Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Aug. 27, 1995
Published on: Sunday Age
5 min read

By Wilson da Silva 

EVERYONE has heard it but few people like it. It’s the music you hear when you are put on hold.

Some is Muzak, some is radio music and some should be called musad a combination of music and message to sell a product.

Following a ruling by the Federal Court last Wednesday, Telstra and other telecommunications carriers will have to pay royalties for the use of the music heard when callers are put on hold by corporate switchboards. 

During the court hearing, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), which represents musicians and composers, argued that royalties were due to the originators of music used “on hold”. It also argued that Telstra, as the carrier of the music, was acting as the diffusor (broadcaster) and was legally liable under the Copyright Act for all on-hold music played in Australia.

The Federal Court agreed. The APRA’s corporate solicitor, Ms Stephanie Faulkner, said: “The effect of that is to deem the telecommunications company that causes the diffusion to be the one causing the performance, and that makes any telecommunications company liable.” Telstra has said it will challenge the decision in the High Court. Mr David Andrews, a partner of the Melbourne firm Holding Redlich, acting for Telstra, told ‘The Sunday Age’ the Federal Court’s decision had exposed a range of new difficulties with existing copyright law.

“The Full Court’s decision highlights significant difficulties with the Copyright Act and raises a number of substantial practical issues,” he said. “Telstra has no means of controlling what its customers do and don’t do over the telecommunications network.”

The potential payout faced by the carriers is large. The ARPA earned $56.5 million last year in performance royalties.

Most of it came from licence fees paid by television and radio but $19.9 million came from public-performance fees paid by hotels, dance halls and other venues.

Although the ARPA declined to estimate the potential from hold music, Ms Faulkner said that barring an appeal to the High Court by Telstra the association would be seeking money from the other carriers.

Hold music is big business. One of the biggest in the field is Soundcom, a Sydney-based company, which holds the Australian rights to use the American Muzak.

Soundcom has 5000 clients around the country, most of whom play non-repetitive, easy-listening, non-controversial instrumental Muzak. Others take the company’s compilation of contemporary vocal tracks, for which it pays APRA a fee.

A random survey of hold music conducted by ‘The Sunday Age’ found the field evenly split between Muzak or other easy-listening backing tracks and CDs chosen by staff.

Some companies, including TNT and Western Mining, offer no on-hold entertainment. The High Court, using ABC-FM classical music, was playing a spirited symphony at the time of calling.

Solicitor Holding Redlich, which was playing ‘The Four Seasons’, usually has a selection of Bach and Vivaldi.

Telstra prefers contemporary Australian pop songs and Optus uses an easy-listening Muzak backing track with promotional messages. Vodafone plays a soundtrack of choral singing and synthetic music. Predictably, Soundcom uses Muzak.

THE CORPORATE JUKEBOX
What you’ll hear when you’re on hold.

  • Reserve Bank: Classical - ‘The Baroque Experience’ CD with Bach, Tellman and others.
  • Microsoft: Soundtracks to ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Silverado’.
  • Mushroom Records: Kylie Minogue - ‘Where is that feeling?’
  • Foster’s Brewing Co: Easy-listening instrumental Muzak.
  • John Singleton Advertising: Ad jingles for Buttercup and Just Squeeze.
  • GIO Australia: Easy-listening music with blasts of advertising.
  • The Daily Planet: ‘Pump it up’, with ads for “ladies of all ages, appearance and personalities”.
  • Daimaru: Backing track with ads for parking, restaurants and cafes.
  • Rothmans: Tina Turner - ‘Simply the Best’.
  • Federal Court, Melbourne: J.S. Bach flute sonatas.