On February 5, 2012, the quasi-maybe-sorta-sometimes-revolutionary pop star M.I.A. performed alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl half-time show. Despite the fact that M.I.A.’s music interrogates ideas about revolt, nationalism, and the distribution of wealth (“Pull up the people. / Pull up the poor,” goes the chorus of the first song on her major-label debut, Arular), and that her early albums were embraced by indie audiences, there was a time when M.I.A.’s appearance alongside one of the most famous people in the world, at an event that roughly half of the American population was watching, would have been perceived as “the ultimate sell-out move.” But in an article on the website Grantland about M.I.A.’s performance, Hua Hsu begged to differ. “[Today], we’ve grown accustomed to how deeply entangled the interests of art and commerce have become,” he wrote (thinking, no doubt, of such cultural phenomena as 30 Rock and Lady Gaga), “the way a sitcom can be meta and experimental while convincing you that you desperately want a McFlurry.” To him, M.I.A.’s Super Bowl appearance (which ended, now infamously, with her flipping off the camera) was hopeful and exciting, as it signaled the end of the previous generation’s simplistic ideas about the relationship between art and commerce, and trumpeted a new cultural reality: “the impossibility of selling out.”
I am similarly enchanted by a different televised musical moment that—although it happened about four decades earlier, in 1973, and involves decidedly fewer sequins—brings up similar questions about art and commerce. Two dozen men in marshmallow-circus-peanut-orange turtlenecks—all of whom look like they could have been your eighth-grade French-horn teacher (one of whom maybe actually was; a commenter on the YouTube video remarks, “Lol, my school French horn teacher is in this video. He wasn’t much good at teaching as I was crap Lol”)—are gracing the spotlit stage of the long-running BBC television show Top of the Pops. “Just when people are saying the charts are boring and very predictable,” says the feathery-haired host, Noel Edmonds, in his introduction, “something rather unusual happens. And this week something somewhat amazing has happened.”
With that, the turtlenecked men, who are known as the Simon Park Orchestra, launch into the instrumental song “Eye Level,” which is the theme for the British detective TV show Van der Valk, and which at that moment was the number one single in the U.K. Trumpets sound magnificently, woodwinds flit tunefully, and Park himself conducts with an exuberant bounce in his step and an irrepressible grin on his face. A minute or so into the performance, the camera catches the tambourine player giving one of his fellow musicians this look that reminds me of that moment in the movie That Thing You Do! when the fictitious band the Wonders are about to perform on a fictitious Ed Sullivan–esque TV show and the guitarist, beaming, turns to the drummer and says, “How did we get here?” You get the sense that the members of the Simon Park Orchestra probably shared a similar moment right before the cameras rolled, because the things you need to know about them are that they are there only because someone at Columbia Records decided to release their single on a lark, and that none of them ever intended to be pop stars: they are actually just some session musicians who performed the song for a music-production library.
A couple of years ago, I was working as a production assistant for a television newsmagazine show. If you have ever been on a film or TV set before, you know production assistant is industry jargon for “person who does whatever nobody else really wants to do,” so you will understand that a task I enjoyed infinitely more than steam-cleaning the host’s pants suit or picking up fancy lunches for the show’s guests or logging surprisingly vast amounts of archived B-roll following a former member of the Monkees around his stately New England home, was scouring the production library for background music.
Usually it would work like this: an editor would describe to me some images or sequences she needed music for (“man on a mountain peak at sunset”), and I’d plug certain mood-related keywords (motivational/inspirational) into the online archive for which our company had paid access, which in this case was an L.A.-based library called Killer Tracks. I’d put a few of my chosen tracks on a flash drive and walk it over to the editor, who’d usually send me back with more-specific guidelines (“I want something more dramatic than ‘Extraordinary Determination,’ but with slightly less gusto than ‘Overcoming Challenges’”), at which point I’d continue to scour and eventually hit upon a winner (“Follow Me Up,” perhaps, which the site describes as “inspirational, indie/alternative rock” and has for cover art a distressed photo of a colonial-era drum corps with the title “Motivational 8” scrawled in a graffiti-inspired typeface).
