Also known as stock or production music, library music’s history progressed hand-in-hand with the development of cinematic media. In 1927, an English company called De Wolfe Music, which had previously provided scores for silent films, established the first non-commercial music library for use in the burgeoning talking picture industry. They produced a catalogue of largely instrumental music created on a contract basis, so the company itself retained full rights to the masters, allowing for the music to be easily (and cheaply) licensed by films, TV shows, radio programs, and other such media.
In its heyday during the 1970s, a whole crop of libraries developed limited runs of vinyl never intended for retail sale. Among them were notable efforts such as Germany’s Selected Sound, Italy’s Sermi Records, Musique Pour L’Image and Editions Montparnasse 2000 from France, and the likes of Bruton and KPM from England. Unburdened by the need to find radio hits, though they were occasionally tasked with creating soundalikes, the music instead reflected the complex emotions of imaginary scenes as much as the popular music of its time. Producing a bewildering array of spur-of-the-moment funk, rock, disco, jazz, and electronic experiments to fit a gamut of actions and moods, their collective efforts shaped the universe of everything from exploitation movies and cop dramas to sports programs and hardcore porn.
Countless television series and motion pictures have been enhanced by this particular vein of creation, bound inherently to commercial realities while allowing for remarkably inventive creative freedom. That groovy jam that plays over the announcement of “OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION” at the beginning of Kill Bill and Death Proof is “Funky Fanfare” by Keith Mansfield, released in 1969. “Heavy Action” by Johnny Pearson is best known as the theme to Monday Night Football, and though various versions and remixes have been employed over the years, Pearson’s original take from the 1974 KPM Music compilation titled Industrial Panorama was still in use as recently as 2018.
As technology and tastes rendered the session musicians and their sound out of fashion in the late 1980s and 1990s, the original library vinyl eventually trickled into charity bins and used record shops. Although previously somewhat anonymous, composers such as Alan Hawkshaw, John Cameron, Alan Tew, Bernard Fevre, Janko Nilović, and Keith Mansfield became prized picks for crate-diggers seeking samples, and their work took on a second life in hip-hop and EDM, spreading the impact of the genre wider than ever.
This list represents a small survey of albums that could fall under the sonic umbrella of library music. The following ten releases are bursting with largely instrumental, deeply cinematic tunes that’ll suit a gamut of possible occasions, many of them intentionally produced as spiritual extensions of the genre.
Synthetic: Season 1
(We Are Busy Bodies)
Known more for his rambunctious brand of indie synthpop, where he often spends parts of his raucous live sets with a mic in his hand in the middle of the crowd, Halifax musician and cycling enthusiast Rich Aucoin dug deep into synthesis on Synthetic: Season 1. Taking up a residency at the famed synth museum at the National Music Center in Calgary, Aucoin created such a dearth of material that this installment was intended as the first part of a seasonal tetralogy, where he would bring in hundreds of other synth enthusiasts to come together on a massively collaborative collection, but the first installment was all him.
Completely instrumental aside from some mostly indecipherable gibberish on “456,” a couple of the tracks are simply named after the synths that birthed them, like the acidic industrial churn of “Tonto” that opens the album. It was made on TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), a wood-paneled behemoth that still counts as the world’s largest analog synthesizer. Created by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, TONTO was famously heard throughout Stevie Wonder’s classic period, and less often seen in Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult classic Faustian rock opera Phantom of the Paradise, which only hit big in Winnipeg for some reason.
Aucoin plays several dozen synthesizers throughout Season 1, including the Supertramp-owned Elka Rhapsody 610 String Machine, the Roger Luther Moog, the Delta Research Program Synth, EMS Synthi, Arp 2600s, Formanta Polivoks, Novatron T550, Oxford Synthesizer Company Oscar, and a Selmer Clavioline CM 8.
Leaning deeper into the abstract, the epic Patrick Cowley meets Wendy Carlos vibes of “Space Western” may arguably be Aucoin’s single greatest achievement yet. The processed whistling and twangy sound design of the intro couldn’t sound more spaghetti if the maestro Ennio Morricone wrote it himself. A triumphant swell gives way to a dark fantasy synth melody, but “Space Western” maintains momentum as it rebuilds as if “The Ecstasy of Gold” was reimagined for Firefly. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this song alone is worth a hundred-page screenplay.
