Saturday, March 14, 2009

Royalties and performance rights - a "must read" if you use music on hold

Before you use music in public, there are some things about music copyright and performance rights that you need to understand. This article is meant to give a simple, clear overview of the issues involved in this process.

 

Royalty free music for telephone
on-hold... What you need to know.

Performance rights:


When music is used in such a way that other people than yourself and your immediate family/friends can hear it, this is called a "performance". For example, if you are in a supermarket and they are playing the radio over the loudspeakers, that is a "performance" of that music. The same goes for music-on-hold. If you have music playing on-hold for the people that call your company, that is a "performance" of the music.

Most composers are members of the "performance affiliation" for their country. These are sometimes referred to as "performance organization" or "royalty affiliation". Each country has such an organization. In USA they are called ASCAP or BMI. In the UK they are called PRS. In Sweden STIM, in Germany GEMA... and so on. These organizations all exchange information and work together, so that a composer who is a member of ASCAP in USA is automatically represented by GEMA in Germany, by STIM in Sweden, by PRS in the UK, and so on.

In order for any company to publicly perform music by these organized composers, it must have a license from their country's performance affiliation. If you are a shop owner in Germany and you want to play music by an American composer so that your customers can hear it, you need a license from the German performance affiliation, GEMA. GEMA will collect the license money from you, and through a longwinded system, distribute a part of the money to the millions of composers who are members of these organizations.

The price for this license is not calculated "per play" or "per song". It is a set annual fee. Once you have your license arranged, you can play as much or as little music as you want. The amount you have to pay depends on the number of people who can hear the music when you play it. For example, a national TV broadcasting company pays an annual fee that is much, much higher than a dentist who uses music in his waiting room.

But what happened to "royalty free"?


Okay, so you want to play music in public, and you want to avoid having to pay the annual license fee to your country's performance affiliation. You seek out some "royalty-free music", and want to play it on your telephone on-hold system or in your shop, or wherever other people can hear it. But here is where it starts to get complicated: Music that you have purchased as "royalty free music" is usually NOT free from the need to have a license from your country's performance organization.

Most music offered up as "royalty free music" was composed by composers who are members of a performance affiliation. The music is offered to you as "royalty free" because, frankly, it is assumed that every company that publicly performs music already has the annual license in order -- in which case it makes no difference, and causes no extra costs, that the composer is a member of his affiliation. Of course, it matters to the composer, because he will then get a tiny fraction of the money that you have already paid in your annual license fee.

So in what way is it then royalty-free? Well, in the traditional way, before "royalty-free" was an option, you would have to pay a royalty to the composer, producer, or company that licensed the music to you, in addition to your annual license fee to the performance organization. The composer would get a small sum directly from you for each time you used his music and he would also get a tiny fraction of your annual license fee, after it has gone through the performance affiliation. When some composers started offering their music as "royalty-free", the idea was that: "You pay me this one-time sum for my music, you can then use it as much as you want without paying me any royalties...". This, however, doesn't mean that you don't have to pay an annual license fee to your country's performance affiliation.

You can't really blame the composer for this. His assumption is that you also use other music -- in which case you already have your annual license from your country's performance affiliation, and he is then right to say that there are no royalties to pay on his music.

Another thing to consider is that often, the producer of a product is a different company from the one that ends up broadcasting it, or performing it in public. The most typical example is a TV-program. One company produces the program. If they use "royalty-free music", they do not ever pay any royalties. They don't publicly perform or broadcast the program, so they don't need an annual license either. Another company, a broadcasting company, broadcasts the program. They already have their annual license fee in order, so the music doesn't cause them any royalties to pay, either. In this highly typical case, the music caused no new royalties to pay by anybody, and as such, it is fair to call it "royalty free". If the music obtained was not royalty-free, the producer would have to pay the composer a royalty for each time his music was used.



So how can I get completely royalty-free music?


The only way to avoid the annual license fee to your country's performance affiliation is to use only music composed by people who are not a member of any performance affiliation, anywhere in the world. This can be hard to get hold of. It makes sense for composers to be a member of their performance organization, so most self respecting composers are.

If you are searching for music to use in public, on telephone on-hold, in your shop, on your radio station or wherever other people can hear the music, and you want to avoid having to pay the annual license fee to your country's performance affiliation, you need to seek out music composed by composers who are not a member of any such organization. At Shockwave-Sound.com we call these "Non-PRO composers" and their music "Non-PRO Tracks". Note that "PRO" in this case does not stand for "Professional", but for "Performing Rights Organization".

When browsing the music at Shockwave-Sound.com, take note of the option displayed to you at the top of all track listings: Display "PRO and Non-PRO Tracks", or "Non-PRO Tracks Only". If you select the latter, all tracks that were composed by composers who are members of performing rights organizations are removed from the list. You are left with a much smaller list of music tracks, that are all "Non-PRO Tracks". These tracks are completely royalty-free. You can broadcast them and play them in public as much as you want, without paying any fees to any royalties collections agencies.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Independent review of the Sennheiser 450 Noise Canceling Headphones


As a music composer, producer and sound engineer, I need a good pair of headphones. I’ve been using a pair of Sennheiser headphones for years that I was always quite pleased with, but with the number of computers, fans, servers, external hard disks and even hard disks in hardware outboard samplers around me, frankly, the noise level in my working environment was beginning to get untenable.