Library music (sometimes referred to as “production music” or “stock music”) generally refers to music that has been composed and recorded for commercial purposes and which is licensed not through the composer but the library for which it has been recorded. This means it is much easier and cheaper to use in a movie or TV show than a hit song, which requires copyright clearance from the songwriter and record label, and, in some cases, separate clearances depending on the countries in which the work will be screened. Library music cuts out the middleman, but it also means that most of it can be licensed to any number of projects, so occasionally while scanning through the Killer Tracks archives I’d get this uncanny “Where have I heard that before?” twinge, until I realized it was from, say, a local furniture commercial, or maybe the corporate-diversity video my colleagues and I sat through last week.
For anyone who keeps up with pop culture, browsing through certain corners of the Killer Tracks catalog is like traipsing through a bizarre shadow world full of easily identifiable doppelgängers. Songs for Shady Living features a Toby Keith look-alike on its cover and such instant classics as “I Pulled a Muscle (Loving You)”; Soul Pop includes Amy Winehouse–inspired jams and a beehive-coiffed cover model; and, with artwork that showcases a hand-drawn bird and a dead ringer for Ellen Page, Sweet & Quirky seems to be capitalizing on the popularity of the fey indie-pop on the Juno soundtrack. My time spent browsing the Killer Tracks catalog sometimes brought on flashbacks of Dr. Thunder, the cheap, off-brand soda that my family used to buy at Walmart when I was growing up—just unique enough to evade a lawsuit, but conveniently blatant enough that consumers knew exactly what was being ripped off.
Even more surreal to me were the moments when the pop world explicitly intersected with the library-music world. Killer Tracks features a special series called “REALITY by C. Franke,” which it describes as “a new reality music library from composer Christopher Franke (The Amazing Race, Supernanny, Big Brother, former member of Tangerine Dream).” What sort of world was this—in which a credit from Supernanny had more cache than being in a legendary kraut-rock band?
Library music fascinated me. At the time I was an aspiring music critic (aspiring here being industry jargon for “unpaid”), and we critics love to ponder the conflicts between things like art and commerce, or authenticity and artifice. Forget the glittery, Gaga-inspired pop music topping the charts; I could not imagine a kind of music more squarely on the latter side of both those divides—more blatantly commercial and in conflict with the rebellious, individualistic spirit of the punk and indie rock I’d grown up on—than library music.
It would be another year or so before I realized that I was completely wrong.
De Wolfe Music Publishers—the longest-running production library, and also the one for which “Eye Level” was written and recorded—was founded by Dutch Royal Conservatoire graduate Meyer de Wolfe in 1909. After he finished school, de Wolfe moved to London and got a job working as a musical director in a prominent cinema theater company. Since films were silent at this time, de Wolfe’s job entailed publishing sheet music that live musicians would play when the films were screened. With a little help from his friends (many of whom were bigwigs in London’s music scene at the time, like composer Giuseppe Becce and conductor Sir Landon Ronald), De Wolfe Music Publishers flourished in the early years of silent film, producing scores for directors like Adolph Zukor and D.W. Griffith.
When sound came to the movies, in 1927, De Wolfe really started thinking big (he even legally capitalized the first letter of his last name around this time), as he began recording some of the sheet music his company had already published. In the early days of the talkies, soundtracks would be recorded directly onto 35 mm nitrate film, and, as you can probably imagine, there were some technological growing pains involved with the medium—the worst being that, once, a film that hadn’t been stored correctly turned to nitrate power, ignited, and De Wolfe’s basement exploded.
Over the next few decades, De Wolfe learned to record onto less-flammable material (most of the archived music was recorded on quarter-inch tape), and, after expanding to North America, the company built its reputation as one of the world’s leading music libraries, producing music for a wide swath of films, and thousands of newsreels to boot. When television came into the fold, De Wolfe was once again on the front lines of innovation: it provided the music for Britain’s first-ever TV commercial, an ad for Gibbs toothpaste. The spot took place in a mountain stream, and showed a toothbrush and a tube of Gibbs frozen in a block of ice (“It’s tingling fresh… it’s fresh as ice… it’s Gibbs SR toothpaste!”) with an idyllic De Wolfe soundtrack of fluttering woodwinds to match.
The mid-1950s were an important time for another major player in the world of library music, KPM Musichouse. Like De Wolfe, its founders, Robert Keith and William Prowse, initially began publishing sheet music in Britain, but the company’s successors (Patrick Howgill became manager in 1956) learned to adapt in a rapidly changing global-media industry. As soon as he took charge, Howgill scrapped KPM’s most outdated tracks and decided to start over with more-modern compositions, recording a collection of twenty-five 78 rpm discs in 1956, on a relatively modest five-thousand-pound budget. This collection began the library that would arguably do more than any other to bring a spirit of artful experimentation to the world of library music.
