The man who wrote the CERB hold music hopes it puts people in 'a happy place'
Canadian musician Robert Michaels had no idea his song was playing for those applying for COVID-19 benefits
When Robert Michaels wrote a dreamy instrumental song during a Mexican seaside vacation, he had no idea it would become a viral hit, in more ways than one.
The Toronto musician has recently learned that his song Memento is the Service Canada hold music for people applying for benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 8.9 million Canadians received the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) between March and October. CERB's replacement, the Canada recovery benefit, requires people to re-apply every two weeks.
That means millions of people have heard Memento's soothing chords. And according to Vice News, which first covered this story, many Canadians have embraced it as a rare balm in otherwise difficult times.
The song is licensed by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN). Service Canada says it acquired it through the music licensing service Entandem.
Michaels spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his unexpected hold-music hit. Here is part of their conversation.
Robert, that music is quite lovely. What do you think it would be like after you've heard it over and over again for an hour?
It would probably transport me to somewhere else, somewhere sunny, possibly with a beach.
And is that what inspired the music that you wrote?
That's exactly right. Through my travels, whether I'm touring or going on vacation, I often tend to write. And sometimes, you know, while my wife is kind of on the beach absorbing the sun, I get kind of really antsy, and I'm not a beach person. So I'll go back into the hotel room or where we're staying and, you know, pull out the guitar and get inspired by the surroundings. So that's that's how I actually wrote Memento.
Listen to the soothing sounds of the CERB call-waiting music:
How did it feel when you learned that your music is what people ... were listening to, and are listening to, as they wait for financial support during COVID?
I was surprised [when] I heard that it was being used for that. And I was actually thrilled just to know that, you know, there's a piece of music that I've actually written that's helping us Canadians get through this tough time.
Music has that kind of a power to soothe the soul. And I'm really glad that, you know, that particular piece was picked because it definitely soothes my soul and makes me feel at ease, and I hope it's doing that to Canadians who are listening to it.
It's estimated that it's been played tens of millions of times over the last eight months.
Yeah, that's surprising.
Are you going to get royalties for that?
I sure hope so. I make my living as an artist, as a musician, and that would definitely help take care of some bills.
The cheque's in the mail, so to speak?
I know that SOCAN sends out performing royalties [for songs] that are being played on the air, but I don't know how it works with on-hold music. But, yeah, I'm kind of curious myself to know.
What have people told you about that piece of music? I mean, even aside from CERB, what kind of reviews have you had for it?
We have played that piece live with my band at various concerts, and we always get a great reaction from it. People love it.
We've decided to rearrange it where kind of midway through the song, it picks up in tempo and it really escalates, and then it comes right back down to that calm feeling again — so kind of take people on a bit of a roller coaster ride with the live performance.
I understand there was somebody at the concert who told you what that music, your song, had meant for their father?
Yes, I was autographing some CDs and a gentleman came up to me and, you know, asked for an autograph of my new recording … and he said it's really helped him and his father.
He told me the story that his father was kind of on his last minutes of his last breath, and all he wanted to do was listen to my music. And that really made me really emotional because I didn't realize the power that music has. And I guess it does. It just, you know, does different things for different people.
I didn't realize my music was being used that way, but it made it all worthwhile. It gave me purpose, you know.
That's lovely. And have you … heard feedback from people who first heard it while waiting on the phone for their CERB conversations?
Actually, the drummer in my band told me he called CERB a few times, and he said, "Hey, they're playing your track."
And I just thought, "Oh, OK, you know, that's great." But I didn't realize that it's been going on for all these months and it's possibly the only track that they're playing.
And how have you been faring during the pandemic? This has not been a great time for performing, has it?
Absolutely not. No. I've had various concerts cancelled … so I'm just kind of stuck in the studio here … writing and recording, you know, trying to make use of the time.
The first concert that was cancelled was a concert I had out in New Mexico with 100-piece orchestra. And, you know, that was back in April, and that's when everything shut down. And I had flights booked, you know, hotels booked, everything was ready to go. But it's good to know that that will come back in the new year.
And you're actually … playing for tens of thousands of people on the phone.
Yeah, go figure.
But do you worry that maybe there'll be some bad associations with that song later?
I hope not. You know, I hope that it's … put people in a positive frame of mind.
We're all kind of tense. And I know there's a lot of anxiety and frustration going on, and I hope the song is putting them in a happy place.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger and Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.