On being a librarian 

13 July 2003 tbs.pm/1909

Richard Elen was Chief Engineer and Studio Manager at KPM Studios in London’s Denmark Street from 1976-8, and worked on freelance recording projects for KPM Music library from then until 1992. In 1986, he wrote an article for Sound On Sound magazine on music libraries in general, and KPM in particular. He now updates this article for a modern audience.

Library Music, also known as “Production Music”… the words mean something to many people in and around the music business. But the ideas that spring to mind when you ask someone what library music actually is are varied – and often wrong.

Music for TV test-cards and tuning signals? Yes, it’s one of the less-common uses of library material. Background music for lifts and hotels? Virtually never. So what, exactly, is Library Music?

Library music in fact covers a vast field of literally every type of (almost exclusively) instrumental music imaginable, from classical repertoire to the latest dance styles. It’s made by the world’s top commercial composers – and by others who are unknown outside the field. But above all, it’s music for a purpose.

When it comes to finding music for TV series, films, radio and television commercials, new media and audio-visual presentations, there are a number of ways of going about it. First, you can commission a composer to write original material for the application.

But it can be expensive for the producer (whilst not being brilliantly lucrative for the composer, by the way) and it can be unpredictable. However well briefed a composer is, there’s always the likelihood that they will come up with something that isn’t really what the producer had in mind.

Alternatively, you can look at commercial records. Of course, there’s a wide variety to choose from, and you’ll no doubt find exactly the sort of thing you want. But simply finding the music isn’t even half the story: it has to be copyright-cleared.

This might well be possible in some places and not others. Maybe you can clear it in the UK, and perhaps a few territories around the world – although it is, of course, likely to be expensive – but there may well be places you want to use the project where it can’t be cleared at all: where the local publishers responsible for the work won’t allow it to be used for your type of application. It might be, for example, that the sub-publishers in Australia won’t let you use their composer’s work or recording in a TV commercial.

The answer is to go along to a music library, or to a production facility that keeps a large stock of the CDs from the growing number of libraries. Here, you’ll find a wide selection of music that can literally be picked up off the shelf, and – most importantly – can be cleared for national or international use at a moment’s notice, for a known fee (depending on the geographical usage required and on the type of production) that can be budgeted for in advance. Library music albums are not available in record stores, although famous themes are commercially released from time to time.

As a producer, you don’t pay anyone until you actually use the material – when you fill in an MCPS ‘cue sheet’ and are licensed to use the music for whatever your application might be, from an in-house training film to a nationally-networked TV show.

Nor do you pay for the trained library staff who’ll spend hours with you to help you find what you’re looking for – it’s a free service. It doesn’t even cost you to try out music against the pictures until you get the right piece.

There are many such music libraries around the world, and several of the top libraries are based in Britain. We chose to take a closer look at KPM, one of the best known.

Taking Stock

Robert Keith

The beginning of “KPM Music Recorded Library” as it used to be known, goes back to the late 18th century. Instrument maker Robert Keith had set up shop as a musical instrument maker in 1780, establishing a music publishing company in 1830 with new business partner William Prowse.

Over a hundred years later, however, the music publishing side took somewhat of a back seat as Keith Prowse’s primary business became selling theatre tickets, and in 1955 Keith Prowse Music Publishing was spun off and sold to the holders of the original London weekdays commercial television franchise, Associated-Rediffusion.

The manager of the newly-established music company, Patrick Howgill, was now faced with a challenging marketplace for music – the new world of commercial television – but had to meet the challenge with a catalogue that had grown up decades earlier. He decided to set up an entirely new music library for the purpose – the ‘KP Library’. It was launched in 1956 on a budget of £5000 – which funded the first twenty-five 78-rpm discs. Some of those original recordings are still in regular use today, having been reissued on archive CD collections such as “Famous Radio & TV Themes”.

In 1959, Associated-Rediffusion purchased the successful Peter Maurice publishing company and merged it with Keith Prowse Music Publishing to form KPM – Keith-Prowse-Maurice (not “Keith Prowse Music”), now known as “KPM Music Group”.

