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Why Is the Slack Hold Music So Haunted and So Good?

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Why Is the Slack Hold Music So Haunted and So Good?

Then Danny Simmons finished his first Slack Huddle, the same thing happened to him that happened to me: he didn’t hang up, the music faded, and he started looking for the source. Only he wasn’t looking for a random autoplay browser tab. He was trying to figure out what a long-ago recording session at his old home in Toronto sounded like to his ears.

Simmons is a lanky sound designer and – I really didn’t see this coming – a mostly bluegrass musician from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He and Butterfield met in college, when they were both in a band called Tall Guy Short Guy. (“I came in to replace the tall guy,” Simmons explains.)

After graduating, Simmons became a performing musician and Butterfield embarked on an unsuccessful career as a video game designer. Except Butterfield had a funny way of failing. He kept trying to build games and accidentally built the Internet instead. His first, Game Never Ending, ultimately never made much money, but did include a photo-sharing infrastructure that became the basis for Flickr. (And Flickr—with its open API, use of tags, and social networking features—became the basis for much of the social web.)

Flickr was sold to Yahoo for about $25 million in 2005, and a few years later Butterfield tried his sad luck again, aiming to build a lighthearted, esoteric and surreal new game: Hitch. To do this he got the old band back together, not only from Flickr but also from Tall Guy Short Guy. Simmons came on board to write a score – to come up with folk music for all the regions in the game, and the requisite ‘bloops, bleeps and warnings’.

In Hitchas one of the game’s developers describes it, players “planted and grew gardens and milked the local butterflies. They collected pull-string puppets from modern philosophers, including plausible quotes from Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. They climbed into huge dinosaurs, through their reptilian intestines and out of their helpfully signposted asses. It was, in a word, ridiculous.”

Early in the game, Hitch encouraged you to do certain things – like build a house or take the subway – that required permits and identity papers. To get them, you had to visit a beige room, the Bureaucratic Hall. “It was just a waiting room, a purgatory where these lizard bureaucrats walked around,” says Simmons. “They’re walking back and forth with stacks of paper, and, you know, they just look busy at their desk.”

And this, dear reader, is the phantom context of the slack Huddles music; it played in the Bureaucratic Hall. To leave this limbo, you had to do something very precise: nothing. A timer started counting down, and if you moved your avatar at all, the counter started over. That was the ‘quest’. All you had to do was sit still, watch the lizards at work, and – can you hear that slow fade-in? – listening to the muzak.

For the Waiting Room soundtrack, Simmons played guitar and synths himself, despite being primarily a banjo man. Through Toronto’s bluegrass scene he knew a “really good left-handed guitarist” who played the saxophone. So one day in 2012, Simmons invited the man to record some improvised saxophone fills, with instructions to make them “as cheesy as possible.”

In October 2012, Ali Rayl joined the Hitch team as a quality engineer. Just six weeks later, a supervisor pulled her aside. He said they were shutting down the game, and he asked Rayl if she wanted to stay and “help build our next thing.” When she asked what was next, the director said it would probably have something to do with workplace communication.

As had happened before with Game infinity, there were some pretty cool spare parts underneath all of its ethereal ambitions Hitch– like the internal messaging system the team had built. Rayl was one of only eight core people who kept their jobs during the transition to Slack. During the conference call where everyone else was fired, Rayl felt overwhelmed by survivor’s guilt. “I decided: I’m going to do everything I can to support these people, uphold their legacy and get their work into the public sphere,” she says. And Rayl wasn’t the only one who wanted to preserve Slack’s glitchy DNA.

That’s why the company started using not only the waiting room muzak, but also the “bloops, beeps and alerts” that Simmons created for it Hitch. In fact, Simmons almost deserved it all the sounds that Slack’s 32 million active daily users hear. That sob popop sound that gives you a cortisol peak every time? That’s Simmons running his thumb over a toothbrush and “making that sound where you kind of separate your tongue from the roof of your mouth,” he says. There is a phantom context to all of this.

So the next time you hear the Slack Huddles holding music, remember what to do: sit quietly. Check out the lizards. The timer is counting down.

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