Harriet Goldberg is the composer of what may be one of the most heard songs in the world today.
This 74-year-old New Jersey native is, in her own words, a “late blooming, part-time musician,” who has never played a live gig and is unknown to the music industry at large.
But every day since 2017, Goldberg’s jazzy instrumental, “My Time to Fly,” has been served up to countless callers who are put on hold by the customer service lines of businesses large and small. These include Capital One, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Costco, Nasdaq, the Kansas Unemployment Office, Sagami Railway in Japan, Dartmoor Prison in England, scores of hotels and restaurants and, yes, The New York Times.
Goldberg’s journey from a career in social work to the queen of hold music is an unlikely one. It’s the product of a passion that wasn’t acted on until she was in her late 40s.
“When I was a kid, my family got a free piano,” Goldberg said in a phone interview from her home in Boston. “My dad wrote songs and played jazz as a hobby. I studied a little classical but mainly played folk, rock and the Beatles — the usual stuff for a child of the ’60s.”
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English from Boston University and a master’s in social work, and in her late 30s became a stay-at-home mother.
“In my late 40s, my interest in jazz deepened, mainly standards and cabaret music,” she said. “I started composing songs based on the songs I loved. I knew my limitations and wanted to find someone who could help me with my writing.”
Looking for a mentor, Goldberg turned to an old friend, the saxophonist Billy Novick, a onetime Berklee College of Music student who has appeared on more than 250 recordings, film and television scores and performed with artists including David Bromberg, Maria Muldaur, Willie Dixon and J. Geils.
“Harriet and I knew each other for years and our collaboration started very organically,” Novick said in a phone interview from his home in Lexington, Mass. “She would show me her compositions and I would make suggestions to modify chord structure, melody and the like.”
After a few years, Goldberg had enough songs to record an album. The result was “Bring Back the Moonlight,” from 2002, a 14-track collection of vocal tunes modeled on the lush classics she loved. Novick created arrangements, booked the studio and engineer, and found the musicians who played and sang on this and four more albums Goldberg self-released through 2021.
Aware there were better opportunities for Goldberg’s compositions to be licensed as incidental music in film and television if they were instrumentals, Novick suggested she record wordless versions of her songs, most crucially, the title track to her 2011 album, “My Time to Fly.” But before this tune took off on phones, Goldberg gained a foothold by entering a song from her debut disc, “Suddenly You Walked By,” into a songwriting contest sponsored by Billboard magazine. Though she didn’t win the top prize, she earned a membership with Taxi, a firm that helps composers place music in film and television. By 2008, Goldberg was working with another catalog service, Crucial Music, and began having her music featured in shows, including “Californication,” “Hawaii 5-0” and “New Amsterdam.”
In 2017, the time came for “My Time to Fly.”
“We were working with Amazon, placing music in their films and television shows, when they asked us for music for Amazon Connect, a service that manages the call centers for tens of thousands of businesses worldwide, handling 10 million calls in a day,” Tanvi Patel, the chief executive of Crucial Music, said in an interview, noting that jazz is one of the top genres for hold music.
Goldberg’s instrumental is “very upbeat and it really swings,” Patel added. “It sets a relaxed mood for what can be one of life’s more trying situations.”
Goldberg, however, didn’t know anything about her place atop the on-hold hit parade until 2019, when she heard from her collaborator.
“I was on hold with Capital One Bank and heard something familiar,” Novick said. “My first impression was I liked the sax player, but I honestly couldn’t pin it down. I listened again, opened my Shazam app and found out it was one of the songs I recorded with Harriet.”
While Goldberg’s tune may be spinning more than any other at the moment, it isn’t earning her untold riches. The licensing agreement with Amazon was a buyout, earning Harriet a “four-figure flat fee” for its use in perpetuity.
But the song has earned this late bloomer unexpected fandom — and some money. Through its release on her own label, Goldberg is making a modest income from streams, downloads and occasional CD sales. She is also garnering positive messages from fans via email and her SoundCloud page. The song’s popularity in Japan was even subject of a skit on “Tamori Club,” a sort of Japanese “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’ve gotten many wonderful emails from around the world about the song,” she said. “The notoriety is very sweet, especially for a song that is thrust upon people as they are in what can turn into an unpleasant situation if it’s too long a wait.
“It’s especially funny,” Goldberg added, “when I call my bank and get put on hold and it’s my own music that I have to listen to.”
Dane Vannatter, the cabaret singer featured on the vocal version of “My Time to Fly,” sometimes performs it at club gigs.
“Before he sings it, he holds up his phone and plays the instrumental version,” Goldberg said. “Then, he asks how many people have heard the tune. It’s usually most of the audience though they never can quite place exactly where they heard it.”