Thank You for Calling Word Music

– by Michael Berg

When I graduated from Belmont in December of 2004, I was employed as a waiter and bartender at a small but outstanding Italian restaurant called “Amerigo” in Brentwood, TN. I’m saving up my “stories from waiting tables” for later, so suffice to say for now that I enjoyed a good many things about my work but began to feel the need for something a bit more permanent, maybe a bit more adult.

In other words, I rotated off my parents’ health insurance that March.
So I put out some feelers and scattered my hilariously teeny resume to the winds, and one of my good friends, Andy High, helped me get an interview with Word Music, the Christian music division of Warner Music Group. Specifically, I – hang on, I have to get the phone.
“Thanks for calling Word Music, this is Michael, how may I help you?”
“I need forty copies of the new Christmas cantata, forty-two copies of the new setting of Amazing Grace, accompaniment CDs for each, fifty-one copi-”
“Excuse me, ma’am, I need your account number first.”
[Annoyed at the interruption] “What?”
“Your church’s account number. I can’t start an order without the account – do you have it in front of you? Perhaps on an old invoice?”
“We don’t have an account with you.”
“Ok, I can make one for you. What’s the church’s ZIP code?”
“It’s West Crosstown Zion Calvary Reformed Holiness Baptist Church in – ”
“I’m sorry, we have to start with the ZIP code.” [While not strictly true, this typically saved me a great deal of time in finding the account that this church almost certainly already had with us.]
“What’s that, now?”
“Your ZIP code. Postal code. Just the five-digit, that’s all.” [I once had a customer who made me wait almost ten minutes while she tried to find the full nine-digit postal code. I was careful about this from then on out.]
“Um, it’s 74747.”
“Ok! Is it the West Reformed Holiness Baptist Church at 1212 South Magnolia Street?” [What is it with street names and trees? Has anybody else noticed this?]
“Yes, but we don’t have an account with you.” [Again, I had several church secretaries insist for several minutes that they did not have an account with us, even though their music ministers placed orders with us, on their account, on a very regular basis. So I just went with this route.]
“Sure! But I can just build an account for you and use this information. Let me doublecheck the phone number.” [Correct.] “And the music leader’s name?” [Also correct.] “Ok then, give me a moment to finish up.” [This was necessary to allay suspicion. In reality, I was opening up an order form within the account that didn’t exist and counting to ten.]
“Ten. I mean, we’re ready. Now, what can I get you today?”
Whew. Ok, thanks. Nine times out of ten people in that situation would inform me that they already told me what they wanted, which means I had to explain that without an account in front of me they might as well have told their order to a fridge, but nicer so that I wouldn’t get complaints to my boss.
At any rate, I interviewed specifically for a position within the church music division – as you may have guessed, the work involved completing orders for music ministers and other church staff who needed anthems, or books full of anthems, or hymnals containing a truly weird blend of traditional hymnody, modern praise choruses, and the Hallelujah Chorus. (I am not making this up.)  A month after my interview, my new boss called me back, apologized for the low salary they could offer me (which was more than any salary I have earned since), and asked when I could start.
Two weeks later, I was – wait, gotta get this.
“Thanks for calling Word Music, this is Michael, how may I help you?”
“Hey Michael! How’re you doin’ today?” [In any job I ever have, ever, I am always a sucker for friendly people. They make life better. Be friendly.]
“Why, I think I’m going to make it! How are you?”
“Fine! This is Barry at First Congregational Unlimited Free Assembly, I had a question about this piece here, ‘Untitled Hymn.’” [This is a real song. It is a hymn with the title “Untitled Hymn.” It also has a subtitle: “Come To Jesus.” So in reality it should probably be called the “Overtitled Hymn.” But I digress.]
“What can I help you with, Barry?”
“Well, I can’t quite get the rhythm of it.” [At this point, I became concerned.] “Can you help me out and just sing it along with me a couple of times?”
[Awkward silence for a moment. Then I recovered.] 
“I hate to break this to you, Barry, but I don’t have that particular piece on my desk.” [Or really any other piece on my desk.] “We ship out of a warehouse that’s an hour and a half away from our office, so… I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, buddy. We do seem to have an audio track for twenty bucks for the song, which should help?”
“Aw, I can’t afford that, not for one song. You sure you can’t just check for me? See if maybe it’s in the back?” [For a valid description of what happens when you, as a customer, say this, I refer you here.]
“I’m afraid we don’t really have a ‘back’ in the office, Barry. That piece was published last March, and we don’t keep stock on hand in the office past the most recent quarterly issues.”
“Aw, man. Could I email it to you and just have you bang it out for me?”
Whew. If you’re wondering, this was an actual call that I received while working at Word Music.
Ok, so two weeks after they offered me the position at Word, I was washing the whipped cream and coffee grounds out of my hair and ears from my “goodbye ceremony” at Amerigo in preparation for my first day of my new job.
My first task was to sit and listen to the new lineup of music for that Spring, just to be familiar with our newest offerings in church music. After only a few minutes of listening to the product CD and flipping through the scores, I was spiritually and emotionally overwhelmed with the undeniable and humbling certainty that I did not like this music.
In general, I appreciate traditional church music. I won’t get into the reasons here, if you’re curious ask me and I’ll tell you, but in general I like music that makes me think, with thoughtful lyrics, inspiring melody, and at the very least interesting harmony. (And have you ever tried harmonizing to a tune that has three chords? Booooooring.)