Generally, we think of the cultural upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s along the lines of a rather simple, linear story of “co-option”: youth uprisings grew organically, from the ground up, and, after the ideas of the counterculture became watered-down enough to reach the mainstream, ad executives made embarrassing attempts to use the iconography of Woodstock to sell everyone 7UP. But in his book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, the social critic Thomas Frank advocates for a more-complex understanding of the relationship between art, commerce, and social change. “We lack a serious history of co-option,” he writes, “one that understands corporate thought as something other than a cartoon.” Frank documents that in the ’60s, the advertising industry was weathering (as anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Mad Men could tell you) a radical shift in values, too. Out with the safe and old, in with the forward-thinking risk-takers—the new icons of the ad world were people like Ben Bernbach, who saw in advertising both financial and artistic opportunity.
The library music featured in the ads, TV shows, and films of the ’60s reflects this shift. The BBC’s in-house Radiophonic Workshop was a hub of musical creativity and innovation (although not a traditional production library, since all of its music was produced expressly for the network’s use), especially as the technology enabling synthesizers and electronic music began to develop. It also had the allure of danger: in the late ’50s, a doctor advised that employees not work there any longer than three months, lest the electrical currents and oscillators prove injurious to their health. Thankfully, very few heeded this warning, and the Radiophonic Workshop became home to plenty of talented electronic pioneers, like Delia Derbyshire (whose greatest legacy may be recording the eerie and iconic theme music to Doctor Who) and Brian Hodgson (who created Doctor Who’s “TARDIS” sound effect, ingeniously, by “running the back door key to his mother’s house along a bass string of a gutted piano, then electronically treating the recording”). Today, anyone can make electronic music inexpensively on a personal laptop, but it’s easy to understand why, back then, musicians who wanted to tinker with the latest instruments and technology might seek out a production house. They had ample budgets, and, as Radiophonic alum Steve Marshall recalls, the earliest sampler, the Fairlight CMI, cost about as much as a small house.
Even after KPM was bought by EMI, in 1969, creativity was in the air. Keith Mansfield, one of KPM’s most renowned composers, brought mod and psychedelic sensibilities to his orchestral arrangements, which included tracks like “Funky Fanfare” and the much-loved theme for the long-running British sports show Grandstand. Another KPM ace was Alan Hawkshaw, who brought a pop background to his compositions (he had played with early rockers Emile Ford and the Checkmates), which would be used as themes for popular programs like Grange Hill and the game show Countdown. Peter Cox, who became the director of KPM in 1977, describes what he looks for in a new hire in words you could imagine coming from a record-company scout talking about an up-and-coming singer-songwriter: “The important thing is that the tracks really have to talk to you. The composer has got to have conviction… has to have a soul and project it.”
Though there were library musicians who crossed into the pop world from time to time, many of them actually found the relative anonymity of the commercial world to be a liberating space, rife with experimentation. Ron Geesin, who is perhaps best known for cowriting Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother,” actually made the most unconventional record of his career, the moody and bizarre Electrosound, as a library record for KPM. And then there was Suzanne Ciani, an American synth pioneer who would later go on to release cutting-edge new-age records in the ’80s, but who did some of her most innovative work for clients like Coca-Cola, Atari, and the PBS show Inside Story. In a recent interview recounting her work in the ’70s with the just-developed Buchla synthesizer, Ciani explained the unexpected freedom she found in the commercial world. “I had made the rounds of all the record labels and got no place,” she recalled. “They weren’t looking for something new. They wanted what they already knew was a hit, and they wanted more of that. Advertising was different. Because they were always high risk and always looking forward, wanted to be at the forefront. So I had a much better reception there even though they didn’t understand what I was doing, that wasn’t an obstacle. It was even an advantage because it meant that it was something new and different. New and different was good.”
When I first meet Bev Stanton, we are at a café at a table right beneath an overhead speaker, shouting over a young barista’s playlist of Kanye West remixes. She is telling me about her stint recording library music in the ’90s, specifically the feeling that she had upon receiving one of her first royalty checks and seeing that her piece of music had been used on the A&E biography of Pee-Wee Herman. “I would refer to it—not to be crass,” she says, leaning in, “as a musical glory hole. Because you had no idea where it was being used, no idea.”
