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Money on Hold - How to Make Money Recording Phone Messages

2/1/2002

When you call a company and are placed on hold, you typically hear music, a radio station, or a promotional message for the company. Ask yourself: who makes those phone messages? Why isn't it you? With a simple personal studio, you can earn some decent money, as much as $500 a day, producing on-hold messages for a variety of businesses and other organizations.

Being placed on hold is a negative experience. When a company puts one caller on hold every 5 minutes for only 15 seconds during an 8-hour business day, that adds up to more than 100 hours a year that people are on hold. One survey reports that executives waste more than 15 minutes a day on hold. Savvy companies transform that negative time into something positive. Any business can benefit from the active custom on-hold messages you can provide.

Custom on-hold content typically comprises two elements: music and messages. Music provides the general filler to keep callers motivated to wait. Messages punctuate the music with promotions and other information to motivate callers further. On-hold messages do the following:

  1. Stop people from hanging up. Nothing is worse than dead air on the phone while a caller waits.

  2. Keep callers interested. Long waits seem shorter when messages provide entertainment and information.

  3. Sell and up-sell callers (to up-sell is to sell additional products or services besides the core product). Surveys indicate that as many as one in five callers purchase the product or service mentioned on hold.

  4. Eliminate music-licensing fees. Playing a radio station or music CDs through a telephone system constitutes a public performance of the music and is subject to music-licensing fees.

  5. Saves your clients money. Compared with other promotional methods (for example, radio advertising), on-hold messages are inexpensive — not to mention easy to control, monitor, and update.

CLIENT NEEDS

The ability to play music on hold is a function of your client's telephone equipment. Typically, businesses with multiline telephone systems have on-hold messaging capability. Otherwise, they must contact their telephone equipment supplier — not the telephone company, which may charge exorbitantly for the service — to have the feature activated. On-hold messages can also be made to work with single- or dual-line telephones with the addition of a coupling switch (see Fig. 1).

Your client also needs a way to play back the on-hold messages. The two most popular choices are a CD boom box and a dedicated digital playback device. The CD boom box must have a headphone or a line-out jack, a volume control, and an Infinite Playback (repeat) mode. Simply connect the boom box to the phone system's music-on-hold input, set the CD player to Repeat, slip in the CD of custom messages that you produced, and press play; the messages will play until stopped. The on-hold message thus plays at all times, whether or not someone is on hold.

Digital on-hold messaging equipment comes in two varieties: remote and cassette download. Both versions have the necessary output jacks and volume control. The remote download lets you send the messages by modem to the machine through an attached phone line. I prefer the type that comes with a cassette deck attached. You record the custom messages onto an analog cassette, put the cassette in the machine, and press play. The tape plays once to transfer the messages into digital memory. The tape won't play again unless the digital memory is erased (in a power failure, for instance). To replace the messages, simply load in another tape with new on-hold information. Digital playback devices come with three different playback-loop times: 3- to 4-minute, 6- to 8-minute, and 10- to 12-minute loops. (One good source for these devices is Premier Technologies.)

THING OR TWO

You can prepare custom on-hold messages with minimal studio gear. All you need is a multitrack recorder (digital audio workstation [DAW], MDM, cassette portastudio, or what have you); a cassette deck or a CD burner (for the final mix); a quality microphone and a mic preamp; royalty-free music (or original music) and possibly sound effects; voice talent; a script; and a quiet space for recording.

I began earning money preparing on-hold messages using a cassette-based portastudio and a Shure SM57 microphone. I now use Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP and Vegas Video, a Marshall 2003 large-diaphragm condenser mic, and a Joemeek VC3 preamp directly plugged in to my computer's sound card. This setup works for all of my production work, including on-hold messages.

THE RIGHT STUFF

Most on-hold segments use instrumental music. Work with your client to select an appropriate music style, one that appeals to callers and complements the client's image and message. After determining the style, you have two ways to get the music you need: compose original music or buy a royalty-free music library. Never use copyrighted material for on-hold message productions.

If you compose original music for the spots, don't expect to be paid for it beyond what you charge for the project. It is possible, however, to use your original music repeatedly — that is, with different clients. I often use tracks from my own Melomania music library as well as other old tracks from previous projects. Now is your chance to dust off those oldies and finally get them heard.

If you prefer not to compose original music or you're under a tight deadline, buyout library music provides an inexpensive alternative. You pay one fee for the music, after which you can use it nonexclusively without paying royalties or worrying about infringement. Such library CDs cost more than regular music discs; typically, you get a couple of hours of music in a variety of styles for about $100. Use your favorite Internet search engine to find links to different offerings.

