Block-bursting My Eardrums

Ruth Coustick blogs about her nightmare experience with her local Blockbuster's repetitive horror movie-like music, how she tried to understand the reasoning behind it and was confronted with licensing laws.

Image: CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

I recently moved to the London area and this has changed a number of my usual habits; I used to be a cinema-fiend, going to see anything and everything. Now, the expense of southern cinema tickets, compared to the independent cinemas of Wales with which I was familiar, has reduced me to being a heavy Blockbuster-user. I have developed a comfortable pattern of bi-weekly borrowing, bemoaning the fact that even the rental places in the metropolis are worse than the independent cult-collecting ones I once knew. They don't even have Leon = judgement. I could survive these cultural limitations, through watching weird children's films from their only well-stocked section. However, my visits have one major flaw which pushes my customer experience from disappointment to despair as I dash around the store desperate to leave: the terror-inducing music.


It is always the same three tracks, played on a repetitive loop. There are no words, there are just disconcerting sounds. One is like something from a horror film. It is a creepy, wordless noise that I always believed must be from a film track or an advert for Left4Dead. Until now.


On one trip to Blockbuster as I stood at the front of the queue, wincing, I finally caved in to curiosity and asked the cashier:

"Why do you always play this song?"

The look on her face suggested that she had always hoped someone would bring up this very point. She explained that Blockbuster don't own a music license and so can only play music of their own composition. Which, it turns out, was not much, and not well. Another woman behind the counter, hearing the discussion and unaware of these facts was quick to provide a solution,

"I'm in a band! I could write some music for us to play!", but even this creative enthusiasm was met with the wall of law.

"Nope. We have to play Blockbuster's music, it's the only thing allowed."

I said that I had always thought it must be a horror film soundtrack and cashier had a similar assessment.

"Actually after having done so many shifts here I have nightmares with this music playing in the background."

I looked at them both with true horror in my eyes. Was there no escape from this legal chaos? I wished them good night, after offering my sincere condolences to their plight.


As I walked away, with my dvds and ice-cream, I felt that there must be something I could do about it. I decided to write to Blockbuster, with a polite email, explaining the situation and asking some simple questions:

-Who composed these pieces?

-How long has this been going on?

-Is it the same tracks across the country?

-Are there any plans to change the situation?

-Would you consider allowing other Blockbuster employees to compose their own pieces as replacements?


I tried to explain the moral and audio damage to their employees and customers too. As I have received no response I begin to wonder if perhaps I am not being taking seriously.


I then did a bit of research to understand the situation. The current law states that if you want to play music in public you need a license from PRS for Music (Performing Rights Society Ltd.). Playing music in a shop counts as a public performance. PRS state:

"If you play music in your business or want to include it in your product you need clearance to do so from the owners of that music. PRS for Music and MCPS represent the owners and can get you the clearances you need."


In fairness to them they have a very extensive FAQ list and a step by step process. They make the system seem very easy and straightforward. The tariffs even include measurements on how many square feet are enjoying the music. For my local Blockbuster, it looks like it might be around £500, but I haven't got a metre stick to measure the place out.


However, although searches for music licenses took me to PRS, their site told me I might need PPL too. I was confused, as acronyms upset me, but I checked it out and they explained:

"PPL collects and distributes money on behalf of record companies and performers. PRS for Music collects and distributes money on behalf of songwriters, composers and publishers."


Well. That explains the difference, but the language about why you should get a license is the same. Some further research on another site explains that, "If recorded music is being played in any public space through any kind of device to an audience, your institution will need to have both the PPL and PRS licences"

So that's a yes to both licenses, at least for Blockbuster just playing the radio. Putting the two license fees together it's then just over £600. This doesn't seem a huge amount of money for a large business...... oh wait. They filed for bankruptcy in the US. Although as some small-business holders are frustrated by the process you would think one license would be simpler. In fact due to some of the confusion, such as who is being charged or paid and why, there has been a move to make some changes to license collecting services, in order to improve transparency and to create a single market for Intellectual Property across the EU by the European Commission.


It was interesting that my second cashier had no idea about the licenses situation, perhaps just accepting that this was all the music Blockbuster had, they do 'videos' afterall. However, her suggestion of writing the music herself is a very interesting one. If Blockbuster are already composing their own music, why not use employee pieces? Presumably someone at head-office would have to sanction the music. It does seem a good way of encouraging enterprise among the staff. They could even run competitions to compose better pieces.


After all my research and a pleading email to Blockbuster I don't really mind how they do it: pay the licenses (like everyone else) or encourage staff talent: I just want to hear something new!


Ruth Coustick works at Open Rights Group and likes to talk/blog in various places about books, feminism and human rights.


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By Ruth Coustick on Oct 26, 2012

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