What Price is “Human Nature”?

A few weeks ago, I voiced an on-hold program for a client, and when he declined all of my choices of available selections of royalty-free music to mix behind my vocals, he suggested something which still stymies me to this day:

“Can’t we just play Michael Jackson?”

I tried to explain to him that our combined incomes — let’s throw in the incomes of everyone who works for him — heck, let’s go ever further to combine all of our incomes and that of everyone who works in his office park — couldn’t come close to affording what it might cost to legally mix a track from the Michael Jackson catalogue into an on-hold program. The thought that permission or royalties would even have to be paid — on top of  what he had already paid for the CD — never occurred to him. Grudgingly, he eventually gave in and chose a cut from my collection — but even after the fact, he still vigorously debated how great it would be to have “Human Nature” playing for his customers.

Many people don’t realize how limiting and restrictive the agreement you have between you and an on online downloading entity like Apple iTunes is — or even the “agreement” you informally strike up with the license holders of the CD you just bought. (Do people still buy CD’s…?)  You are, essentially, signing up for “private listening” — if you play it in *any* milieu other than enjoying it for yourself, or among family and friends — that’s considered “broadcasting”. And that requires permission and the shell-out of a licensing fee.

Playing music in a restaurant, bar, office, store — or putting it into an on-hold messaging program — requires a license. There are three large companies in the US who regulate and monitor the use of licensed materials, making sure that the artists and musicians get their fair share from their creative works being used — Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Society of European Stage Authors & Composers (SESAC) — there are a few smaller ones as well. Because music is so prevalent and pervasive in almost everything we are exposed to (especially online), seldom do we think about entitlements and remuneration to which the artist might be due. We purchase or download for free, copy it relentlessly and distribute it without flinching.

Another common practice is to play a radio station for customers on hold — which unleashes a whole other subset of problems. The same copyright issues apply — there is no express permission of the music title and mechanical copyright holders for you to be “broadcasting” their music, and for that reason alone, the playing of a radio station while on-hold is illegal in many states. Also, there is no control over the specific songs played, which could potentially be offensive to callers. Additionally, you could be unwittingly broadcasting commercials for your competitors, which your customers are forced to absorb while waiting for service from your company. Technical aspects of radio — ie: sounding harsh in monaural sound — plus being prone to interference — makes it not the best option for on-hold.

So what’s the big deal over playing tunes you’ve downloaded or purchased to run under your on-hold program? It’s done all the time — by everybody — and impossible to monitor or enforce…right?

It *is* difficult to monitor. Millions of performances of copyrighted music take place every day — however, increasingly, representatives from BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC are contacting businesses and determining whether or not their licenses are current for the materials they are playing on their on-hold, as well as streaming audio on their websites, etc.

How bad can the penalties be?

Actual damages, as well as statutory damages of up to $20,000 can be awarded for each copyrighted song performed without a license. The damages can actually be closer to $100,000 if the infringement is willful. And those who willfully infringe for commercial advantage or private gain can be fined up to $25,000, be sentenced to jail time of up to a year, or both. Well worth the detectives for the licensing agencies to do some poking around.

Those practicing due diligence will purchase individual licences from the licensing agencies for each project or selection of music they plan on utilizing  — or, as in the case of an on-hold company — using many titles on a ongoing basis — the payment of a yearly lump-sum to the licensing agencies makes sense. Proof of the license is usually issued to those who purchase on-hold programs to make sure everyone is covered in case a BMI or an ASCAP comes knocking on your call center door.

Personally, I find the purchasing outright of individual tracks from various online royalty-free music agencies to be headache-free and a far better option — two of my favorites are www.musicbakery.com and www.soundrangers.com. For a flat one-time purchase fee, you have unlimited world-wide usage of the track for as long as you own it. Their music is also current, there’s a vast array of choice, and their selections are — for lack of a better word — non-schmaltzy, as can be a lot of pre-packaged, off-the-shelf on-hold collections. And best of all: there can be no repercussions on the royalty side — peace of mind for both myself and my clients.

Next week, I’ll be blogging about the issue of confidentiality and conflict of interest in doing voice-over work: as a voice talent, NDA’s are a common thing I’m asked to sign — the nature of some projects I’m privy to is proprietary and requires a bit of discretion on my part. Difficult for most people to commit to — especially a blogger!

Thanks for reading. Comments, as always, are welcomed!

(Editorial Note: In the last blog entry, “What The Heck is Gonk…?” I mentioned the “second Orson Welles file” but neglected to embed the link into the article. This no doubt caused confusion for those searching for the legendary “frozen peas spot”. The link is there now.)

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.


  1. Caroline Said:

    Integrity is the only way to go. And you m’dear are a shining example of this.

    • voicegal Said:

      Bless your heart, C! I just know people who wish they’d gone through legitimate channels and ended up paying. Plus, as you and I know, it’s important for artists to get their due!

  2. lsm Said:

    I applaud you. My bereavement business too was harassed by those representatives and I always thought it was my right to use the music I buy from a CD or itunes. Well I know now better. I have been a good girl paying my fees now until recently I started using royalty free music too as it is another alternative (I use it for my subsidary that is smaller and less profitable), So far I have use http://www.opuzz.com/ and http://www.royaltyfreemusic.com/. Both are recognized in my country as they are not affiliated to any performance agency.

    • voicegal Said:

      That’s funny — awhile back I did the prompts for a funeral home, and the client wanted me to use a cut by Enya. Same struggle educating them that using any cut by a current (popular) recording artist wasn’t going to be cheap. I’m personally glad that there’s more choice in royalty-free sites (thanks for those links, BTW) and there’s less obligation to shell out to the big licensing agencies.

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