm. “No one has notified us with anything. We didn’t even know that it was an issue.”
Patrick Troll of Whiskey Class said he also was not notified of the change.
Both Warren and Troll said they were initially excited about the additional exposure being part of the initial five-song lineup that included Grammy Award-winning band Portugal. The Man.
Ben Brown, chairman for Alaska State Council on the Arts, confirmed that the songs by Whiskey Class and Harm were no longer part of the Alaska Music on Hold Project, with which the council assists. Brown said he was not privy to the specific complaints that led to the change.
“None of that came directly to the council or to me,” Brown said.
He said reaching out to the affected artists would have been a good idea and something he would still try to do.
The DOA also did not share any specific complaints that led to the changes, but legislative liaison Kelly Hanke provided the Empire a link to a Must Read Alaska blog post as an example of public concerns.
The blog post noted the “drunken wandering sound” of “Flicker of Light” makes for odd state hold music, as did the tone and content of “Mother Carries” by Harm. “‘Mother Carries’ and its discordant, trauma-driven message might just drive a distressed caller over the edge,” read the post.
It notes one of the song’s genre tags is “witch house,” which is a niche genre of electronic music that can include occult themes.
“Perhaps the Department of Administration didn’t consider what impact the song may have on a traumatized Alaskan calling the State in distress, perhaps trying to track down a birth certificate or a death certificate, or perhaps frustrated by the Office of Children’s Services or a probation officer,” read the post. “For that matter, what will serious business callers from Outside think of Alaska if they are considering opening an enterprise here? Is this a state that is open for business or is it an unhealthy place to call home?”
Warren took exception to the criticism.
“That particular song, it’s just a list of self-care techniques,” she said. Warren added that the spoken-word ending of the song that includes the line, “I will box a trauma as a joke and wrap it like a gift,” was not included in the song snippet sent for the hold music project.
Troll also wasn’t thrilled about the development, but understood why the Whiskey Class song would be on the chopping block.
“I mean, not being too harsh. But it makes sense,” he said in a message. “Everything that is going on with Alaska politics is the opposite of groovy, so why would they want groovy songs to be a representation of Alaska?”
Both Brown and the DOA indicated that the plan is for the Alaska Music on Hold project to continue and to involve new artists.
Brown said he hopes in the future there will be a transparent song-selection process involving a review panel.
He said some of the confusion surrounding the recent changes stems from the lack of such a system, which could begin to be developed relatively soon.
“It will be later this year,” Brown said. “I think what we’ll do is staff will come up with a proposal. Then, we’ll float it for all the trustees.”
Contact Juneau Empire arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at -907-523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.