What is Library Music? - A primer for the uninitiated.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the term ‘Library Music’ bandied around quite a bit in recent years. Compilations on BBE, Trunk Records and Strut have mined the back catalogues of Library companies recently, bringing long forgotten classics back into the spotlight. Producer Shawn Lee delved into the subject for his documentary and accompanying compilation ‘The Library Music Film’, and Library music has been cited as inspiration from artists such as Luke Vibert, Adrian Younge and countless beatmakers and producers. But despite all this you may be left wondering “what exactly is Library Music?”. Chances are that if you grew up in the 70s & 80s, and the theme tunes to ‘Ski Sunday’, ‘Grange Hill’ and even ‘Mastermind’s’ ominous martial drum and horn introduction tickle a nostalgic corner of your brain you’re already familiar with it.

Originally conceived in the 1920s as compilations of background music to be played alongside silent films, the golden age of Library in the 1960s and 1970s  saw music composed for the purpose of hiring out to the Film, Television and advertising industries, performed by largely nameless studio musicians and owned and marketed by Library companies. Often these recordings would be used as background music in classic 70s shows such as ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’, while others would go on to become synonymous with the shows they preceded, notably Keith Mansfield’s theme tunes for BBCs Grandstand and Wimbledon Tennis coverage. 

While there was a wealth of Library Music companies in the genre’s heyday, we most often see the work created for the bigger companies such as KPM, Bruton & De Wolfe in the UK and other continental goldmines such as Frances ‘Telemusic’, Germany’s ‘Selected Sound’ and Italy’s ‘Sermi’.

Often, (arguably) KPM can be seen to rule the roost with their ‘1000 series’ LPs in identical green sleeves providing the go-to image of what Library Music represents. Originally founded as a music shop in London in 1870 and named after the owners ‘Keith-Prowse-Maurice’ KPM branched into Music for film, television and the burgeoning televisual advertising industry in the 50s. Their aforementioned ‘1000 series’ was incredibly popular and spawned many of the theme tunes that defined the era, boosting the careers of composers such as Keith Mansfield, Alan Parker, Johnny Pearson and Alan Hawkshaw in the process.


Broadly speaking the music collected by these companies can be placed in one of 3 groups: Music that reflected the pop/dancefloor hits of the time, Cinematic and evocative music created primarily for the purpose of film/tv underscore and the unusual and futuristic musical experiments inspired by the like of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC radiophonic workshop. Keith Mansfield sums it up nicely when he says “There was no pressure to have a hit record. We were making music that people might find useful, and some of that would be really unusual music – strange time signatures or key changes. If it got picked up, well, that was a bonus. And if it lasted 35 years? Wonderful! Who could have ever expected that?”

Eventually as music moved into the 80s, Hammond organs were replaced by synths, organic r&b grooves fell out of favour and the work of these great labels fell out of the public consciousness. Whole Library catalogues began to show up in secondhand record stores and were quickly adopted by crate diggers and beatmakers as a new source of samples hitherto unheard of by large parts of the general public. It was a fresh vein to tap that inspired a whole new generation of composers and artists.

Keith Mansfields ‘Funky Fanfare’ made it onto Dangermouse and MF Doom’s ‘Old School’, Drake’s ‘Summer Sixteen’ borrows heavily from Brain Bennet’s ‘Glass Tubes’ and Les Baxter’s early exploration of the moog synthesiser on his 1968 release ‘Prelude in C# Minor’ formed the backbone of the verses on The Beasties Boys' equally synth-driven hit ‘Intergalactic’. There are countless other examples, with The Shadows’ drummer Brian Bennet coming out on top with 114 samples to his name.

Other modern artists are taking further inspiration and drawing from the deep well of library music, recently evidenced by Adrian Younge's soundtrack to Netflix’s series ‘Luke Cage’, which owed a big debt sonically to the work of Library artists past. Younge is no stranger to library music and used the work of composers Alan Tew, Brain Bennet and Alan Hawkshaw when asked to compile the soundtrack to spoof Blaxploitation film ‘Black Dynamite. More recently, Artists such as ATA’s very own Abstract Orchestra have turned the tables and are recreating the sampled beats of Hip-Hop producers with the same instrumentation Library composers used to create the original samples, bringing the music back to its original, live analogue home.

Which leads us onto (or into) The Library Archive. Our love of the exotic, evocative, esoteric sounds of the golden age of Library music has inspired us to make our own. Lovingly crafted on the same equipment and using the same studio techniques employed by the original engineers, our Library Archive is inspired by all the choicest cuts from the top labels. Vol. 1 features big band funk, thrilling espionage underscore and ethereal voices: a perfect reflection of the variety offered up by all the great Library companies. Vol. 2 takes a more direct approach, finding inspiration in Italian Library masters ‘I Marc 4’ with a driving R&B rhythm section and funky flutes and percussion.

Both Volumes are available on Vinyl & CD from www.atarecords.co.uk and can be streamed from all major streaming platforms. If coloured vinyl is your thing then we still have a limited amount of Yellow (Vol. 1) and Clear (Vol. 2) pressings still available.

So if that sounds like it might be up your strasse then step into our Library Archive and have a browse!

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