I saw a pair of Bose noise canceling headphones at an airport, and it occurred to me that most people who buy this type of headphones do so because they want something to use while on flights. Frankly, I don’t fly that often that I feel the need to pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of headphones used especially for in-flight use, but I do spend hundreds, thousands of hours working on music and sound effects in an environment filled with noisy computers and hard disks, so I found I wanted to invest in a pair for use in my office/studio - not primarily for flights.

I spent some time getting to know a few different models, and in the end I decided to go with these Sennheiser PXC 450 Noise Guard Noise Canceling Headphones. They were among the more expensive noise reducing headphones on the market, but since I was going to use these for hundreds and hundreds of hours, I wanted to invest in something of very good quality and not simply get the cheapest.

Background on noise canceling technologies


For those who don’t quite know what this "noise canceling" stuff is all about, there are basically two types of noise reduction used in headphones: Passive noise reduction and Active noise reduction.

Passive noise reduction simply means the physical blocking out of external noise. Headphones can be made to fit so snugly around your ears and the ear muffs can be made with a material that blocks out noise.

Active noise reduction / noise canceling, on the other hand, is a lot more complex. It involves tiny microphones on the outside of the ear muffs that actually keep a digital footprint of the sound waves that can be heard on the outside, and then uses clever technology generate an "opposite" noise footprint which is then broadcast/played inside the earmuffs, to "counter-act" the noise. Depending on how well this technology is implemented, it can be quite baffling and very impressive. This technology is also used inside some cars, to cancel out the noise of traffic from the outside.

First impressions


The Sennheiser PXC 450 headphones feel very exclusive, expensive and classy 2 I mean that both in the sense of holding them and handling them, and how they feel when you’re wearing them. The padding around your ears is very comfortable and overall it feels really nice to wear them. They fit softly and comfortably. You can wear these for hours without feeling any discomfort. Great work by Sennheiser here.

Having said that, the first time I put these on, I was surprised and a little discomforted by hearing a low "hum", like a fan running at 50 Hz or so inside. I felt it was really quite loud as well. I adjusted the position of the headphones a little bit on my head, and the hum disappeared. I’m not sure what that’s all about or what’s causing it, but occasionally when I put them on, I have to adjust them a little bit by slightly changing the angle at which I’m wearing them on my head, to get rid of that nasty low humming sound.



         

Sound quality


As a pair of headphones, the PXC450 sound really good. Listening to music, the music sounds very crisp, warm, transparent and clear. Quite simply, they sound like pure class. The bass is nicely defined and sits perfectly in the mix. The mid-tones and treble are tremendously clear and at the same time, relaxed, natural and clean. All in all, it’s a tremendous pleasure to listen to well recorded and well produced music in these headphones.

The noise canceling


Let’s talk about the actual noise canceling qualities of these headphones - and I’m afraid this is where my enthusiasm takes a downturn. I read on the distributor’s website that these headphones would block out 80-85% of all outside noise. I’m sorry, but personally I simply find that to be untrue. Sitting in a room with several noisy computers, I can still hear these computers even when wearing these phones. And if somebody in the next room talk, I can hear their voices. In fact, even if somebody downstairs is talking, I can not only hear them, but I can hear what they are saying. And if a car drives up on the outside of the building, I can hear it. That’s not what I was expecting from these rather expensive noise canceling headphones.

In my estimation, I’d say that the true noise reduction percentage from these is about 35-40%, not the promised 80-85%. It’s hard to put a number on it, but if I had to try, I’d say that I probably hear about 35-40% less from the noise around me, when wearing these phones switched on in noise canceling mode.


Other features


Like other noise canceling headphones, the PXC 450 requires a battery. It uses a single AAA battery which lasts for several hours. I like the fact that it doesn’t use its own special battery type which must be charged all the time. Instead it uses a standard battery which means that you have the choice of simply buying regular batteries, or to buy a rechargeable one.

Unlike some other noise canceling headphones, these also work as normal headphones, even without a battery. So if you’re somewhere without access to batteries, at least you’ll still be able to use them as normal headphones, without the noise canceling feature. I feel this is a valuable feature, as some other noise canceling headphones would simply be completely useless without a battery.

Talk-through feature


On the right earmuff there is a "talk through" button. You press it, a little green light comes on, and the little microphones on the outside of the earmuffs actually record the sound and play it back into the headphones. Useful if you’re listening to music and somebody just wants to say something to you, or you want to listen out for something for a couple of seconds - without having to remove the headphones and/or stop the music. You press the talk-through button and listen to the outside world for a couple of seconds, then press the button again to return to your music.

Packing/transporting


The headphones come with a nice little "briefcase" like box with room for the actual headphones, the cable, and a few spare batteries. Again, it feels solid, classy, expensive and durable. A feature I like is the ability to pack/wrap the headphones in two different ways - one way to get as flat as possible, and another way to get as small as possible. Check the video above to see how that works.

In summary


To sum up, I like the Sennheiser PXC 450 very much as a pair of headphones. I take them with me everywhere I travel and I love to listen to music in them because they sound, and feel, so good. However, I’m disappointed with the actual noise canceling. There’s no way that these actually cancel 85% of the noise - no way. 35-40%, yes. But not 85%. And given the rather high price of this product, I guess I’m a little disappointed that the core functionality - the noise canceling - is not as good as advertised.

Positives:

  • Feel very comfortable.
  • Sound great.
  • Use a standard battery.
  • Work as normal headphones without battery.

Negatives:

  • Noise canceling simply not as effective as advertised.
  • Occasional strange low-frequency humming sound which can usually be got rid of simply by adjusting the position of the headphones on the head.