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A Brief History of Library Music

October 18, 2010

The evolution of the music library business has been driven by technological change, notably the digital revolution.


Production library music was born in 1927 with the British company De Wolfe, under the name “pre-recorded music.” It was first available on wax cylinders, and then tapes and LPs. De Wolfe’s eventual competitors came mostly from the UK and Europe.

That’s due to the difference between unions here and abroad.  Library music was priced below standard music. German unions understood this and made special arrangements for library music. Unions in the UK quickly followed suit. But the US musician’s union insisted that players be paid the same residuals for production music as for custom music. If US libraries both abided by the union and remained competitive with prices overseas they would quickly go broke. Still, an American library, Ascher, started in the ’60’s, followed by Valentino.

Technology first changed the library business near the end of the 70s. Until then record duplication had been expensive. Now short runs of 1000 became available, making the medium of records affordable to new libraries. The result was two new American libraries -Omni and Network.

THE ‘80’S   

The digital revolution hit the library business in the mid 80s, when Omni introduced the first library CD (Disclosure: it contained my album “Imagination.”) Other libraries quickly followed suit. Customers enjoyed the convenience of CDS – they were harder to scratch than records, they offered random access to individual cuts and took up less shelf space.

Until the mid 80s the only options for visual presentations were film, which was very expensive to produce, and limited one-projector slide shows. As video equipment steadily came down in price, it became a new option as communications medium. And with the advent of personal computers, multiple slide projectors could be synced together for more satisfying shows. Boston was a center for these productions. Productions became better and cheaper, attracting more businesses with something to communicate.

New libraries arose to meet these growing markets for production music – Firstcom, Aircraft and Manhattan in the US, and others in Europe.

By the end of the 80s there were approximately fifteen libraries. Except for the new medium of CDs, their business model was the same as always. Customers paid a one-time fee (a needledrop) to use a piece of music. Or they could buy a “blanket” to cover all their productions for a year.

Coincident with the advent of the CD, someone came up with a new licensing concept. It was called “buyout,” though it’s now known by the misleading, but popular term “royalty free music.” The customer bought a CD for a one-time fee, along with the lifetime rights to use it in an unlimited number of productions.

The royalty free model allowed a new set of entrepreneurs into the library business – those that weren’t rich. Traditional libraries were expensive to run. Music production still required professional recording studios and live musicians. Sessions could run hundreds of dollars an hour. And marketing required attending expensive trade shows and doing intensive telephone sales.

Royalty free libraries took advantage of yet another technological advance – affordable synthesizers, samplers and home recording equipment. While music made with these new tools wasn’t yet as good as music done with live instruments, it meant lower overhead for the libraries, which in turn allowed them to survive on lower buyout revenues.

This gave these libraries access to many of the new markets that cheaper visual production was opening up. Colleges, churches, smaller companies, even elementary schools wanted to get their messages out with the new production tools. They now had music they could afford.

There was another set of new producers with limited budgets –those who needed music to score product for hundreds of new cable channels. Growth of the broadcast pie didn’t nearly meet the proliferation of channels, so production budgets kept being cut.

All of these new producers found royalty free music irresistible, so much so that they often came to the libraries rather than vice- versa. They couldn’t afford to care if the quality was a little off. This gave royalty free libraries a huge marketing advantage over traditional libraries.

THE 90’S

In the late 80s and into the 90s libraries based on the traditional needledrop/blanket model entered the fray –Non-Stop, 615, Killer Tracks. But the growth explosion came in royalty free libraries. As is often the case with evolutionary shifts, many musicians started those libraries because they’d gotten tired of banging on the doors of the old style companies, who as they grew became more inaccessible to outsiders. These musicians saw royalty free music as a way to get their music out and took it.  Many of these new libraries still had quality issues, but a few – notably Music Bakery and Manchester Music– were sounding very close to the big guys.

Another trend was that with the proliferation of libraries, higher end clients who had traditionally owned one library could now take on several. This was good for smaller, niche libraries like the Manchester Library, who could concentrate on their strengths without bothering to cover all musical bases and be everything to everyone.

Digital technology did benefit the big libraries in one sense – the telemarketing they’d always relied on for sales was coming down in price.

Video went digital. As prices for video tools continued to drop, even more players began producing communication products. The library market continued to expand. Meanwhile digital audio recording became affordable for home studios, and their quality started rising to where it is today – in many cases indistinguishable from the pro studios. Buyout libraries – who due to their licensing model would always remain poorer than the old-style ones –took advantage of this, and their music improved. Most still couldn’t afford live players. It was coming to matter less because music in general was becoming more and more electronic. Whole genres, like hip-hop, used no live musicians. Composers who played guitar and had good samples could make credible rock music by themselves at home.

