Shhh – it’s library music!

Here's an interesting article which I find very encouraging... concerning a revival of interest in Library Music; whose golden period was arguably the mid 60's to late 70's/early 80's. A period during which a great deal of said music was created by real orchestras or ensembles. Imagine that!

Written by Michael Hann - Sept 21st, 2018 - Financial Times

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Composer Brian Bennett, now 78, is recalling the first time he became aware of his influence on hip-hop. It was at his local golf club. “It was from an album I did called Voyage,” he says. Apparently someone in America had uncovered a copy and used its music to back their raps. “He hadn’t sampled it, he’d just used the whole track. It was ‘motherf***er this’, ‘motherfu***er that’. And I threw it in the bin.

“I turned up at the golf course; one of my golf buddies was Steve Jenkins, MD of Jive Records, and he asked who the rapper was. ‘Was? Wiz? Something like that.’ He said, ‘Was it Nas?’ It was. ‘He’s sold shitloads of records,’ Steve said. Then Kanye West did the same thing with the same record and had a big hit called ‘Lord Lord Lord’. And another track was used by Drake for ‘Summer Sixteen’ in 2016. My granddaughter suddenly thinks I’m hip.”

His old friend and colleague Alan Hawkshaw pipes up. “I remember getting an email asking for clearance for a piece, so I rang my daughter to ask who ‘Jay Zed’ was. She said, ‘It’s Jay-Z and he’s one of the most famous rappers of all time.’ If I’m going to be candid about it, the financial benefit of [sampling] is reasonably big. But as a composer I’m not musically proud of it at all. I much prefer my orchestral stuff.”

Hawkshaw mentions a record he made in 1968, gathering together a load of English session musicians, calling them The Mohawks, and recording a song called “The Champ”, which has gone on to be one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop history ( lists 661 uses, from Afrika Bambaataa in hip-hop’s earliest days, to Frank Ocean and Nicki Minaj today).

“I can never understand why anyone goes ape about three organ notes I play in ‘The Champ’,” he says.

“They’re the right three notes, Alan,” Bennett replies, gently.
Library music composers Brian Bennett (left) and Alan Hawkshaw
Library music composers Brian Bennett (left) and Alan Hawkshaw

Hawkshaw and Bennett — who has also spent decades as the drummer for The Shadows — are reflecting on their life in library music, as players and composers for the KPM label, one of the great British library music houses. Bennett explains: “Library music is music written specifically for film, documentaries or any sort of presentation for the media, by composers who understand pictures, TV and the media.” Library music isn’t written for specific projects; instead the composer is briefed to write for a genre — an action series, or current affairs show. The composer will be told to score different kinds of scenes, then film producers or directors who can’t afford to commission their own music will go to a library to select music that works for them in return for a modest fee.

The composers have no say in how it is used; often they don’t even know when it is being used. Hawkshaw remembers watching TV, when John Carpenter’s film The Fog came on. “I could hear this great jazz piece that sounded like Erroll Garner in the background. Then I thought it sounded awfully familiar. And I realised it was me, with Brian on drums, playing a jazz library album.”

Bennett mentions one of the first library pieces he wrote, intended for corporate news use, being picked up for something else entirely: for 40 years or so, it has been the theme to cricket coverage on Channel 9 in Australia.
Rapper Jay-Z, who has sampled library tunes
Rapper Jay-Z, who has sampled library tunes © Getty

The boom in vintage library music began in the mid-1990s, with the brief fashionability of lounge music, and was then boosted by hip-hop producers digging deeper for samples no one had heard (library albums were not released commercially). It now has a loyal enough following that Bennett and Hawkshaw have recorded a new album, and they’re playing live with other library luminaries as The KPM All Stars next month (at the British Library, fittingly, with a screening of a new documentary about library music thrown in).

Library music had a golden age from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, almost entirely in Europe (the US musicians’ union disapproved of the way library session musicians had no ownership). “With each technological advance, you would see changes in library music,” says David Hollander, author of Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, and curator of its companion compilation album, released in November. “The golden age — or what I refer to as the golden age — is really orchestral music. They were recording with the greatest microphones and the greatest instruments.” But the advent of synthesisers and computers negated the need for orchestras: much of today’s library music is made on home computers.

Hollander is frank about most library music being “banal and not very good. You have to wade through a lot of it to get to the good stuff. But when it’s good, it’s incredible.” In part, that’s because writers and performers indulged themselves in ways they couldn’t on records made for general release, and also because of the calibre of the musicians. Bennett and Hawkshaw both observe that Robin Phillips, who ran KPM in its heyday, wanted only the best. “You couldn’t do an album of the quality Robin demanded without the A-team,” Bennett says.

In a typical three-hour KPM session, Bennett says, an orchestra would record eight tracks. Phillips would demand seven strictly directed recordings, and let the composer have their head on the eighth. “And for that one, Robin would say, ‘Absolutely fabulous. Highly unusable.’ It was always an adventure.”

I got asked for clearance for a piece, so I asked my daughter who “Jay Zed” was. She said, “It’s Jay-Z”

Hollander says the combination of the demands of the libraries and the skills of the musicians resulted in tracks that were unique because splicing genres was “an imperative; it was a required aspect of library music”. Even if the resulting piece was unusable in a sitcom, it might be art: he highlights Giampiero Boneschi’s The New Sound of a Voice (“It’s kind of lounge music, but it’s so far out there. The idea that someone might have used it in a commercial is insane”). Still, so many TV themes came from library music that it is stitched into the fabric of life. The theme to the BBC’s Grandstand? Library music. Grange Hill? Library music (Hawkshaw’s). Some pieces went global: Johnny Pearson’s “Heavy Action” was the theme to the BBC’s Superstars and to Monday Night Football in the US.

Hollander detects signs of a revival in original library music recordings being used for their original purpose. Because the music was never intended to have a long life, many libraries failed to take care of their catalogues, and he says they “thought I was insane” when he started persuading them to go through their recordings. When, as a music supervisor, he used original library music on the soundtrack to the film Black Dynamite, they started paying more attention. “Now Curb Your Enthusiasm uses entirely vintage Italian library music, and that means the administrators are finally seeing where I was coming from.”

When Hawkshaw and Bennett assemble the KPM All Stars, the thing that delights them both is playing music audiences love but have only ever heard through the speakers of a TV. As Hawkshaw puts it, “When people see the [TV] themes performed live by real musicians, that’s the way it’s meant to be.”

The album ‘Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music’ is released on November 9 on Anthology. ‘Full Circle’ by Alan Hawkshaw and Brian Bennett is out on Be With Records on November 16. The KPM All Stars play

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