The library, which had expanded tenfold in the intervening years, switched to LP format. In 1969 EMI bought the KPM Music Group, but kept the highly successful name and identity, adding to it the library of the Francis, Day & Hunter Organisation, which had also been acquired by EMI.

Currently KPM offers over 28,000 recorded items, available on 500 CDs and via the Internet. With 50 new albums being released every year, KPM spends over half a million pounds a year on new recordings.

The present catalogue, now searchable via the Online Music Finder with over 7,000 tracks available for instant auditioning and broadcast-quality download, includes many library titles which hide familiar themes: Animal Magic, Grandstand, World of Sport, News At Ten, Mastermind, and All Creatures Great And Small to name but a few.

TV themes are just one of the smaller, more glamorous aspects of the library business. Most of the music gets used for more mundane things.

But like the other top libraries, whatever the application, KPM does its best to get hold of the best composers, specialising in every field of music, under the careful guidance of its director, Peter Cox (also a director of EMI Music) who recently celebrated running the library for 30 years – in fact, since his predecessor, Robin Phillips, left to set up Bruton Music, originally owned by ATV Music and acquired by Zomba (which also owns Chappells Music Library, founded by Charles Williams in 1941) in the mid-eighties.

Quality Control

There is also a strong emphasis on quality. Not only must the music be good, it must also be recorded to the highest standards. Although a library album may be recorded more quickly than the average studio recording, as much care goes into each release as into any commercial album. KPM producers attend the majority of recording sessions and before each project a composer is carefully briefed on what is required in the marketplace at the time.

The quality requirement extends right down to the finished product. It must do: much of the usage is from the original CDs, and in the days of vinyl, now thankfully passed, many film and TV producers used the original vinyl pressings, not having the time to order up a master copy of a track from the library (although these could always be done to order in a wide number of formats including magnetic film – and now on digital media).

With this in mind, KPM’s vinyl releases were cut and pressed by Nimbus Records, widely known in the Seventies and early Eighties for their high quality work. Nimbus was the first British CD manufacturer, and the library jumped at the chance to take advantage of the new technology: in November 1984, KPM became the first music library to release a Compact Disc – entitled Surprise Surprise and engineered by the present author.

It was one of the first CDs manufactured in the UK. KPM was also the first major library to switch entirely from vinyl to CD, with an aggressive programme of CD releases of new and back-catalogue material from 1984 onwards, although some well-known tracks (such as the full version of Johnny Pearson’s The Awakening, used in edited form for ITN’s News At Ten until 1992, when it was supplanted by a specially-written rearrangement) are no longer easily available, as they were not reissued on CD (although you can generally request a special transfer from the library if you want to use them for something).

KPM also adopted an unusual attitude to packaging for its albums. Until the Eighties, most libraries, including KPM, released their material in a standard sleeve – identifying the library only and listing the track titles on the back.

KPM became the first to regularly employ individual artwork for each album – just as in the commercial field.

It makes sense: although it costs more to produce, the custom cover helps to draw attention to the albums and increases their usage – and today, virtually everyone does it.

New Writers

But at the heart of a library like KPM is the roster of composers. KPM releases around fifty albums a year, so the number of composers it can handle is obviously limited. But Peter Cox is always on the lookout for new writers. “They usually come from personal recommendation or reputation,” he says, “rather than tapes, although of course we do listen to the tapes we receive.

“The important thing,” he continues, “is that the tracks really talk to you. The composer has got to have conviction… has to have a soul and project it.” This attitude is not unlike that of an A&R executive at any other record company.

What Cox is not looking for is material that just sounds like “mood music”. It may well end up on someone’s TV test-card but that isn’t a way for either the library or the composer to make money. Neither is he concerned overmuch with the technical quality of a demo.