The growth in new royalty free libraries was outpacing the growth in their markets and competition became fierce. Some of the bigger ones resorted to telemarketing.

Then came the Internet. Now customers could purchase CDs from a website without even speaking to a salesperson – something appreciated by busy producers who often spent half the morning fielding calls from the ever growing number of libraries of both kinds. This gave the royalty free libraries a distinct advantage over the big boys. Their product could not be licensed from a website. And they relied on the honor system for reporting of music, which meant a need for personal relationships with their clients. The royalty free libraries have no such need.

THE 00’S

Now the pace at which digital technology affected the library business rapidly increased. Whole new markets for library music opened up, it seemed by the month. Satellite. Websites. Message-on-hold, cell phones, iphones, phone apps, ipads. Video games and hotel kiosks. YouTube. They all needed to license music.

The biggest game changer came when download rates with TI and DSL got fast enough for clients to download full-resolution music. Now music libraries had a most enviable product – one that could be delivered entirely on-line. The traditional libraries used this to deliver product to their customers, but their licensing remained person-to-person based, by phone, though email was also a welcome innovation. Recently the big players have discontinued CD production, saving them a large expense and headache.

But the royalty free libraries had an ideal situation – a product that could be marketed, sold and delivered online, and anonymously, something that was increasingly popular with customers used to shopping on Amazon and eBay. Customers could for the first time purchase individual tracks royalty free.

Without the burden of producing CDs, individual musicians could now produce some tracks at home, put up their own website, and enter the library business for a fraction of what it once cost. And many musicians were eager to do it. Musicians at the top of that industry – record production, national jingle and film scoring –had always sniffed at library music. Now as the record business disintegrated and jingles left New York for the hinterlands, these guys were no longer above writing library music. And when the libraries, flooded by their inquiries, turned them away, they simply started their own.

From a couple of handfuls of libraries at the start of the 80s we now have over 300 established libraries, and countless other tiny outfits as described above.

This has created problems for both libraries and their clients. As fast as the market for production music has grown, the libraries are growing much faster. That’s driven down prices on the low end, and revenues are smaller for almost every library.

Clients face another problem. There may be more affordable options for music, but how to choose from amongst hundreds of libraries? And if you choose a large library, how to find what you need from thousands of CDs?

For the onetime user of library music who doesn’t need the highest quality, some time on google will produce a solution. But producers who do multiple projects, and who care about the quality of the music face a real problem. Professional editors and producers are very busy people. They can’t possibly do that google search every time they need to score a project.

So whether they go with a traditional library or royalty free libraries (or as some do now, both) what they need is to find a few reliable sources for music that’s good enough in quality and serves their stylistic needs.

They are employing their own editorial control here. But that doesn’t solve the other problem – how to quickly find what they need in the always growing library catalogues.

Search and browse software can help, though it comes at some cost to the libraries, as any publisher who’s done the chore of key wording thousands of tracks can attest.

We’ve done that job at Manchester Music. We also have another part of the solution. Over 15 years we’ve only produced 50 CDs. They are of universal high quality, composed by many different composers who have created a wide range of styles and sounds.  When you’re searching you can be sure you won’t find any junk.

If you need a lot of something esoteric – say 10 albums of traditional Irish music – you’ll have to go to one of the big traditional libraries. But we can fill most corporate users needs. And if you need the odd piece of didgeridoo hip-hop, or, as was once requested, a CD of Christmas carols for sax quartet, you can always go back to google.

I want to thank my old colleague and current ASCAP board member Doug Wood for offering some background on the early days of the library business.

  1. I once interviewed Joseph Williams (son of film score composer, John Williams and former and once again current lead vocalist of Toto). In the 90s after his first stint in Toto (1986-1989) in addition to being a session vocalist and staff songwriter (I believe @ Columbia Records), Joseph was eking out a living composing television scores (Early Edition, LA Doctors, Roswell), B movie scores (usually that soft-core porn stuff you find in the twilight hours on Cinemax), and library music.

    We spoke on the phone a handful of times in 1998 and we did get into a discussion on library music and he mentioned that at that point in time he’d been doing a bit more of that as the shows he was scoring weren’t “surviving” due to poor ratings.

    • J Manchester permalink

      Maybe I should look him up and hire him!

      • Due to the success and the good time Toto had on their 2010 tour I believe there are plans to hit the road again in 2011 to raise even more money for their former bass player, Mike Porcaro, who has been diagnosed with ALS. That being said Steve Lukather just released a solo album and I believe he plans to tour in support of that before Toto hits the road again so Joseph may have some free time on his hands to do some composing if you’re serious about hiring or contracting him for some work.

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