Since 1994, Stanton has been recording moody and ethereal electronic music in Washington, D.C., under the name Arthur Loves Plastic. Arthur was her cat, and the name comes from his habit of playing with plastic bags. Here is my favorite line from her Wikipedia page: “Arthur Loves Plastic is regularly included in internet lists of weird/funny/worst band names.”
Stanton was in a rock band in her younger years (“We had those kind of aspirations… We used to send stuff out all the time hoping to get signed”), but she had also started recording electronic music, solo, on the side. There is a very practical reason why she decided to focus on her electronic project full-time: Arthur Loves Plastic got signed, but the band didn’t. Shortly after, though, the label she’d signed to went kaput, and Stanton started recording tracks on her own. It was around this time that she saw a posting on an email Listserv looking for musicians to compose music for production-library CDs.
“I felt like I did have a lot of carte blanche with what I was doing,” Stanton says of her subsequent library work. “But the deadlines were very tight so I’d work in ‘crank it out’ mode. It wasn’t [always] heartfelt.” What most turned Stanton off from writing production-library music, though, was when she felt pressure from her director to compose blatant imitations of other popular artists. “In that era, everyone just wanted you to sound like the Chemical Brothers,” she recalls.
Tim Lee, who currently works with KPM and is also the founder of the Brooklyn-based Tummy Touch Records, expresses similar disdain for “soundalikes”; he also thinks their proliferation has been the biggest change between (what he does not object to me calling) the Golden Age of Library Music and what is produced now. “If Katy Perry is popular, people will knock out a Katy Perry soundalike CD,” he observes. “There didn’t seem to be so much of that back in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Still, Lee insists that soundalikes are a small, rather unfortunate sliver of the landscape. When I ask him about the future of library music, there’s a jolt of excitement in his voice. “I was just listening through some stuff a few weeks ago,” he gushes, describing a collection that will likely be used as background music on what he describes as “psychodrama” TV shows. “Four albums of really experimental soundscapes. Really bizarre, off-the-wall… jarring, crazy sound sculptures.”
“From the BBC to Jay-Z,” announces De Wolfe’s website, “De Wolfe Music is an integral part of everyday listening.”
Library music has had a somewhat-unexpected pop-cultural connection in recent years, partially thanks to hip-hop artists and other musicians interested in sampling. On his 2000 track “Stick 2 the Script,” Jay-Z sampled the debonair groove of “Under Pressure,” a 1976 KPM track by Nick Ingman (not the Queen song), who, in his wildest dreams, must have hoped his music would someday play beneath a vocal track that goes, “Breathe, mami. / This is good weed, mami.” Producer Danger Mouse has sampled Keith Mansfield tracks repeatedly, and Mark Ronson, Gorillaz, and Ja Rule are just a few of the pop artists who’ve used De Wolfe samples in recent years. Library music, of course, appeals to pop musicians and producers for the same reason that it appeals to filmmakers and TV producers: it’s cheap and easy to license.
But library music has always been something of a holy grail for record collectors. Since library LPs and CDs were never sold in record stores (just issued to production companies and other industry folks), an original pressing from a company like De Wolfe or KPM once could have fetched about five hundred dollars. Thanks to reissues and easy access to these tracks on the internet, though, the resale value of these records has plummeted in recent years. In 2007, Tim Lee reissued some classics from the KPM 1000 Series on Tummy Touch, which made some record collectors angry because it reduced the value of the original pressings. But Lee was able to see the irony. “The… nature of library music is that it was designed from the word go to be utilitarian, to be used, to be widely available,” he says. “It isn’t meant to be esoteric and hard to find and expensive. I understand the mentality of the record collector… but, on the other hand, it’s kind of disrespectful to the musicians… to be precious about it. The whole point of library music is that you cannot be precious about it.”
Still, there’s a certain kind of preciousness that factors into some listeners’ appreciation of library music. Scroll through the YouTube pages of any of KPM or De Wolfe’s greatest hits, from the Hawkshaw/Mansfield collaboration “Beat Boutique” to the Simon Park Orchestra’s stately, melancholy closing theme from the show Crown Court (which was released as the B-side of “Eye Level”). “Bloody hell this takes me back,” writes one commenter. Remarks another, “Sad little number. Happy little memories.”
