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01 October 2011

For a long time library music was the low cost, low quality option for programme makers. But intense competition means quality, and choice, have risen dramatically. Jon Creamer reports

Many moons ago, library music was seen as very much the poor relation to commercial music – bashed out on a keyboard in someone’s bedroom while commercial writers and artists aimed their expertly-produced efforts squarely at the charts. And the two worlds never collided.

But in recent years, the gap between the quality of much library music and commercial music has narrowed enormously. At the same time, libraries themselves have become more competitive, and more pro-active, trying to provide what their producer and editor clients want before those clients even know they want it.

It’s a development driven by that intense competition between the libraries, but also by changes elsewhere in the music industry. As commercial labels and artists realise that, as record sales plummet, there’s not quite so much money to be made in commercial music any more, making library music has become a much more attractive option.

“There used to be a gulf between production and commercial music,” says Imagem Production Music’s general manager, Alex Black. “That has now gone. A lot of our contemporaries are in the same bracket in terms of the effort and production values they put in and the composers they work with. The boundaries are blurring.”

Rachel Menzies, special projects manager at West One Music, says the now “very saturated market,” means that “so many companies are releasing really high quality stuff and spending a lot of money on recording their [production music] albums.”

Libraries are also more flexible and responsive to clients’ needs, tweaking library tracks to order and often offering composition at a library rate by taking the specially composed score back into their library for resale afterwards. Quality and choice have also increased as commercial artists and labels look to library production music as an important second revenue stream.

“There are a number of factors involved in that,” says Universal Publishing Production Music’s general manager, Duncan Schwier. “Six or seven years ago, a lot of the indie labels were trying to find ways to fill in the gap where record sales were dropping off. Libraries presented an opportunity for them to get used in places they otherwise wouldn’t.”

The drop off in music sales has made writing library tracks, or putting existing tracks into libraries for use on screen, more financially attractive. But, says Imagem’s Black, it’s also creatively attractive for many artists because, “it’s about the music. It’s not about the identity of the band or their personality. It’s about whether the music fits.”

With artists often finding writing to a brief “refreshing,” says Black. “It doesn’t have to be about ‘is this right for me as an artist? Is this the way I want to be perceived by my fan base?’ It’s an opportunity to release some music that isn’t in the artist’s commercial style but it’s good and it works.”

Black says this trend has developed to the extent that new commercial artists being signed up by the group’s labels are often offered a two tier deal where they have the chance to write library tracks alongside their commercial career. The advantage for the libraries is obvious. Because while the production quality of library music has improved greatly, a lot of production music can often feel very similar. Big name artists can offer a sound and a style that stands out from the crowd.

“It’s about trying to bring in artists that are more interesting like Aqualung or Hot Chip or Herbaliser,” says Universal’s Schwier. “We’ve just done two CDs with Michael Nyman, for instance. It’s about trying to bring in music that has a character that people want to use rather than music that is just easy to use. It has a stand out quality that might make you feel you’re adding something to the pictures rather than just putting a pad behind them.” Because shows can often be guilty of using music that is bland, or creatively uninteresting.

“Rather than really trying to think through what they’re trying to achieve creatively, there seems to be a certain camp that says ‘what you have to do is give people what they expect,’”’ says Audio Networks’ chairman, Andrew Sunnucks. “Because it lulls the audience into a sense of security. It’s a lifestyle show so let’s have more marimba. There’s a huge opportunity to use music really well. Some people do and others follow the herd. Hitchcock once said if the music and the pictures are doing the same thing then one of them is being wasted.”

But library production music is often in danger of sounding very samey itself. The reliance on sample libraries to create new tracks can often mean that “when a new sample library comes out, it’ll sound great, and everyone uses it but then the music production companies are all using the same source material,” says Sunnucks. And that can lead to very similar sounding tracks.

The game then is often about finding new sounds. “Which is why we spend a fortune on orchestras to try to find new sounds because, musically speaking, you can sometimes do more in the production area than in the writing.” But while many shows are happy to use music that fits in with what’s expected, many shows, particularly those at the higher budget end of the factual spectrum, increasingly put music at the heart of what they do. “MasterChef use us back to front and they’ve got a really clear idea of the music they want,” says West One’s Menzies. “And the direction is so led by music.”

The power of certain shows means libraries will often go out and record whole albums of material specifically for one show. “MasterChef is such a global thing and for those long running shows we create music just for them,” says Menzies, which makes sense when the show is produced in so many different territories.

The ubiquity of formats like MasterChef, that are often based on moments of competition and a big reveal, also shape the kind of music that production libraries offer. “Formatted TV shows now tend to have some form of elimination or tension or judging, so it’s inevitable you get the toolkit of sounds that people need for that,” says Schwier.

There’s a big need for tracks that “build in intensity over thirty seconds or a minute and a half,” says Black. “But other than Coldplay that’s not really a big thing in commercial music. That’s still verse, chorus, verse, chorus. But in TV land, it’s a key point.”

And, as channels fight to make a bigger splash with their stand out shows, that has led to a desire for “bigger” music. Big budget shows like The Apprentice and Top Gear need ever more “cinematic” soundtracks. Universal has recently done a deal with the BBC to put the soundtracks created for major blue chip shows like Planet Earth and Human Planet by composers like Ty Unwin and Nitin Sawhney, into the Universal library for just this purpose.

And divining what producers and editors will demand from production music is a key part of the libraries’ job. Production music, like much else in TV, is driven by trends and fashions, and it’s working out what will drive those trends that’s the tricky bit. Often, the success and influence of a particular show can drive demand for a particular style of music.

“Programmes like The X Factor are full of trailer style music because they’re trying to raise the excitement level and keep it fever-pitched all the way through,” says Schwier. “That’s filtered across into a lot of other programmes, even documentary stuff.” Often, the influence of a scene in a film or a big commercial can be felt for years to come, the plastic bag scene in American Beauty being a case in point. The Jose Gonzalez Heartbeats track featured on the famous Sony Bravia Balls commercial has led to faux naïve folk becoming almost the official soundtrack for any mobile network’s commercials. It says, “we are real people, we are a real company,” says Menzies. “We’ve probably got 20 albums of that stuff and it’s still massive.”
With calls still coming through asking “can you get me something with a ukulele on it?” to this day.

The charts are obviously an influence on what gets used in production music too. Libraries need to “reflect commercial trends not only in the pop world but in the classical world and the jazz world, you need to have half anear on what’s happening in commercial music,” says Black.

But trends can also start, or stop, with seemingly very little obvious influence. “It wasn’t long ago that everyone was using dance music and four on the floor house and that stopped overnight,” says Sunnucks. “And everyone went and started using indie rock.”

It’s a genre that still dominates. “Not just in the UK but America too the whole indie rock sound is still 70% of what gets used in sports and news programming,” says Schwier. And that’s also because indie rock works so well with so many different TV genres. Dubstep is becoming a more important part of the production libraries catalogues now but that’s only partly due to its surge up the charts. “It is a reaction to the charts,” says Menzies. “But then it works so well on sports programmes too and with the Olympics coming up soon, everyone will want something really fast paced and energetic.”

Upcoming events are obvious pointers for libraries as to where demand is likely to be heading. “With the Olympics approaching we’re making albums that go across genres but with feelgood, positive, triumphant lyrics – and a few with downbeat loser lyrics,” says Black. But you have to be quick. “We did a big thing for the royal wedding. The morning they announced the engagement we went straight into the studio with the Royal Philharmonic and that went like a bomb,” says Sunnucks “But if we hadn’t thought about it on the day it was announced it would have been too late.”


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