The Natural Yogurt Band
The brainchild of Nottingham-based Chicken Shack studio owner Miles Newbold, the Natural Yogurt Band has its roots embedded in mid-century French and Italian electronic and library music. Newbold plays a bunch of Magnified himself, performing keys, synthesizers, vibes, bass, guitar, and percussion. He formed the band with former Little Barrie drummer Wayne Fullwood, but Magnified was brought to life with recent collaborator Neil Tolliday of Bent fame, who adds his own flair on drums, bass, synth, and guitar.
This collection of 17 evocative, tape-worn jams all come out between a minute or two long, and sound like the read-along soundtrack to all sorts of scenes. Many of the tracks sound just like they’re titled, making it far too easy to picture where in the Cold War spy thriller “Stop the Missiles” would be placed or what “The Quarry of Tomorrow” might look like in the sci-fi epic. Yet, the most stock-sounding title is one of its most interesting tracks as “Theme Sixteen” layers squelching synth and gated guitar distortion with spine-tingling vibraphone and the funkiest damn rhythm section groove.
“The Toad” is waiting to be the theme song for a bad guy in an exploitation film of some kind, with its Morricone-esque vocal hoots, cop drama bassline, prickly signal processing, whispers, and whistles. Like all of the pieces collected here, this song is so quirky and funky that it sounds longer than its running time.
Shawn Lee & Misha Panfilov
Space & Tempo
(Funk Night Records)
American multi-instrumentalist composer/producer Shawn Lee produced and starred in The Library Music Film, which followed the silver-haired fox as he interviewed almost everyone who ever played on or sampled a library music record. Recently, he’s produced a couple of collaborations with Estonian wunderkind Misha Panfilov, himself a noted multi-instrumentalist composer/producer. Following up on their tropical 2020 album Paradise Cove, Space & Tempo continues their obvious obsession with classic library music.
Although they both multi-instrumentalists employ an army of vintage synths, Shawn Lee focused on channeling the funky drummer, while Panfilov focused on the bass. Together, they evoke all the throwback ’70s moods and scenes one could imagine, from a time when music was played by actual people without quantizing, pitch-correction software, or any of those cheats.
The hypnotic, propulsive drums of “Hans Zimmerframe” would be perfect for a high-stakes heist scene, and “Petal to the Metal” is begging to be used in a car chase, while the haunting, murky industrial-pop atmosphere of “Waterphone Home” lends it an air of Germanic sci-fi. “On the smoother side, “Rope Tornado” moaningly unfurls with a rolling bass guitar line and tight, tribal percussion, while “The Shawn Shank Redemption” gnarls out a greasy mutant-funk instrumental to suit raunchier moments. They know how to do library right, and create all kinds of ego-free cinematic moods on Space & Tempo, where the music is the message.
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
(Jazz Is Dead)
Since 2020, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have been revitalizing the soul of jazz through their series of full-length collaborations on Jazz Is Dead. The composers are always foregrounded, intentionally shining a light on certain players throughout history, but the library vibe is in there.
It was production music that united Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad together in the first place. Series creator Cheo Hodari Coker brought them together to create the score for Marvel’s Luke Cage (which desperately needs to have a third season at some point). As a hip-hop legend in a Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad is no stranger to sampling, and one of multi-instrumentalist composer Adrian Younge’s first commissions was to craft the library-heavy sound of the Black Dynamite movie, later helping to score the animated series (which also desperately needs a third season). Since then, they’ve been practically inseparable.
Historical luminaries such as Roy Ayers, Marcos Valle, and Azymuth have all dropped into the Linear Labs recording studio to jam with Adrian and Ali, but Katalyst represents a bit of a shift as a fresh-faced fusion collective from Inglewood who released their debut album Nine Lives through Alpha Pup’s World Galaxy Records in 2020. Interpolating Katalyst’s free jazz vigor, JID013 is one of the freshest-sounding installments yet. Taken at face value, there are several compositions here that easily evoke cinematic scenes such as the measured percolation of “Daybreak” and the plucky swing of “Summer Solstice,” but peppered throughout the album are eminently sampleable moments, like the straight boom-bap swagger of “The Avenues”.