“With all the technology around today, almost anyone can come in with technically superb demos,” he notes, “but that really isn’t the point: it’s what the composer is trying to say that’s important. I am always looking for music that excites the imagination, and conjures up pictures – suggesting possible applications for itself.”

Neither does Peter Cox limit himself to one kind of music – he can’t afford to. A music library can find a home for any style of music, “as long as it’s done well!” he underlines. KPM regularly releases major orchestral albums; folk music; ethnic recordings; and electronic-based material that would happily find a place in the clubs or dance charts.

But whatever it is, it has to be good. And he’s prepared to go to whatever studio is appropriate for the project – Abbey Road or Angel Studios for the orchestral projects, and composer- or producer-owned studios for smaller line-ups and electronic-based material. KPM’s output is a great deal broader than that of the average mainstream record company.

This breadth of need for good music benefits the composer too. Very quickly, users of library music remember and look out for the names of composers whose work they find themselves using extensively. And once you’ve made a name for yourself, your records will be picked up as soon as they turn up in the production facility, whatever type of music they contain.

Long-established library composers like Keith Mansfield (composer of the Grandstand theme and co-writer of the start-up theme used by Granada from 1975-1988) can be almost any kind of composer they like as long as it’s within their capabilities. A major orchestral recording one month, or an album originated on sophisticated electronic instrument systems the next.

What Attraction?

What then is the attraction of library music for the new composer? The idea of a piece of music making money has turned up a good deal in this article, but just as in the commercial field, that isn’t all there is to it.

Certainly, library music is music created for a marketplace, but then so is a hit record to some extent. 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 favourite 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.

Certainly, to Peter Cox of KPM, both applications need commitment and conviction: the composer needs to say something to the listener in both cases. For many library composers the musical ideas spring to mind in the same way as they do for any musician: they are then developed in a usable direction. This is surely no different in essence from making a pop record.

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that a great deal of classical music was realised in exactly the same way as library music: a patron asked for a piece to be composed for a particular application, and paid for it. In that sense, there’s surely little difference between the News At Ten theme tune and Handel’s Water Music (although, no doubt, Handel did not expect his work to turn up, in an arrangement by Sir Malcolm Sargent, on Anglia Television).

Rewarding Experience

Writing for a music library – particularly a forward-looking one like KPM – is a rewarding experience. It enables the composer to broaden their musical vocabulary, to experiment in different fields and, yes, to make good money.

The financial deal offered by the majority of “traditional” music libraries is exceptionally good news for the composer. Generally the library will pick up the recording and manufacturing costs; the composer has to write and arrange the material, and often play it or conduct it – or both. The investment is recouped by the library, and is earned by the composer, on the basis of royalties paid by end-users of the music.

The amount per unit time depends on the application: so, for example, an MCPS licence for a nationally-networked 30-second TV commercial will be a good deal more than that for a corporate training video. MCPS will advise on the amounts that different applications will generate.

For a “traditional” library, the basic royalty split is 50/50: half of all UK PRS (Performing Rights Society) and MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) money received goes to the composer and half to the library.

Overseas, however, 50% of the mechanical royalties go to the local agent, so there is less to be made there, but on the other hand the performance royalties are paid direct to the composer. The composer therefore ends up with about 30% of the overseas royalty earnings.

And there is always the chance that a piece of music will earn money on that basis for years to come. Johnny Pearson’s News At Ten theme, for example, was recorded almost 40 years ago, and Keith Mansfield’s Grandstand has been used for decades!

New Libraries

Since this article was originally written over 15 years ago, there has been a lot of consolidation in the production music industry. Larger libraries have grouped together to make their catalogues available on-line, with sophisticated search capabilities, demo-quality streaming audio and even actual broadcast-quality, high-resolution digital files to download for approved subscribers.

In addition we have seen a massive growth in other types of production music libraries. Up until the Nineties, the dominant form of music library was the pay-per-use approach, where a payment is generally made each time a piece of music is used, described above.

