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: http://downloads.asterisk.org/pub/telephony/sounds/

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.