A Brief History Of Music Libraries

Production music isn’t a part of the music industry that gets a lot of public attention; it gets so little notice that the majority of people don’t even know what it is or that it even exists. Funnily enough, this type of music is approximately 80% of what the public hears on a daily basis. It’s everywhere from commercials, movie trailers, radio ads, on-hold music, TV themes and TV background music, Documentary films, YouTube videos, and on and on! With the obvious exceptions being licensed hits we all know from the artist du jour. 

Production music aka - stock music, library music, and royalty-free music. There are anonymous music producers (aka ghost writers) and composers all over the world that create production music with the primary function being to service the message of the storyline or brand. 

‘Stock music’ is a niche section of the music industry and with that comes numerous successful companies that deal in the administration of rights and the manufacture of the music itself. So, who makes this music? And how did it (subtly) become such a dominating force in our pop culture and media? These are some of the questions that I’m curious about and as someone who curates music for a modern day music library (Bedtracks.com) and is a composer of production music I thought would investigate. 


Before we get too far. What is royalty-free stock music all about?

In my experience, this phrase is tossed around a lot in a shroud of confusion. I’ll do my best to explain the most common differences. There are two types of royalty-free music:

1. Small upfront fee for music usage, but all back-end royalties paid by the broadcaster. A usage of music (anytime the song appears in a production) is licensed for a nominal fee. The license is then good for perpetuity (forever and ever). 

Here’s where royalties come into play. If the production is a film or broadcast TV, the licensee must report the music they used in their video in the form of cue sheets. Cue sheets get submitted to a performing rights organization (PRO). PRO’s are royalty collection agencies. There are several performance royalty collectors in the world, but the one you submit to depends on where in the world you are located. Each territory has a different performing rights organization.  

If the production plays on broadcast television the broadcaster (CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.) has to pay out performance royalties to a performing rights organization. These performance royalties are where the rights administrator and composers make most of their money. 

2. Truly Royalty-free.
The truly royalty-free model doesn’t require any reporting of music usage via cue sheets. The fee for music is one time, and the music is used as frequently as the customer would like. In this case, the license fees are more expensive. 


What Is A Music Library?

Music libraries are well-curated catalogues of music that are pre-cleared for quick and easy licensing. They are a one-stop shop for all your music needs, usually a company of people that collect production music from composers all over the world. The music is then catalogued to make it easily searchable and accessible online. Most music libraries are non-exclusive which means they administer the rights of music on behalf of composers without owning any of the music. 
On the other hand, exclusive music libraries represent the rights of works that they 100% control. The advantage here is that clients can get music for their productions and they know with certainty where that music has been used prior. The disadvantage to non-exclusive music is that non-exclusive music can appear in other music libraries and potentially in the competition of a client’s brand.

How Music Libraries Came To Be

It all began with the establishment of the family-fun company ‘Dewolfe Music’ in England in 1909, although it wasn’t until the rise of ‘talkies’ in 1927 that Dewolfe began assembling a recorded music library like the music libraries we know today. Mayer de Wolfe founded the company after emigrating from the Netherlands to England. Mayer was a formally trained musician, and his job was to choose the sheet music for musical accompaniment to films. A time before recorded sound technology and musicians would sit in cinemas playing live to the action projected on the screen.

Mayer began building a catalogue of original compositions that he could license to conductors for performance in silent films. It became predictable as to what films would need musically (ominous, comedic, playful, sad, etc.) and at this time scoring approaches were ‘loose’ rather than the ‘tight scoring’ that is common today. Tight scoring meaning music that is written to align with the pace of cuts in a film. In the early days, the ‘loose’ approach to film scoring was the norm. The desired mood was all that was needed to support the story unfolding on screen. 
When 1927 rolled around De Wolfe quickly adapted to the new technology, and they immediately began recording their scores via the ‘sound-on-disc’ method. A paradigm shift had begun. Cinema orchestras that would usually be playing for each showing of a film could now record one-time through a phonograph and onto an acetate disc. The playback system caused a massive disruption among the union of musicians that made a living by performing at cinemas night after night. 

De Wolfe continued to produce music for film and newsreels into the 30s, and in the 1940s they undertook the expansion to North America. Today, Dewolfe owns over 80,000 compositions, and its music can be heard in thousands of films and television series. Even major artists like Mark Ronson, Ja Rule, Beyoncé, and Gorillaz have sampled music from the Dewolfe catalogue. 

The Recording Revolution – How Production Music Has Evolved

The door has never been open wider than it is today for young producers and composers. It’s an evening playing field with the tools of the trade being affordable and within reach of many. A keen ear and the proper know-how remain essential for achieving great results, but gone are the days of needing expensive recording gear and facilities to produce high standard work. 


Home studios started popping up on the scene in the 1970s. New technology allowed for the possibilities of reel-to-reel recording and 4-track recording. At first, the ideal home studio was hardly attainable. To have a mixer, reel-to-reel stereo mix down, passive monitors and a power amp you would be looking at a price tag of $10,000. 


In 1979, the music studio/music library ‘Network Production Music Library’ defined the characteristic sound of stock music and solidified how we use stock music today. Tom Dinoto and Robert Skomer founded the company, and it was here that composer Craig Palmer wrote a very successful track called ‘Energy.' ‘Energy’ became the style guide of the 1980s “network” sound. String and horn arrangements overlayed on a contemporary drum beat with timpani and brass accentuations. Larger music libraries (APM, KPM) dominated the production music market in the 80s, but The Network Production Music Library had a strong foothold in the industry with Craig Palmer’s compositions at their behest. 

Music Libraries Today

Today, production music is a big business. Over the last 20 years, the marketplace has expanded to hundreds of music libraries all over the world. The cause of this is due in large part to small production budgets that couldn’t afford custom music composition and thus requiring affordable music licenses from royalty-free music libraries. Shrinking budgets did not equate to less content creation, in fact, the opposite is true. The Internet age was a catalyst for a boom of content creation. There is more content now than there ever has been before - creating opportunities for musicians to sell their music and companies to administer licenses! 

Modern day libraries tend to have track counts into the tens and hundreds of thousands of tracks spanning nearly every genre imaginable. What sets apart music libraries today is relevance and quality. The standards are high and getting higher. Long gone are the production styles of the 1980s. Most producers demand radio quality mixes in the most current styles. We consider Bedtracks to be a top player in today’s royalty-free production music library market with 50,000+ tracks and the freshest tracks frequently added! Our highly curated playlists are a good place to start!

(Related reading, Following Music Trends In Video: How To Keep Your Video Marketing Current)

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