More recently, however, the so-called “royalty-free” or “blanket licence” libraries have increased dramatically. Here, instead of a pay-per-use model, the material is sold or licensed to the user for a one-off fee, which covers use either forever or for a renewable licence period. This enables the purchaser to use any piece of music on the discs without further payment.

This type of library has been made possible by the growth of home studios, enabling composers to create their own material without going into a commercial facility – but this method of production is generally limited to small-scale and electronic productions.

In addition, the composer only receives a single payment for their material, not an ongoing per-use royalty. The result is that these kinds of libraries, though relatively cheap and widely used, do not offer the same quality, breadth and sophistication as the traditional production music sources. As is often the case, you get what you pay for.

Writing Library Music

The vast majority of recorded library music is used with pictures of some sort, whether as a TV theme, incidental music to a documentary, backing for a radio or TV commercial, or to add a punch to an audio-visual or new media presentation.

Within this field, there is a market for memorable tunes, but these can create their own problems. If a piece of music is exceptionally memorable, and is picked up for a high-profile application, this will limit its possible use elsewhere, and thus the money that can be earned from royalties on its usage (although a very high profile application, for example as the theme to a major TV series, can be very lucrative).

Take Keith Mansfield’s Grandstand theme, for example. For over twenty years it was used several times a week on a national TV show. Nobody in their right mind would use that piece of music in the UK for anything else (unless it was a parody of the show, or wished to allude to the programme).

But strange things can happen. For example, one Saturday afternoon the present writer watched the opening of Grandstand on BBC television and changed channels to ITV to hear the same piece of music!

A major sporting event had been cancelled due to bad weather, and instead of World of Sport, the ITV contractor was showing an American documentary on theme parks – which, incongruously for UK viewers, featured the Grandstand theme.

Something less prestigious but equally memorable, if picked up for a major TV advertising campaign, for example, would again tend to become associated with that product and be unlikely to appear on other commercials.

Strong themes can therefore ‘burn out’ very fast – their very memorability scores both for them and against them. They’ll make a lot of money, but only for a limited period.

At the other end of the scale, unobtrusive music that creates an atmosphere, but doesn’t get in the way, will perhaps only be used in low-profile applications, but it can get used a great deal and for a long period. It too will make money, though it’ll take longer to do it. But it’ll last longer too.

Although library music can be quite strongly influenced by popular fashion, it must also fit a commercial application. A good deal of music library material will have a voiceover on top of it in the final production, so the music mustn’t get in the way, either by having too strident a lead line (one reason why most production music is instrumental, of course) or by relying too much on up-front drums.

There are ways around this, and music editors can be very enterprising in the way they cut between library tracks (or even back and forth in the same track, such as the way The Awakening was edited for News At Ten) in a production.

As a result, it is common practice to include ‘underscores’ – thinned-down versions of up-front pieces, often without the melody line at all, and other lighter, shorter edited arrangements – along with the full version on a library album. An editor can start off with the full mix, then cut to the underscore during the voice-over, cutting back to the full version to highlight visuals or to lift the mood during gaps in the narration.

It is therefore always worth examining tracks to see what alternate versions can be extracted. It’s sometimes a good idea to record underscores or alternative versions separately – this again gives the editor more choice, as they can use thematically-related pieces in a production, keeping the overall thematic content of the music relatively similar, but changing the mood by choosing alternative versions of the main theme.

Music libraries abhor fades at the end of tracks: almost always, a piece should end neatly, in an appropriate way, as long as it doesn’t sound contrived. The last part of a track – assuming it’s likely to be needed for that kind of application – should be examined to see if a 28-second or shorter version, or an end-link, can be extracted.

These are useful for commercials, obviously, but in addition, if a theme is picked up for commercial TV, they may need a short snappy section to a tail to link into and out of commercial breaks (in Britain at least) and conceivably for trailers or promos.

If you really want to do a lot of work, an album of short links, bridges, stings and backing tracks for commercials can make a good deal of money.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error


Richard G Elen Contact More by me

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Tuesday 16 April 2024