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An intro to the surreal and funky world of “library records,” the assembly-line-produced albums designed to soundtrack film and television.
It’s hard to sum up the “library record.” Musically speaking, these dusty sought-after gems occupy a broad spectrum of styles. From a beat-digger haven of obscure and heavy funk, experimental and aspirational avant grade electronics, surreal sci-fi synth-scapes and, of course, sensual soundtracks that would backdrop a particular category of explicit filmography, library records covered all the music bases.
Originally they were mass-produced to provide a source of purely economic music, conceived in the 1920s as a stock music sold to silent movie cinemas. Library music wouldn’t reach its real heyday until the ‘60s and ‘70s, when companies, and eventually library labels, solicited small but notable composers and session players to produce music for specific concepts. Drama, comedy, sports, commercial jingles, science fiction — a.k.a. “mood” music for broadcasters and low-budget film productions to use as scores — the best being a featured snippet on a low-budget detective show or sci-fi B-movie.
The music was ready-made, had infinite thematic possibilities and was less expensive means to score video without expensive licensing fees or a pricy composer commission. The concept proved highly successful, brought a lot of opportunity to behind-the-scenes musicians, and with its imaginative and non traditional approach, harbored an experimental musical playground.
The music itself was not cheap, or say bootleg versions of “the real thing,“ but proved to be quite the opposite. It was cutting-edge, experimental and just downright good. It was also never meant to be released publicly. Still, companies thought they could get more traction if they pressed samplers. Some of these now run $1000 for original copies, which speaks to their scarcity; at most, only 200 original copies were pressed. Largely neglected by the average music consumer, they stood in the dollar bins as previews on the offchance customer to see if this music could work on their film project. If they liked it, they would purchase a dub from the master tape and then use it – a process called “synchronization.”
These neglected albums would soon find a resurgence in the 90s and 00s, mainly by the hip-hop and digger community. It was a sample paradise; then-cheap records filled with primarily vocal-less music laced with heavy funk, breaks, beats, and wild synths. A bounty of beautiful music filed away for decades, patiently waiting for the proper ear. Within a decade the best moved from the dollar bins to the collectors’ market.
Here are some of library label heavyweights and a few recommendations from each of their beloved catalogs.
One of the biggest names in library music is the KPM music house. The iconic “Greensleeves” from the 1000 series hosted pretty much every veteran in the library music field, making cult sensations of Keith Mansfield, Alan Hawkshaw, John Cameron and Alan Parker, to name a few. The label’s rich and diverse catalog spans over 70 years and may be be the most sampled of all, famously touched by J Dilla and Madlib. We highly recommend you look into Be With Records’ recent reissues of their ten best, including the hands-down favorite, Contempo by Kieth Mansfield.
The Bruton Music Library was founded in 1977 by Robin Philips, responsible for leading KPM into its mid-60s golden years. At KPM, he was known as a revolutionary who redefined production music by fostering the talents of his protegees mentioned above, many of whom he brought along when he started this new label. The record covers also have an iconic signature, all featuring a variation of its pseudo futuristic grid design, some sort of conceptual image and often saturated in that vibrant Bruton orange. One of their best is this release by Alan Hawkshaw, Frontiers of Science.
Music de Wolfe
Music de Wolfe has long been recognized as the originator of Library music. Founded in 1909, the label was already providing library music before records even existed. In the silent film era, music would often be performed by live musicians in the cinema, and Music de Wolfe was founded with the idea to distribute a “library” of sheet music for the musicians to choose from. In 1962 they began issuing 10-inch records, one being the coveted unhinged release by library master — and cosmic disco “Silicon Chip” fame — Basil Kirchin.
Since 1966, France’s Tele Music has also attained cult status among library and music lovers, as well as been plied through by the sample searching community. They are recognizable by their assembly style of reproduced jackets featuring the same warped spiral mirror frame and complemented by vivid color and simple titles like “Rhythms.” Many point to Tonio Rubio’s 1972 track “Bass in Action N°2” as a precursor to the hip-hop sound. Here is that track and a recent compilation of their catalog, Tele Music Vol.1.
Themes International Music
Themes International, alongside KPM, was a library subsidiary of EMI founded by KPM’s Alan Parker. From APM Music’s official site: “Founded in the ’70s by renowned composers of the day, this library was created to get back in touch with the popular music of the times. The result is an incredible testament to the music of its era and a fantastic collection of archival gems. They enlisted artists like soul and library legends like Madeleine Bell and Brian Bennet to create a series of soulful jazz, ultra-cool funk, and breezy, carefree, easy listening.” Here’s a Themes favorite by Madeline Bell, The Voice of Soul.