An in-depth overview of this sound, from its birthplace in silent film, to its staple players in the game like engineers and arrangers across Europe, to its influence on 1970s pornography, sampling, hip-hop and even current DJs. This film invites you to unveil the mysteries of Library Music.
Screening on the 14th of June at Melkweg, tickets available here.
When offered to review this documentary I was skeptical, the trailer just looked like a bunch of old-school white men reminiscing but little did I know that our passions were aligned. From the early stages of my life, when searching for music, I have often found my favorites in film and television. I’ve had this grand plan to create a mix purely of theme tunes for quite some time (think Bojack Horseman, Big Mouth, The Love Boat, Brooklyn 99, Dr Who and Stranger Things shaping this set) and yet had no idea that a passion of mine had a name and it was called Library Music. Shawn Lee (producer, library music enthusiast and musician) walks us through “the weird and wonderful parallel universe of Library Music”. An in-depth overview of this sound, from its birthplace in silent film, to its staple players in the game like engineers and arrangers across Europe, to its influence on 1970s pornography, sampling, hip-hop and even current DJs. This film invites you to unveil the mysteries of Library Music.
As I mentioned, I went in completely blind on this film so I’ll give you the Library Music definition for any fellow lost souls: Officially it is non-commercial music made specifically for inexpensive use in radio, television and film. Aficionados on the scene described it as “experimental”, “no key changes”, “no tempo changes”, “needs dramatic levels” and with an “instrumental focus”. Mat Camison explains “The difference with chart hits is that they have vocals you will get tired of” but with library music there is a mystery and surprise to it always.
It was born alongside the silent film around 1909, beginning at De Wolfe studios, simply making orchestral soundtracks, publishing them, and then making it available to be re-used for other silent films. Warren De Wolfe speaks about his father’s influence in the 1960s “he could see that the business needed to grow…trying to get music into all these areas which in those days was a hell of a thing to do. While doing that he picked up a lot of contacts which introduced a lot of colour into the catalogues”. Expanding from the UK across to France and Italy (known for its rough, dark and psychedelic library music).
Library musicians had to be imaginative, flexible and quick due to constant constraints whether it be studio sizes, production due dates or a sudden change of mind from the director. It’s fascinating to think that these talented musicians, arrangers and engineers are very much seen as unsung heroes, they are the people who shaped our viewing pleasure yet with no mainstream acknowledgment. Personally, music is everything when watching entertainment for me, have you ever watched a horror film on mute? Do me a favour and please tell me whether you are scared after that? I curse Netflix so often for inventing the 'Skip Intro' button because I do really find joy in the hype a theme song can provide for the drama that is undoubtedly about to unfold.
Library Musicians would have particular aliases to hide under and then produce boundless amounts of music with the hopes someone would pick it up. Italian heavyweight composers, Stefano Torossi and Giancarlo Gazzani, Americanised themselves in the 1970s with pseudonyms to appear more incognito and yet also palatable for the US market with the names: Jay Richford and Gary Stevan. There’s a lovely moment where we are introduced to Piero Umiliani’s music. He was a legend in the scene but his most popular work was believed to be written by The Muppets, Mah-Nah-Mah-Nah. Alan Hawkshaw’s Love Deluxe is another example of misdirection in its origins, sampled for Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight, one of the first hit hip-hop records of all time.
DJs and producers in the early 90s were on the hunt for fresh sounds and unveiled this cheeky treasure chest of Library Music. The composer and DJ 'AM' rejoices “...it’s funky, it’s got drama, it’s got this tension at times and so it’s the perfect bed for somebody to add something to it”. The film asks all their Library Music interviewees about whether “sampling is an homage or theft?”, they reminisce and see it as piracy so often as these unsung heroes are rarely compensated by American artists “they are specialists in piracy” asserts Slim Pezin. It's not all looting for good tunes, there have been those instances where people like Jay Z have fairly compensated and acknowledged the heritage of samples with Nick Ingman's Under Pressure.
This film truly educated me on some seriously sneaky sounds that I never even knew had a genre title, an incredibly dedicated fan base, a lineage of unsung heroes and even the fact that I own a Library Music record myself: Gino Soccio - Dance Exercise Music Volume One, naturally.
I rate this film as Very Good + (see the film condition board below), as its overview is dense and yet necessary to uncover such a mysterious sound.