Do you need a licence for hold music?

Updated Tuesday, October 23, 2016

Telephone hold music is a much-maligned medium – if it’s not a terrible rendition of something classical being played on a 1980’s Bontempi keyboard, it’s some awful, generic piece of aural tat that has a very loose connection to the term ‘music’.

And even if it’s a tune your familiar with, it can come across as warbly, scratchy and not at all like you remembered it.

It’s all a matter of personal taste really.

The question is though, if you’re playing hold music over your telephone system, do you need a licence for it?

And the short answer is almost always ‘yes’.

What is hold music?

Hold music is simply a piece of music that is played to replace the, sometimes long, silence that occurs when a phone call is placed on hold.

The most commonly used hold music is thought to be a track called ‘Opus Number One’ – the reason it’s so popular? It’s the default hold music on 65 million Cisco phone sets around the world!

Types of music licence

Broadly speaking, there are two  types of licence you will need if you want to play music on hold – a Public Performance Licence (PPL) and a Performing Rights Society Licence (PRS).

And while you may be tempted to go ahead and play the hold music without getting a licence, be warned that both PPL and PRS are pretty keen on tracking down business that try to cheat the system and aren’t afraid to take businesses who do so to court.

A PPL licence covers the royalties paid to performers, such as the artist or orchestra that made the recording, while a PRS licence sorts the royalties for the composers of the music and lyrics, the songwriters, basically.

There are some exceptions though…

Classical music

If you’ve ever wondered why companies seem to favour a bit of classical to keep people on hold entertained, it could be because some compositions are out of copyright.

Copyright on written music expires 70 years after the composer has died, which means if the composer of  a piece of music died before 1944, you won’t require a PRS licence.

However, if the sound recording was made in the last 50 years you’ll still most likely require a PPL licence to play it.

Royalty-free music

Royalty-free music adds another layer of complexity to the whole set-up as although you won’t need a PPL licence to pay the performers – money is normally made by selling the music at a higher price than other music – there’s a good chance you’ll still need a PRS licence to pay the composers.

What music is right for you?

When choosing hold music, it’s important not just to go for the cheapest option as the type of music you choose can say a lot about you and your company image – so, first and foremost, pick something that reflects you and your business.

Originally published October 15, 2014

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