And why shouldn’t library music elicit this sort of emotion from listeners? Former engineer and studio manager Richard Elen ponders that question in an article he wrote in 1986, reflecting on his time spent at KPM. “Certainly, library music is music created for a marketplace, but then so is a hit record to some extent,” he said. “It is tempting to make a distinction between music that comes from inner emotions that need to be expressed musically, and music that comes from a desire to make it fit a market, but it is foolhardy to try and establish such clear-cut dividing lines. Both a hit record and a favorite TV theme are music, and they both express emotions. Is there really a major difference between choosing a song to record for your next album because it’s commercial and choosing an instrumental idea to develop into a library track? I think not.”
“I must apologize for this next piece of music,” says Duncan Lamont. “I wrote it when I was drunk.” The crowd laughs, and then cheers uproariously as Lamont and the rest of the band launch into a jazzy number called “Funky Express.”
This is some choice stage banter from Live at the Jazz Café, a 2006 record from a group that calls itself the KPM All Stars. Yes, there is an actual band of KPM “all-star” library musicians, and sometimes they play live shows. And, yes, listening to the crowd roar with delight as the band rips through their rendition of “Channel 4 News at 7” is oddly thrilling.
Aside from these all-stars, though, the overwhelming majority of library musicians will remain more or less anonymous for their entire careers. Film crews will never shoot B-roll of them for “Where are they now?”–type television reports; people will not identify a song of theirs when it’s played in a café; and it is thoroughly unlikely that they will ever perform in a sequined gladiator outfit at the Super Bowl half-time show. But it is safe to assume that most people who want to spend their lives making music find a peculiar freedom in anonymity, and that they’d much prefer to hone their craft quietly, without the peculiar burdens of fame and superstardom.
“With library music, you can do what the hell you like,” Lee says. “You don’t have to have a fan-base, you’re not selling to a fan-base, you don’t have a career arc that people know about, nobody’s expecting your record to sound like the one you just did. You can do heavy-metal one day, hip-hop the next, and something orchestral the week after. It allows for a great deal of creative freedom from an artist.”
To me, this is the most radical aspect of library music, the way it completely confounds the things we take for granted about music and celebrity. In an odd way, the blatantly awkward, defiantly uncool appearance of the Simon Park Orchestra on Top of the Pops feels like more of a middle finger to pop sensibility than any sort of hand gesture that a comfortably glamorous, bedazzled pop star could muster.
It is Bev Stanton who puts a finger on exactly why I am so fascinated by library music, why I have taken to playing Live at the Jazz Café for my friends, reading up on the Simon Park Orchestra, and scrolling through De Wolfe appreciation threads on library-music message boards. “So, this is your job?” she asks me during our interview, gesturing toward my recorder. “Like, your full-time job?”
“Yes,” I tell her, with practiced confidence.
I quit the PA gig a little while ago. Unpaid writing assignments turned to paid ones, and after a while it just made sense to leave. But—especially for those of us who grew up inheriting punk and indie rock’s anti-corporate ethos—there’s something decidedly squirmy about those first moments when your art becomes your livelihood. Plenty of the musicians I’ve interviewed over the years have grappled with this transition, too. A little while before I left my job, I interviewed a punk band who had developed what struck me as a very pragmatic way of thinking about all of this. “A lot of musicians are scared to talk about [money], because they’re embarrassed to be involved in capitalism,” the guitarist told me. “But it’s like, we’re running a small business, you know? And there are ways to accept that and have integrity about it.”
One of Stanton’s favorite idioms is ka-ching! She uses it liberally and with the slightest air of self-deprecation, and in a way that’s not at all obnoxious, very much unlike how it might sound if Donald Trump were to use it in a commercial for The Apprentice or something. Stanton has not, after all, made a fortune off library music, but over the years she’s found it to be a decent and reliable way to cover the cost of some of her gear. So these are pragmatic-sounding ka-ching!s, the ones she scatters casually throughout our conversation. Upon leaving the café and walking out onto the quiet street, I idly wonder if, with practice, I’ll someday be able to muster such a casually intoned ka-ching! when somebody asks me pointedly about my job. This strikes me as something to aspire to.
“I think everybody’s got their line in the sand,” Stanton explains. “Are you OK with making compromises with your art, or is it just better off for you to have your big compromise be walking into an office every day and getting to do whatever you want?” she says, without a fleck of judgment in her voice. “I think there’s arguments to be made for both.”