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Sounding the wrong note?

Old radio

By Andy Sully
BBC News

Music in the workplace may make the day pass quicker but it's a benefit that can come with a hefty price tag, as some small business owners are starting to find out.

Lyn Ball was preparing for her next customer at Mane Connections, the hair salon she runs in a market town in the South West of England, when a man, looking not unlike a sales rep, popped into her shop.

But far from trying to sell her anything the visitor introduced himself as being from the Performing Right Society (PRS) and promptly issued her with a demand for a 200 music licence.

What had Ms Ball done to warrant this notice? Turn on her radio.

BENEFITS OF MUSIC AT WORK
Improves productivity in jobs that are repetitive, mundane or undemanding
Improves performance in physically-demanding jobs
Raises employee morale
Improves employees' physical health
Improve employee co-operation
Source: PRS

Len Attwood, a car mechanic, had a similar visit recently, despite having no radio of his own at his Essex workshop. But he and his two staff had been used to tuning into music stations using radios in customers' cars.

It was a way of "cheering up the workplace" says Mr Attwood, from his premises in Witham.

But in the eyes of the PRS a workplace that ticks along to the backdrop of musical accompaniment is better than one that is suffused with silence - and that's worth paying for.

More than half a million businesses across the UK are estimated to be playing music illegally, it is estimated.

Some, Ms Ball says, are simply unaware they have to pay for something that is almost incidental.

"I think it's a con," she says. "The radio is hardly audible - it's there to provide a bit of background noise. It's there for staff. How does it differ from someone listening to your car radio if you give them a lift?"

Radio in bedroom

"And why should a small business - which already has to pay for lots of red tape - have to pay royalties on something the radio station has already paid for?

Len Attwood
'We work in silence now' - garage owner Len Attwood

There's nothing new about the need to pay royalties in this way. The PRS has been licensing music for use since it was formed in 1914.

But some believe it has recently stepped up its efforts to recoup cash, and in some cases is taking matters too far.

Steve Scaife, who runs a nine-room guest house in Plymouth, says he has been pursued despite the fact that the only radio on the premises is in his bedroom.

"Because the people who ran the business before us had a PRS licence we've been constantly pursued to buy one. It's been going on for years now - letters and visits threatening court action."

Mr Scaife's woes have been taken up by local MP Alison Seabeck, who raised the matter in Parliament at the end of last year.

"Everyone accepts that people who produce music should benefit from their efforts," Ms Seabeck tells the BBC.

"But the evidence is that the PRS have had a blitz of businesses who previously hadn't been approached to pay. People feel intimidated and there seem to be anomalies in the way licensing operates. I'd like to see that addressed."

But despite the fact that the Federation of Small Businesses also believes there has been a crackdown, the Performing Rights Society itself says it is largely business as usual.

44 upwards

Any rise in demands is simply down to the fact it's easier to gather data on companies, it says.

The James Bond theme writer says if it wasn't for the support he got from the PRS early in his career, he'd still be sweeping floors in Luton Airport
Keith Gilbert

But is this not just heavy handed enforcement to boost the balances of wealthy pop stars?

Keith Gilbert, of the PRS, says not.

"A surprising number of songwriters work on the making of today's successful pop songs and 90% of our 60,000 members earn less than 5,000 a year from royalties," says Mr Gilbert.

"[James Bond music writer] David Arnold says if it wasn't for the support he got from the PRS early in his career, he'd still be sweeping floors in Luton Airport. The royalties we collect allow creative people to keep being creative."

The PRS use data collected by a specialist monitoring service to decide how to divide up the money collected from its business licences - which vary from 44 to many thousands for large retail chains - is distributed.

Yet the body recognises it faces a problem with public recognition of its name and work. In an effort to be more up front, it is about to rebrand as PRS for Music and launch an awareness programme.

'Like a morgue'

In Parliament, David Lammy, the minister for intellectual property, said he thought the PRS could improve its complaints procedure. He has since spoken to the organisation on a new code of practice it is introducing.

Mr Gilbert denies that people are intimidated. He says all calls made by staff, based at PRS headquarters in London or from a call centre the organisation uses, are monitored and operatives are rewarded for being accurate and straightforward in their dealings with the public, rather than for the amount of money they collect.

"I'd urge anyone who has a problem or question about the licence system, to contact our customer service department and I want to emphasise that we haven't got the power to fine people or send bailiffs around. When there is a dispute, we try to settle it reasonably and amicably."

Ultimately though, every business which plays music to enhance the environment for staff or customers needs to pay.

"A factory owner who refused to pay for a 96 licence called me to complain that his workshop was 'like a morgue' now," Mr Gilbert says. "And that is our point. Music makes a big difference to the workplace. Its creators should get their just rewards."

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