THE PAID PIPER

If you have the pipes or know someone who does, you may be able to avoid hiring voice talent. Professional voice actors usually do a better job, though. I once had a pro do a nine-minute read straight through with no errors. To find appropriate people, look for a directory in your area that lists creative talent. Contact a nearby college theater department for possible candidates. Also, check with a local chapter of the Toastmasters Club. It makes sense to have a stable of voice actors you can call on as situations arise, too, because some clients prefer certain voices to others.

Don't hire someone sound unheard. Ask for a demo and carefully review it to make sure the talent has the sound you need. Additionally, bring the person in for an audition. Give him or her some copy to read, record the session, and listen critically to the performance.

Get a talent release for the work the performer provides. Essentially, the person signs a letter giving up his or her rights to the performance in exchange for a one-time payment (see the sidebar, “Sample Authorization of Release”). Fees for nonunion voice actors range from $75 to $150 per hour; union rates are significantly higher. You'll always pay a one-hour minimum, even if the person works only ten minutes. A cost-effective approach, therefore, is to record several on-hold packages for different clients in one session.

WRITE RIGHT

You don't want callers to hear the same message over and over because that defeats the whole purpose of custom on-hold messages. Instead, record a series of messages on various topics and space them out with a 12- to 15-second music-only break between each message. Then continuously loop the package on the telephone system. If the client has typically short hold times, the overall loop length can be brief — say, four to six minutes. You should be able to squeeze eight to ten messages into that time allotment. If the client's hold time is longer, produce a longer loop with more messages and larger music-only gaps between them.

For most on-hold message scripts, think radio spot, only shorter. There are essentially four approaches to take when writing the spots:

  1. Image building: “We stand behind every product we manufacture.”

  2. Soft sell: “Ask us for more information about our products.”

  3. Hard sell: “When you order a second large one-topping pizza, you get a 2-liter bottle of soda free.”

  4. Reminders: “Thanks for holding,” “We'll be with you shortly,” “Sorry for the delay,” and other niceties.

Use information provided by your client to draft the messages. One of my clients publishes a newsletter, and all the information I need to write the company's on-hold messages comes from that. Most messages you'll produce will be straight announcer for 8 to 15 seconds, with a music bed underneath. That's just enough time to plug an upcoming event, offer a product or service, provide store locations and hours, and assure the caller that someone will be with him or her soon. Get creative. You can do straight announcer, duos, slice-of-life or other reality spots, a message from the company bigwig, and more. The trick is to create enough variety to make the caller's wait more enjoyable.

THAT'S SO LINEAR

For a linear, tape-based recording system, follow this basic method: Record the voice to one track of your multitrack. Go for a clean, dry sound. When using multiple voices, put them on separate tracks. Time the gap between each on-hold message segment with a stopwatch. You'll also have to do live punch-ins to fix mistakes in the voice tracks. (Don't fret. I have produced dozens of on-hold messages that way using only a cassette portastudio.)

Next, add music to other tracks. If you use different music cuts, checkerboard the tracks so you can crossfade them during the mix. Depending on the script, sound effects may eat other tracks.

Telephone speakers are lo-fi, mono, and limited in frequency and volume response. Typically, they roll off fast below 300 Hz and above 5 kHz. You are not mixing for radio here. Instead, you want a tight, in-your-face sound limited in both dynamic and frequency ranges. Monitor through headphones, but instead of placing the cans on your ears, lay them faceup on your mixer. You may need to crank the volume to hear, but the sound mimics the telephone earpiece well. If your mix works on this setup, it'll be fine on the phone. You'll also want to check the mixes on your regular monitors at some point to make sure you don't have any unwanted noise or other problems.

Obviously, the voice is the most important part of the mix; it must be clear, consistent, and fully intelligible. The music and sound effects, though also important, are secondary. Start with the music level 12 dB below the voice track and ride the gain during mixdown. On the voice track, EQ out everything higher than 5 kHz and lower than 300 Hz and add a slight bump (2 to 4 dB) at 2 kHz. Equalize the music track the same way, except do a 2 to 4 dB cut at 2 kHz. That carves out a hole for the voice to sit in.

Last, compress the whole mix. Try a 4:1 or higher ratio with fast to medium attack and slow release. Mix to cassette or burn a CD as needed.