However, the music that I was perusing at this particular moment wasn’t even really contemporary.  I mean, it involved more drums than I ever care to hear during a worship service, but in general its style was more what could be called “blended,” since it also included traditional elements such as full choirs, references to hymn tunes and texts, etc.
No, rather than being “traditional” or “contemporary,” this music was simply “cheesy.”
Examples, you say?
Let’s just try some titles of songs.
Such as “Heaven on the Hay,” an honest-to-God title of a Christmas anthem.
The agrarian nature of the nativity was an often emphasized theme, here. Another Christmas classic? “Hey Now, Something’s Happening in the Barn.”
And it wasn’t just Christmas! “When He was on the Cross, We were on His Mind” is a perennial favorite for Eastertide.
If any of these are dear to your heart, my beloved readers, please do not hate me. We are both – oh, hey, call incoming.
“Thanks for calling Word Music, this is Michael, how may I help you?”
“Hey sugar. How you doin’ today?” [Note: this was not as creepy as it looks in text, because the speaker was clearly one of those older woman who calls everybody ‘sugar,’ ‘honey,’ or ‘angel’ automatically, which I find automatically endearing. I guess that’s probably the point.]
“I’m great, ma’am! How are you?”
“I’m just so blessed, sugar. I got a question for you, and it might just be the dumbest question you ever heard.”
“Oh, I’m sure it-”
“Now, you ain’t heard it yet, so don’t go promisin’!” [We both laugh.]
“Ok, so here my question. When you say it’s Word Music, does that mean you only got the words to yo’ songs?”
“N… n… um… no. W… we… we ha… we have the music, too.”
“Now, you tell the truth now. Is that the dumbest question you’ve ever heard?”
“Um… uh… n… no?”  [She tries to interject her disbelief, but I continue.] “Today, though? Yes, ma’am. Definitely today.”
[Lots of laughter, from both. She was awesome.]
Thanks for waiting. As I was saying, we are both entitled to our respective opinions. Mine is, of course, that titles like this are unbearably cheesy. The music tended to meet the expectations set by the titles (for instance, mandatory half-step key-change in every piece for the final 25-30% of the music).
So I was clearly not going to derive Work Satisfaction through the product itself. However, the people with whom I worked were wonderful. I had a great boss who was very laid back/hands-off, my coworkers were fun, the pay and benefits were great.
And I, being who I am, found ways to keep myself entertained.
I mean, when we weren’t on a call, we could do whatever. I learned how to play Sudoku puzzles during my time there, for instance, and became pretty darned good at them (although I now prefer “Kenken.”) We all shared videos and funny photos and so on through AIM. And I started to collect customers.
My customer collection fell into two main categories, the first being customer emails. Now I’m not really a style/grammar Nazi, per se. I accept that one of the wonderful things about English is its constantly evolving nature. But there are standards, people. Its/it’s and your/you’re and their/they’re/there are not complicated. Do it right.
Since I typically received between 10-20 customer emails a day, I would respond to their questions first, then print out any spectacularly poor displays of writing comprehension and grade them, in red ink, out of twenty-five points for spelling, grammar, and style.
Some things were pretty minor. Ending sentences with prepositions, for instance, was a half-point deduction; emails are typically viewed as informal communication, and I’m not utterly heartless. Spelling was less then than it would be now, since most browser-based email services hadn’t added an automatic spell-checker yet. (Although I once saw an email in which the typist misspelled “Oops.” Seriously?)
However, its/it’s and your/you’re and their/they’re/there were major violations, as was any random and excessive capitalization. One word in your email in caps? Ok, I can accept that as a means to impart emphasis, though I greatly prefer italics. But if EVERY OTHER word is capitalized, it REALLY feels like I’m being SHOUTED AT.
Speaking of, one more call coming in! Hang on!
“Thanks for calling Word Music, this is Michael, how may I help you?”
“I’m tryin’ to buy some music on your website, but I can’t find it!”
“I’ll be glad to help you, sir! We can either place the order through me or head to the site.” [I open up the online store.]
“Well, the title of the song is ‘Holy, Wholly, Medley,’ [not a real song title, that I know of, but entirely possible], and I got it on the site, but I don’t see the music! For my choir to sing!”
“I’m looking it up, sir.”
“I mean, you’ve got the accompaniment CD and this here ‘sat-buh,’ but I don’t need any of that. Just the sheet music.”
“Satbuh, sir?”
“Yeah, it just says the letters satbuh.”
“Do… do you… do you mean … SATB?”
“Yep. But like I said, I don’t need none of that! Just the music!”
That’s it. No more calls for me today.
Anyway, capitalization was a big sore point for me. If you typed your email in full caps, it was an automatic 10-point deduction with a note at the top that read: “All-caps makes Baby Jesus cry. -10 Points for making Baby Jesus cry.”
But I had more fun collecting names. I love fun names. When I hear a name that is funny-sounding, I chortle. So I began to collect funny names from customers – Vada Tatum and Snowdene Bean were my two favorites. I couldn’t choose between them, honestly. The rhythmic deliciousness of Vada Tatum is hard to overlook, but Mrs. Bean freely confessed when she heard me stifle a giggle that, yes, she married into that name, and thought it was pretty funny herself! “It had to be true love, didn’t it?” she giggled.
Church names were often pretty funny, too, largely thanks to the towns they were located in. Both Bullitt Lick and Bald Knob have stuck in my brain for years because of their respective Baptist Churches.
After a year of this, it was time for a change. I enjoyed my coworkers, and definitely had fun with my collections, but life in a fluorescent bubble had stopped appealing to me, so I began the process of applying to graduate school.
 Some things have stuck with me – lessons on life in an office, how to work quickly within clunky computer systems (we used Oracle, which still makes me shudder to remember), and, of course, the music. Every Christmas season since, I find myself humming “Heaven on the Hay,” and have thus far succeeded in not stabbing myself in the eye with a tuning fork or spring of holly.
It’s the little things.

