Last Thursday, NPR published a story about a deceptively dull topic — hold music. The history of this much maligned loop of sound that’s designed to pacify impatient callers is more compelling than one might expect. Along with an interesting origin story about the history of hold music, the NPR essay explored the psychology of selecting the most appropriate music for a particular purpose. A funeral home or debt collector will play music that soothes, while a car dealership may offer something more upbeat, overlaid with branded messages or “sincere thanks” for your patience. No matter the secondary purpose of the selected songs, most everyone agrees that hold music should be innocuous and inoffensive, and it should communicate one essential thing — Don’t hang up! Someone will be with you soon.
What does any of this have to do with the law, you ask? Well, your question is important to us. For starters, there’s the invention of hold music itself, and while its origin is less momentous than the discovery of penicillin, this "music" came about in a similarly accidental way. Legend has it that a factory worker named Alfred Levy was inspired to file a patent application in 1962 for the “Telephone hold program system” when a wire came into contact with a steel girder at the factory where he worked, turning the factory into a giant radio. Music, transmitted through the wire to the steel beam, could be heard through the phone lines that, until then, had been silent. Some years later, Levy filed a second patent application for a “Remotely controlled telephone hold program system" that gave callers the freedom to decide which music they wished to hear, lest the same song on continuous repeat should grow tiresome. Clearly, Levy was an innovative sort who was also concerned with courteous telephone practice.
Levy's invention is now so commonplace that the absence of any sound on the end of the line is disconcerting. According to the NPR story, even on non-hold calls, companies transmit a “comfort tone” over phone lines, a “barely audible synthetic noise that signals a connection is still there.” No one likes to feel forgotten or lost in a void of silence (except perhaps one man who “loves being in that uncertain and boring middle most of us dread — on hold, listening to hold music”), so providing reassurance that someone is listening (or at least present) on the end of a phone line has become a routine practice.
Alfred Levy understood that the goal of any effective hold music is to distract, to draw attention away from the tedium and duration of holding the line. While it may accomplish little to simply acknowledge an on-hold caller’s frustration, actually calling attention to the purpose of hold music is, as it turns out, a secret of success for at least for one company.
UberConference, a web conferencing service from Dialpad Communications, has garnered a lot of attention for its creative use of hold music to entertain its customers. Instead of hearing the usual Muzak-style arrangements or tinny corporate selections that we all know so well, UberConference users are treated to a song called, “I’m On Hold” by UberConference co-founder and amateur singer-songwriter Alex Cornell. The song, a pleasant, county/folk melody designed specifically for the phone, is simple and catchy with a single guitar and vocals. It's the perfect recipe for a song that’s played over an analog phone line where music is necessarily compressed, and sound quality suffers. Since 2013 when the song debuted, it has generated serious social media buzz. Callers appreciate the song’s references to being on hold, waiting for other callers to join the conference, and the uncertainty of knowing if the call will ever begin. As writer and performer of this clever tune, Cornell holds copyright. Others may wish to use the song as their hold music, but allocating that right is Cornell’s alone. In the 1980s when companies simply pumped in music from the radio, copyright was not considered (or it was knowingly violated) even though, according to an article on Tedium.com, ASCAP designates hold music as a “public performance” that requires proper copyright clearance. Now, while hold music has its moment in the sun, conference callers everywhere can enjoy a little departure from the everyday Clare de Lune or the fleetingly popular Cisco hold music. Conference callers, including lawyers and librarians, can be entertained and amused while enjoying a properly cleared, copyrighted, piece of music designed for just the occasion.