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His music miffed Martha

The much-publicized phone tirade by domestic diva Martha Stewart had a local connection.

Published February 19, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Jeff Arthur creates TV and radio jingles in his Clearwater studio. Arthur’s company produced the classical mix used as “on-hold” telephone music by Merrill Lynch.

photoMartha Stewart allegedly threatened to leave Merrill Lynch if its on-hold music did not improve.

Recorded music played on Merrill Lynch's phone system.
Music provided by Jeff Arthur Productions
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CLEARWATER - Jeff Arthur has penned the vintage Hey, Hey Tampa Bay fight song for the Buccaneers, sold thousands of TV and radio jingles, and produced endless hours of background tunes for shopping malls and telephone lines.

Still, his greatest claim to fame in a 30-year career could turn out to be ticking off Martha Stewart.

He's the man behind the Merrill Lynch "on-hold" music Stewart hated so much.

Of all the odd revelations springing from the Stewart trial in Manhattan, which has been filled with accounts of her rudeness and bullying, none compare with the sour note described recently by star prosecution witness Douglas Faneuil.

The young former Merrill Lynch assistant recounted how he placed the maven of homemaking on hold when she called for her broker, Peter Bacanovic.

According to Faneuil, whose testimony is the cornerstone of the insider-trading coverup case against Stewart and Bacanovic, Martha went ballistic when he picked back up. He says she berated him, then threatened to fire his boss Bacanovic and Merrill Lynch if the on-hold music did not improve.

News of Stewart's diss rippled instantly to a sound studio just off Ulmerton Road: home of Jeff Arthur Productions and the place where Arthur produces on-hold music for all Merrill Lynch branches in the country.

So what was the music that made Stewart so crazy? Album cuts from Arthur's almost famous 1970s folk-rock band, Arthur, Hurley & Gottlieb? Metallica's greatest hits? A sampling of William Shatner love songs?

Not exactly. It was a collection of classical music composed by Mozart and Vivaldi.

"If Martha Stewart had a problem with it, it's not Merrill Lynch's fault; I think she would need to talk to Vivaldi's mom," says Arthur, 52, smiling. "I mean nobody likes to be put on hold. But she's brought it to a whole new level."

Arthur had no idea that his production wasn't music to Stewart's ears until a friend called him two weeks ago from New York City.

"He tells me, "You know you're famous now, don't you?' and I go, "What are you talking about?' " Arthur recalls. "He says, "You were in the papers today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I always think, maybe I am going to get my moment in the sun as being like, America's premier jingle writer. But I never expected it to be for on-hold music."

A day later, Arthur began seeing a flurry of stories on the on-hold flap, including last week's Time magazine, which splashed Stewart's threat to leave Merrill Lynch if the music wasn't changed.

"Hey, if she'd have followed through on the threat, she'd have taken her money elsewhere and maybe saved herself and Merrill Lynch a whole lot of headaches," says Arthur.

Merrill Lynch is the biggest of 1,400 clients nationwide that purchase on-hold music from Arthur, whose On Hold Network division customizes the playlists with all styles of music and advertising.

Though jingles are still Arthur's bread and butter, on-hold music accounts for about a booming 40 percent of his business. "The problem with jingles is that if your client likes what you give them, they just stick with it and that's that," he says. "So I needed to find a way to keep the revenue coming in on a regular basis."

His company does that in high-tech fashion, producing four- to eight-minute digitized performances that are loaded into small black boxes with sound cards and modems, then shipped to clients. Arthur'sstaff can monitor and even download changes to the music or promotional messages anywhere via its computers in Pinellas County.

Merrill Lynch wanted a change three years ago, for a most somber reason. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the brokerage giant informed Arthur it wanted to tone down its on-hold approach, which had been featuring 25 or so different messages from taxes to annuities to customized pitches for each of the offices.

"After 9/11, Merrill Lynch just wanted to go to music, no more selling," he says. "You've got to hear something, so you know you're not disconnected. But they went to the least offensive thing they could do for their clients."

Classical music.

Arthur and longtime studio engineer Vincent Wheeler went right to work and within two days had created a new on-hold production, pulling from classical selections in its prelicensed bank of music. "We put it on the auto-download and called all their offices for 24 hours," Wheeler says.

Merrill Lynch decided to stick with the format, Stewart's thumbs-down notwithstanding.

"Geez, if she didn't like what Merrill Lynch had, she should hear what we do for some of the other guys. It can be really aggressive," Arthur says.

He doesn't take Stewart's assessment personally, though. In fact, Arthur is amused by one thought: In the early '70s, the University of South Florida graduate almost made it big in music, when his Arthur, Hurley & Gottlieb trio was signed by Clive Davis for Columbia Records. But label troubles undermined the debut record they'd cut, and a second album with A&M Records fizzled, Arthur says, after the group lost its chance to open on tour for the Bee Gees.

A year later, he returned from New York to his native Pinellas County to start his jingle business, which has grown into one of the most prolific in the United States: airing some 1,200 jingles daily around the country, from Make It a Blockbuster Night to Contintental's America.

But with all that, his biggest hit of all may be courtesy of Martha Stewart.

[Last modified February 18, 2004, 11:07:57]

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