HEM AND DAW

A DAW-based studio makes producing on-hold messages a snap. You don't have to worry about the gaps between messages or punching in talent mistakes. Instead, save complete voice takes of each message to its own file and edit any mistakes in post-production. Always listen to every take before the voice talent leaves — you don't want to discover later that a word was blown, distorted, or missing and have to call the person back and pay him or her again.

Record the voice tracks into a 2-track or multitrack recorder. I record mic to preamp to sound card direct to Sound Forge XP. Each message goes into its own file complete with retakes. When the talent leaves, I create copies of the session files and clean them up, deleting blown lines and replacing them with good takes, trimming starts and ends, removing breaths and lip smacks, and so on. Additionally, I usually gently compress the tracks and then normalize their volumes to 98 percent.

Launch your multitrack software of choice (I use Vegas Video) and drag and drop the complete voice messages to one track, leaving appropriate gaps between segments (see Fig. 2). Set the track's level to 0 dB. The music segments go onto another track. Vegas Video automatically crossfades segments when you drop them on top of one another. Note that the music track's level is set at -12 dB.

Use volume envelopes on the music tracks to automatically duck (lower their levels) under the voice and increase them between message segments. Apply the aforementioned EQ settings to the voice and music and then compress the entire mix (also as described previously). Render the final project to a WAV, AIFF, or other appropriate file and either dub to cassette or burn a CD, depending on the client's needs. When you create a custom CD, burn the same program over and over (I usually do about ten programs) so the CD player doesn't keep playing the same part of the disc. Once the project is complete, I create a backup-data CD with the raw voice files, the edited versions, the Vegas Video project file, the music tracks, the final-mix WAV file, and any project notes.

THE BIZ

About 75 percent of on-hold packages total six minutes or less of play time. My fees typically range from $120 to $250 per package, with most falling in the $175 to $200 range. Out of this fee, you must pay for your talent, music licensing, and any other fees (blank cassettes or CD-Rs, for instance). You can make additional money selling the equipment needed for on-hold messages (the CD boom box or digital player) by marking up its cost 25 percent or more.

It's easy to get started looking for first or new clients. Get yourself hired by your current employer, for example. Ask friends, family, and other business associates for leads. Make a few calls to likely candidates (for example, retail stores, car dealers, and software companies). Mention your on-hold services to clients who use you for other services. Pitch to local ad agencies that produce promotions for their clients. Contact telephone equipment sellers and persuade them to recommend you.

In addition, you might write a sales letter or flyer that explains your services and package it with a quality demo tape or disc. Make the promotional material so it can be mailed, e-mailed, and posted to your Web site. Keep the demo short (less than two minutes) and include your sales message and examples of on-hold messages you've done. If you're new to this, create fictional examples and replace them with real ones after you land a few gigs. (You can see and hear an example of how to promote on-hold services on my Web site, www.jeffreypfisher.com/hold.html.)

One great thing about producing on-hold messages is that clients will usually want to update their messages regularly. That puts even more money in your pocket. Contact past buyers at least once each quarter and pitch updates to them. Between new clients and repeat business, you can soon be rolling in dough from your on-hold services.


Jeffrey P. Fisher is the author of Profiting from Your Music and Sound Project Studio and two other popular music-industry books. You can reach him at www.jeffreypfisher.com.

SAMPLE AUTHORIZATION OF RELEASE

Print the following Authorization of Release on letterhead and fill in the blanks (as indicated by the parentheticals). The talent should sign and date the form and retain a copy; you keep the original.

For value received in the amount of (indicate dollar amount), I, (print talent's name), the undersigned, give and grant (your company name), its affiliates, successors, and assigns the unqualified right, privilege, and permission to reproduce in every manner or form, publish and circulate video, sound recordings, or films of recordings of my (indicate what the talent did, for example, voice or musical contribution) arising from (indicate project title), and I hereby grant, assign, and transfer all my rights and interest therein. I specifically authorize and empower (your company name) to cause any such videos, films, or sound recordings of my (indicate again what the talent did), to be copyrighted or in any other manner to be legally registered in the name of (your company name). My contribution to this work shall be considered a “work made for hire,” and as such, I, my heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns hereby remise, release, and discharge (your company name) for and from any and all claims of any kind whatsoever on account of the use of such recordings, including, but not limited to, any and all claims for damages for libel, slander, and invasion of the right of privacy. I am of lawful age and sound mind and have read and understand this Authorization of Release.

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