The Return of “Library Music”: How Anonymous Composers Are Making a Living Online

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Let’s say your company has just made its first foray into video production. It’s a commercial to advertise your new toothpaste, or to interest prospective partners in your surfing-themed vacation packages, or to present new hires with a sense of the uplifting corporate culture they’re about to enter.

Whatever the case, it looks great, but somebody forgot to add music to the thing, giving it a ghostly, hollow quality, and it falls on you to fill that glaring emotional gap.

To license a current hit song, or to ask a commercial music “house” for a custom piece of music would be prohibitively expensive, especially considering the scope of the overall production. In either case, you wouldn’t even know where or how to start.

Enter the world of “library music”, also called “stock” music, “production” music, “mood” music, and probably a few other names we’ve forgotten.

Since the advent of sound in moving pictures, library music has been the very definition of a “creative utility”: It only exists to aide and accompany other productions.

Song names are usually afterthoughts. Often, composer names are, too. The idea that the mood of a piece translates into a simple defining adjective—sad, scary, upbeat, hopeful—is what matters.

Modern day creators of library music often work under pseudonyms, and may never meet those who rely on their work—or even hear where it is ultimately used.

On a site like PremiumBeat.com, you can sift through literally thousands of songs arranged by genre or “mood”, and in just a few minutes and for about $50, find a piece of music perfect for your video, without any extensive licensing rigamarole.

You and the composer will likely never have any interaction. He or she may never know how the music was used, or even that it was used at all.

By the same token, you might be watching someone else’s advertisement or corporate wellness video a year later and hear the same music, seeming just as at home in this production as it once did in yours.

Big Money in Library Music’s Golden Age: From Silent Movies to Monday Night Football

If there is a “father” of stock music, it might be Meyer De Wolfe, a musician, composer, conductor, arranger and, after leaving Holland for London, musical director for a movie-theater company.

In the silent picture days, well before the specific “hard” scoring that is commonplace today, De Wolfe was tasked with finding and publishing compositions that live musicians could play in the theater to accompany films. He founded De Wolfe Music in 1909 for this purpose.

When sound came to pictures in 1927, De Wolfe Music immediately began recording its published scores, and basically owned the category of library music for the next few decades.

They produced soundtracks for big movies in the 30s and 40s, and provided the background music to the thousands of newsreels that ran before them. They scored UK government training films for the Ministry of Information and British Rail. They provided the first-ever music “cue” for a UK television commercial—a spot for Gibbs Toothpaste in 1955.

With the introduction of television in the 1950’s, library music became a seller’s market, with serials, news reports, and commercials all seeking musical cues to accompany them.

Companies like Britain’s Keith Prowse Music (or “KPM“), Bosworth, and Chappell—some of which had already been publishing sheet music for half a century or more—began dipping their toes in the waters of original library music.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the century-old field of “library music”, original compositions that are produced and recorded for use in no one specific project.

The 60s and 70s in particular are considered a “golden age” of library music, rife with experimentation and chock full of hooks and grooves that are still memorable today, if not necessarily by name.

Over at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire manipulated oscillators to create incidental music for BBC’s programming. (Her most memorable contribution probably being the Dr. Who theme song.)

In America, Raymond Scott, whose compositions were already being set to Looney Tunes cartoons, released a three-volume set of electronic music called “Soothing Sounds for Baby”, designed for the exact purpose its title suggests.

KPM established itself as a purveyor of modern grooves and moods, regularly employing premiere session musicians like Alan Hawkshaw, Keith Mansfield and Brian Bennett, and releasing all its records in identical nondescript green sleeves to pound home the “function over form” aesthetic.

When today’s movies want to portray a “swinging 60s” party scene without shelling out for The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, it’s these tracks that they often turn to.

They are tracks you may have heard—like Hawkshaw’s “Beat Me Till I’m Blue”—jazz- and funk-based mid-tempo instrumentals that sound like a psychedelic party, or some transatlantic getaway. Just not any specific one you’ve ever been to.

Some of these tracks have become more memorable after being given a second life in an unexpected arena: These are records that were often sampled and repurposed by the oodles of crate-digging DJs of the 90s and 2000s.

How “golden” was this golden age? In 1973, library music had a true crossover moment when the song “Eye Level” by the Simon Park Orchestra (produced by De Wolfe Music) went from being the theme for television show Van Der Valk to being a million-selling hit in its own right.

The Orchestra even made an appearance on Top of the Pops in unassuming creamsicle-colored turtlenecks, looking genuinely thrilled to be there. This is what happens when utility workers get thrust into the spotlight.

It’s not the last time library music struck gold and became part of the lexicon. In the U.S., the most famous piece of library music may be what’s known as the “Monday Night Football Theme”. (It’s actually “Heavy Action” by Johnny Pearson, for KPM.)

Perhaps because of the sport it accompanies, we hear this theme as singular and quintessentially “American”. In reality—and true to stock music form—it was simultaneously used as the theme for a UK Sports show for years.

A Modern Golden Age for Library Music?

On the PremiumBeat website, if you perform an advanced search using “Latin” as the genre, and “Uplifting” as the mood, and you’ll find at least a few tracks from an artist known as “Harpo Marks“. That’s Brooklyn-based composer Matt Whyte.

Go to the Harpo Marks portfolio page and you’ll find a variety of Mexican fiesta music, complete with trumpets, wildly-strummed guitars and loud celebratory yips, as well as a few Native American music cues.

“At the time I was brought on board, I think Shutterstock [PremiumBeat’s parent company] needed to build up its library of Latin music, so it was an ideal place for me to start,” Whyte tells me in an email exchange.

Whyte has a background in Brazilian jazz, but is capable of tackling different genres. He mentions that he’s currently “working on five J-Pop tracks with a Japanese vocalist.”

“The variety of work is one of the most attractive aspects of the gig for me,” he says.

Technology may have morphed, mangled or even pushed certain parts of the music business to the brink of extinction, but library music still seems to be growing as an industry, with a fairly intact infrastructure. (Outright piracy for instance, tends to be less of an issue when your chief clientele is straightlaced middle-aged businesspeople rather than rebellious teens.)

Of course, the music industry’s sea change toward low-cost production has already been internalized at music libraries. A composer may now opt for a soft-synth sample version of an orchestra rather than the real thing, but that won’t change his or her prospects. Now that media comes at us so fast—and from so many different directions that we need a catchall term like “content” to describe it—there is more of a need for library music than ever before.

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