Music on Hold.. wait, it costs money?

If you’ve ever ridden an elevator, or waited on hold, wondering why the powers governing your experience didn’t make a different choice of ambient music, it may be a revelation to you that the music you were listening to had to be licensed and paid for. According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which licenses music and distributes royalties to performers and publishers, music transmitted through a telephone line to a caller on hold constitutes a public performance of the music, and warrants permission from a music licenser or the music publisher directly.

Typically, call centers haven’t been the target of unlicensed music performance lawsuits. But businesses are perennially caught playing their favorite songs without license and sued by one of the licensing organizations. Even piping a radio station through your phone system violates the rules. The radio stations pay the licensing fees for their play, but any business playing the station is creating a new “performance” under copyright law, and thus needs to pay for a license.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three US organizations that can license music rights directly to businesses. Together the three represent almost one hundred percent of songs, and separately the breakdown is this: ASCAP covers about 70 per cent, BMI covers about 20 per cent and SESAC covers the rest. To get an idea of who covers what, it’s easy to look for your song in their online databases. Their licenses aren’t cheap – BMI charges $620 a year for a business that uses 30-49 trunk lines to play music on hold, for example. If you wanted to get licensed by one of the three, instead of having to buy licenses with all of them, you could create a playlist covered by one organization by browsing their database.

Another option is buying a Pandora business account, which covers your license for any music that plays through the Pandora playlist. You have to acquire hardware with this contract, a media unit that hooks up to a computer to download your music preferences, and then runs on its own, with remote control access. The hardware for this costs $75 and the monthly subscription for music (and licensing) is $25.

Let’s get back to the elevator music scenario and consider alternatives to being sued or paying to play the hold music of your choice for customers. Asterisk has provided a list of music that can be freely used for hold time, visible here:

This music is available through the Creative Commons 2.5 license, and provided by the Opsound pool, an aggregation of free music. You can browse their entire catalogue on their Web site. You will find On Hold Music “providers” if you browse online as well. These are agents you pay a fee to acquire licenses for music from BMI, ASCAP and SESAC catalogues. If these providers are not fulfilling their licensing obligations to the big three, however, you may face the risk of playing unlicensed music. A final option, besides leaving your customers on the line with stony silence, is to play promotions and talk radio style content about your products. You will have to produce this or hire audio producers, who market their services with the key words, “On-Hold Message production.”

It’s not as easy as it could be to play your favorite Rolling Stones song for your customers, but despite the scary standard set by the category of “public performance,” you’re probably not in business to provide customers with music performances. So don’t sweat your playlist too much.

Don’t Let the Cloud Get You Down

In the wake of Amazon’s June 29th service disruption to high profile cloud platform clients including Netflix and Pinterest, talking heads have wondered whether the cloud is really all it’s cracked up to be. After all, they say, if the weather in northern Virginia can disrupt applications for millions of users around the world, might we need to return to dedicated servers?

No, says Voneto’s President, Corey McFadden. “Those organizations that suffered sustained outages mostly had their systems set up to rely only on Amazon’s northern Virginia data center, and therefore had a single point of failure. At Voneto, our cloud platform services–like hosted PBX and contact center systems–run in three different data center locations, each of which has redundant power, redundant storage, and platform management tools that allow us to reliably scale.”

In other words, don’t let a few companies that didn’t build redundancy into their applications scare you away from “the cloud.”

Failure is inevitable, and the cloud remains a more reliable platform than dedicated servers, even for businesses that can’t afford the extra cost of redundancy via multiple data centers. Yes, they have a single point of failure if they depend on a platform hosted at one site, but the odds of it failing are small compared to the risk of failure with dedicated servers in a back office somewhere.

If you aren’t a professional investor and you don’t know the market, you would likely choose a mutual fund over a hand picked stock portfolio to reduce your risk, right? Well if you aren’t a prepared to hire the army of engineers it takes to run a utility-grade data platform, then you probably won’t operate dedicated servers as reliably as a hosted service can, even if they do occasionally get some bad weather.

As San Francisco startup founder Benjamin Coe says in a blog post about recovering from the Amazon outage, “a lack of total redundancy can sometimes be an acceptable risk if approached responsibly.” If your business is one that relies on a single data center, he has a list of tips for you to cope.

-Emily Meehan

Streaming Radio Music on Hold for FreePBX and Asterisk

Occasionally, we get a request to use an Internet radio station as a source for music on hold (MOH) on Asterisk or FreePBX.

Implementing this is actually fairly straightforward.

We will use:

The first step is to actually find the stream you want to use.  Technically, you can use just about any streaming source that’s non-proprietary and use a Linux command-line player to send the output into something like SOX to produce the proper format for Asterisk.  We’re going to keep is very easy and use an MP3 stream and the basic MPG123 command-line player.  (This hasn’t shipped with Asterisk for some time, but you can find a download for it here.)

Choose a lower-bitrate styream if you can…  No need to waste bandwidth on a hi-def 256kbps stream when we’re going to resample it down anyway.

So, I’m going to go to and click the Jazz category.  The top result is, so we’ll use that.  Right-click on the link to get the .pls file and then open that using a text editor.  We actually want the part that looks like this:

Title1=(#1 - 24/11500) Global Radio - The World's First 24/7 Since 2000 - KJAZ.DB

Grab the URL on the File1 line.  This will be the streaming URL.

The next step is to log into your FreePBX interface and navigate to the “Music on Hold” menu.  (You’ll find it under Settings in recent versions of FreePBX.)

Click ‘Add Streaming Category’.

The Category Name is arbitrary, so here we can use the radio station name.  (In my example, I’m going to use “SmoothJazz”.)

For Application, we’re going to use MPG123 to play the steam here.  Make a note of this command line, as you’ll need to get the resampling parameters right. Replace the http://xxxx part with your URL from above.

/usr/bin/mpg123 -q -r 8000 -f 8192 --mono -s

Leave the ‘Optional Format’ field blank.

That’s it!  Submit Changes and you’ve now got a MOH class ready to use wherever you want on your system.


Welcome to the Voneto Blog!  Check back regularly for articles about on a range of communications topics including:

  • Open-source telephony
  • Asterisk resources, recipes, and “how-tos”
  • Contact Center operations
  • Business PBX topics
  • Cloud Computing & Cloud Communications
  • and much more…!

-Corey McFadden