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Unemployed Texans waiting on hold got an upgrade over the summer — at least musically

 Justin Sherburn, of Rocket Cinema, before an outdoor film screening at Meanwhile Brewing.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Justin Sherburn, of Rocket Cinema, before an outdoor film screening at Meanwhile Brewing.

Musician Justin Sherburn wrote an album inspired by his wait for unemployment benefits. Now, others in the same situation will hear it as they wait.

When the pandemic hit last year, musician Justin Sherburn's work dried up. He decided to apply for unemployment benefits, but had trouble getting through to the state agency that runs the program.

“It was really startling to not have any work, not have any hopes for work and call the Texas Workforce Commission and get a busy signal,” Sherburn told KUT back in March.

With hundreds of thousands of people out of work, some people spent hours on hold waiting to apply for unemployment.

“They were just swamped with so many — you know, an epic level of calls,” he said.

But as Sherburn sat there bathing in the dread of what comes next, something planted itself in his brain.

“The seed, if you will," he said.

A seed that grew into an album called The Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music Project. It's a set of mostly ambient, synth-y stuff with some cello (played by his wife, Sara Nelson).

“It’s reflective of that really disorienting experience of quarantine and being locked down in that static nature — psychological stasis,” Sherburn said. “Not necessarily being on hold on the phone — but everything — existentially on hold.”

They set up a phone line where you could listen while actually being on hold.

And that was it. Just kind of a fun, creative project.

OK, so that’s where we left it earlier in the year.

But then a couple weeks later, Sherburn was talking to the Workforce Commission again — this time about using his music as the actual hold music for people who call to apply for unemployment.

The agency was totally up for it. Sherburn said Chairman Bryan Daniel told him: "We want to show that we have some humanity about this." (The Workforce Commission declined to make Daniel available for an interview about this.)

By August, Sherburn and the Workforce Commission had come to an agreement. He would let them use the album as hold music in exchange for, well, nothing.

“To me, it had a real justice to it,” Sherburn said. “I’d never taken unemployment in my life — [I] didn’t really feel comfortable with it, frankly. But honestly I was in a position where I had no choice. So, to me, I was just like, ‘You paid for the license to my music in unemployment checks.’”

KUT tried calling the Workforce Commission a few times to hear the music in the wild — but had a really hard time getting put on hold. That’s good news, of course, but KUT never did hear the music over the phone. The Workforce Commission insists it's there, though.

Sherburn is still a musician, but things are still pretty slow out there. So in the meantime, he started something new — a business called Rocket Cinema, which does outdoor film showings around Austin.

“This is exactly what you want,” he said. “You know musicians, cash-strapped due to the pandemic, apply for unemployment and use that financial stability — provided by the state — to start a new business. Because I had the breathing room to start a new business. And that business has turned out to be quite successful.”

Hopefully, you’re never forced to listen to Sherburn's music while sitting on hold. But if you are, it should make the wait a little less miserable.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.