8 comments

  1. I LIKED THIS POST MICHAEL, ITS GREAT!!

    Just kidding.

    Seriously, though, I think anyone who has worked in retail of some sort can relate to this. I used to work in a “Christian bookstore” (books can experience salvation?) so the many of the products you sold eventually made their way to our shelves. The part you didn't get to experience at your job was people who would come in to find accompaniment tracks for songs they wanted to sing at church. We had the privilege of snickering from the front of the stores (and thinking to ourselves, “Someone is letting this guy sing in front of people?”). Thanks for a good laugh and some memories of old times on the sales floor!

    Oh, by the way, “Untitled Hymn” is actually a really good song, though the others you mentioned are definitely cheesy. 🙂

  2. I FREAKING LOVE YOU GUYS!!

    I mean, um…you're posts…their awesome. 😉

    I work full time as an academic advisor for college students. I, too, “love” seeing the grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors that make us wonder how they ended up in college. Maybe I should print and grade one like you mentioned. Then I can post it in our break room (student's name deleted of course) for a good laugh.

    Your story about the “satbuh” guy reminded me of when I auditioned for the choir at UNT my freshman year. The only choirs I had experienced were at church, and through Texas Baptist All State (essentially 1 week during the summer for 2 years). I was also in school orchestra so I knew some theory from there, but definitely didn't know what the choir director meant when he said during my audition,

    “Just sight-read this piece using your solfege syllables.”

    Me: “My what?

    Him: “Your solfege syllables.”

    Me: “What's soul fudge?”

    Him: “You know, do re me fa so la ti do.”

    Me: “Uh…”

    Him: “Just sing da da da.”

    Me: “OK!!”

    Thankfully the fact that I thought “do re mi” was just a song from “The Sound of Music” didn't keep me from getting accepted into the UNT Concert Choir. Made for a great story though!

  3. Lindsay, that's like a million points off. Oh well. Nah, we decided to axe [which IS a valid spelling, despite what blogspot seems to think… sigh] the font differential pretty early on and just state our names… also we stopped trying to interject, as it just became obnoxious.

  4. Fonts are overrated too. You guys' highly developed sense of crazy comes across quite well in Arial (or whatever it is.)

    We miss y'all too! Hurry up and move to FW. Like tomorrow.

    Okthxbye! 🙂

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