The Story Behind the Most 2020 Song: The CERB Hold Music

Service Canada's hold music has soundtracked the pandemic for thousands of Canadians waiting to collect the CERB. It turns out the government did not tell the musician it was using his song.
December 10, 2020, 1:31pm
​Robert Michaels says the hold music used by Service Canada without his permission has a "couples dancing and out on a patio by the beach" vibes.
Robert Michaels says the hold music used by Service Canada without his permission has a "couples dancing and out on a patio by the beach" vibes. Photo supplied. 

This story has been updated to include responses from Service Canada.

It’s not on the Billboard chart or Pitchfork’s Best of 2020, and most people don’t even know what it’s called. But Canada’s most-played track this year, with its laid-back vibes and smooth flamenco guitar flourishes, is, without a (non-scientific) doubt: the Service Canada hold song for Canadians left jobless by COVID-19.

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Thousands have Shazamed it, others have pleaded for help identifying it, and at least one DJ made a sexy house remix. Internet commenters have called it everything from “lovely” to “bland-jazz-elevator-music,” to “this year’s top banger.” One YouTube commenter suggested its ending may be too “spicy” for a hold song. 

Kristen Annand in Edmonton applied for Employment Insurance (EI) this fall after losing a job following a two-week isolation, and had to call Service Canada after running into problems processing her claim online. 

Agents told Annand to call back every Friday if her money didn’t come through, and that’s dragged on for six weeks. 

“I figured it would be a quick thing. If someone was in my situation and they were pretty broke to start off with, they would have been fucked by this time,” she said. 

“I found the song pretty soothing after a while.”

Waiting up to four hours on hold every week, the infinite loop of hold music became a sort of saving grace during an otherwise frustrating experience. 

“I found the song pretty soothing after a while,” Annand said. “I would just put my phone on speaker phone and just do things that I wasn’t normally getting around to doing. I cleaned my whole storage room, washed the walls of my apartment, reorganized my closet, just listening to this hold song for hours on end.”

This is all new to the Toronto musician who wrote it more than 20 years ago. 

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Robert Michaels said he has no clue how the federal government chose “Memento,” an instrumental from his 1998 album Utopia, as the track it would loop endlessly to  thousands of callers trying to keep their cool while waiting to secure the cheques they need for groceries and rent. Until last weekend, he didn’t even know the government was using it.

“It’s a total mystery,” said Michaels, whose full name is Roberto Michele Buttarazzi. “I didn’t approach them and they didn’t approach me, so I don’t know.”

He said he hasn’t received any payment from Service Canada, but he hopes he’ll get a royalty cheque at some point from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN).

It’s not the first time this has happened to the Juno Award-winning musician, who once heard a different song of his while on hold with a vacation company. 

Ironically, the song that has soundtracked the pandemic for so many Canadians was written during a tropical vacation in Mexico. It’s also infused with influences from Brazil, where he has family. 

“For myself, it’s kind of a very intimate piece. It’s kind of soothing and romantic, kind of a ‘couples dancing and out on a patio by the beach,’ you know. That’s what I was envisioning as I was writing it,” he said. 

 A Service Canada spokesperson said in an email that the department found the song through Entandem, using a SOCAN-licensed music contract. A “large number of musical pieces” was narrowed down to a short list, which was then tested with call centre agents for feedback on which song would be “most appealing” for callers. 

“Memento” was implemented on May 14 and has played for 6.3 million callers since then. 

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 Even though the department more than doubled its call centre staff after the pandemic hit, callers have still been left on hold for an average of 55 minutes per call since Memento was introduced. Service Canada's telephone system only allows for a two-minute loop, meaning the incomplete song played an average of 27.5 times per call. 

 That puts its play total over 173 million. 

 The spokesperson said Service Canada has “no plans to change the hold music.”

As of Oct. 4, Service Canada received 27.6 million Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) applications from 8.9 million people, paying out $81.6 billion as part of its response to mass job losses caused by COVID-19. 

CERB’S replacement, the Canada Recovery Benefit—which requires applicants to reapply every two weeks—had approved 3.9 million applications as of Nov. 29.

Service Canada also handles EI for out-of-work Canadians who might not meet CERB or CRB requirements. 

Michaels has seen a bump in streams and downloads in recent months, surpassing 100 million hits on Pandora. It’s some consolation for the musician who, like so many others, had to put touring on hold this year. Before travel plans were axed, he had an April show booked in New Mexico with a 100-piece orchestra.

“I just hope we get over this quick, and I’m really happy that the music is bringing some peace to people at a difficult time,” Michaels said. 

“We’re all kind of stressed and it’s been tough, and it’s really a good feeling for me to know that the music is at least helping soothe some people’s emotions at a stressful time.”

Follow Kevin Maimann on Twitter.