Origins of Telecom: The History of On-Hold Music
Whenever you call a business or join a conference call for that matter, chances are you will hear music or a recorded message when placed on hold. It’s practically a given, but this wasn’t always the case. Before on-hold music and messaging came about, all you’d hear was silence. For all you knew, you’d been hung up on! Your only choices were to wait and see if your call would be picked up or hang up and try again later.
Music on hold was born out of an accidental discovery by factory owner Alfred Levy in the early 1960s. The phone lines in his factory were somehow picking up a radio signal from the radio station nearby, and callers could hear music when they were put on hold. It turns out that a loose wire touching a metal girder in the building had turned the building into a crude radio receiver. Inspiration struck and Levy’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He patented his “telephone hold program system” a few years later in 1966.
Levy’s system was intended for subscribers who had multiple incoming extensions or trunk lines as a means of placating callers who had been placed on hold. When placing a caller on hold, traditional phone systems switch the incoming call to a holding circuit rather than to a telephone instrument. Levy’s system adds a program line to the holding circuit, allowing a “program signal” to be introduced. Levy described several suitable sources of program material as “a phonograph, a wire recorder, a tape recorder, a magnetic drum recorder, a live program, a broadcast, i.e. radio program, or a commercial program line such as is employed to supply music to establishments, e.g. restaurants and stores.”
Adding music to the holding system addressed several common problems callers encountered when calling a business and being placed on hold. Rather than hearing dead air and wondering if their call had been abandoned, they now heard music and knew they were still connected. In addition, music alleviated some of the tedium of being on hold.
As with many telecom inventions, Levy’s idea was further expanded upon over the years. No longer seen as just a way to reassure callers that they hadn’t been forgotten, other visionaries saw the marketing potential of “messaging on hold.” According to The Message On Hold Network, the idea for Message On Hold came from listening to an on-hold radio transmission during a call to the bank. A radio commercial came on while on hold, sparking the idea for creating marketing messages to play while callers were holding. Early devices included audio cassettes, much like answering machines of the era. As audio technology changed, so did the devices used for playing messages on hold. These devices have included CDs, digital chips, MP3 files, and now, streaming audio.
It’s important to note that on-hold music and messaging devices that play copyrighted music, whether via an audio cassette, CD, MP3 file, streaming service, or radio broadcast, must obtain appropriate licenses via the three performing rights organizations: BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. These licenses allow them to play copyrighted music to the public. Some music on hold companies build licensing into their service fees, but not all do.
Today, on hold messaging is believed to be the most effective. According to stats compiled by the On Hold Messaging Association, callers stay on the line up to 25 percent longer with on hold messaging than with silences or background music and up to 17 percent longer than with radio. Keeping callers on the line is vital, as 34 percent of callers who hang up won’t call back.
Levy was on to something back in the 1962. He knew that callers didn’t like sitting on hold wondering if they’d been forgotten. His invention has helped make hold times tolerable and paved the way to the creation of another effective marketing channel.