KPM - A Recorded Music Library
What is Library Music? What does a Music Library do? Freelance engineer Richard Elen answers these questions and more as he takes a look inside one of the world's premier recorded music libraries.
Freelance recording engineer, producer and journalist Richard Elen has himself recorded a great deal of material for KPM Music. He is therefore in an excellent position to look inside one of the world's top recorded music libraries - KPM.
Library Music... the words mean something to many people in and around the music business. But the ideas that spring to mind when you ask someone what library music actually is are varied - and often wrong. Music for TV test-cards? Yes, it's one of the less-profitable uses of library material. Music for lifts and hotels? Seldom - if ever.
Library music in fact covers a vast field of literally every type of music imaginable, from classical repertoire to the latest in electro-pop. It's made by the world's top commercial composers - and by others who are unknown outside the field. Above all, it's music for a purpose.
When it comes to finding music for TV series, films, commercials and audiovisual presentations, there are a number of ways of going about it. First, you can commission a composer to write original material for the application. But it can be expensive for the producer (and not brilliantly lucrative for the composer, by the way) and it can be unpredictable. However well-briefed a composer is, there's always the likelihood that he or she will come up with something that isn't really what the producer had in mind.
Alternatively, you can look at commercial records. Of course, there's a wide variety to choose from, and you'll no doubt find exactly the sort of thing you want. But simply finding the music isn't half the story: it has to be copyright-cleared. This might well be possible in the UK, and perhaps a few territories around the world - although it is, of course, likely to be expensive - but there may well be places you want to use the material that can't be cleared at all, where the local publishers responsible for the record won't allow it to be used for your type of application.
The answer is to go along to a music library, or to a production facility which keeps a large stock of the albums on behalf of the libraries. Here, you'll find a wide selection of music that can literally be picked up off the shelf, and - most importantly - can be cleared for international use at a moment's notice. As a producer, you don't pay anyone until you actually use the material - when you fill in an MCPS 'cue sheet' and are licensed to use the music for whatever your application might be - from an in-house training film to a national TV network theme. So you don't pay for the trained library staff who'll spend hours with you to help you find what you're looking for - it's a free service. It doesn't even cost you to try out music against the pictures until you get the right piece.
There are many such music libraries around the world, and three of the top libraries - DeWolfe, Bruton and KPM - are based in Britain. We chose to take a closer look at KPM.
KPM Music Library was established in 1956 by the then Keith Prowse Music Publishing Company - which had been set up by the Keith Prowse partnership, formed in 1780 by Robert Keith and William Prowse. The music publishing side, which had taken somewhat of a back seat compared with Keith Prowse's primary business of selling theatre tickets, was sold in 1955 to the holders of the original London commercial television franchise, Rediffusion.
The manager of the newly-established music company, Patrick Howgill, was now faced with a challenging marketplace for music - the new world of commercial TV - but had to meet the challenge with a catalogue that had grown up decades earlier. He decided to set up an entirely new music library for the purpose - the 'KP Library'. It was launched in 1956 on £5000 - which funded their first twenty-five 78-rpm discs. Some of those recordings are still in use today.
In 1959, Rediffusion purchased the successful Peter Maurice publishing company and merged the two to form KPM - Keith-Prowse-Maurice. The library, which had expanded tenfold in the intervening years, switched to LP format. In 1969 EMI bought the KPM Music Group, but kept the highly successful name and identity.
Since its beginnings, KPM has released over 1000 albums. The present catalogue extends to over 500 pages and includes many library titles which hide familiar themes: Grandstand, News At Ten, Mastermind, and All Creatures Great And Small to name but a few.
But TV themes are just one of the smaller, more glamorous aspects of the library business. Most of the music gets used for more mundane things. But whatever the application, KPM - like the other top libraries - does its best to get hold of the best composers, specialising in every field of music, under the careful guidance of its director, Peter Cox (also a director of EMI Music) who has run the library for the past eight years - in fact, since his predecessor, Robin Phillips, left to set up Bruton Music.
There is also a strong emphasis on quality. Not only must the music be good, it must also be recorded to the highest standards. Although a library album may only take a couple of weeks to record on average, as much care goes into each LP as into any commercial album. KPM producers attend the majority of recording sessions and before each project a composer is carefully briefed on what is required in the marketplace at the time.
The quality requirement extends right down to the finished product. It must do: much of the usage is from the original records, as many film/TV producers do not have the time to order up a master copy of a track from the library (although these can be done to order in a wide number of formats including magnetic film). Until recently, all KPM's vinyl releases have been cut and pressed by Nimbus Records, widely known for their high-quality work.
Now that Nimbus are concentrating solely on Compact Disc, the library has taken the chance to upgrade still further by using the Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) process. This is perhaps the only method of vinyl record cutting and pressing which comes close to reaching the levels of quality offered by modern digital recording techniques. The records are cut on special copper blanks at London's famous Abbey Road Studios and are pressed at EMI's factory in Hayes, Middlesex.
But Nimbus aren't out of the picture: in November 1984, KPM became the first music library to release a Compact Disc entitled Surprise Surprise. It was also one of the first CDs to come out of the Nimbus plant, and the first Compact Disc to have been mixed with the British 'Ambisonic' surround-sound system, which is beginning to make major in-roads into the audiovisual scene. Ambisonic albums and Compact Discs are now a regular feature of KPM's output.
KPM also has an unusual attitude to packaging for its albums. Most libraries have traditionally released their material in a standard sleeve - identifying the library only and listing the track titles on the back. KPM, on the other hand, goes to a lot of trouble to produce individual artwork for each album - just as in the commercial field. It makes sense: although it costs more to produce, a custom cover helps to draw attention to the albums and increases their usage.
But at the heart of a library like KPM is the roster of composers. KPM releases around thirty albums a year, so the number of composers it can handle is obviously limited. But Peter Cox is always on the lookout for new writers. "They usually come from personal recommendation or reputation," he says, "rather than tapes, although of course we do listen to the tapes we receive."
"The important thing," he continues, "is that the tracks really talk to you. The composer has got to have conviction... has to have a soul and project it." Very much like any other record company, in other words. What Cox is not looking for, it turns out, is material that just sounds like 'mood music'. It may well end up on someone's TV test-card but that isn't a way for either the library or the composer to make money.
Neither is he concerned overmuch with the technical quality of a demo. "With all the technology around today, almost anyone can come in with technically superb demos," he notes, "but that really isn't the point: it's what the composer is trying to say that's important. I am always looking for music that excites the imagination, and conjures up pictures - suggesting possible applications for itself."
Neither does Peter Cox limit himself to one kind of music - he can't afford to. A music library can find a home for any style of music, "as long as it's done well!" he underlines. In the past year, KPM has released major orchestral albums; folk music; ethnic recordings; and synthesizer-based material that would happily - with the addition of vocals - find a place in the charts. Whatever it is, it has to be good. And he's prepared to go to whatever studio is appropriate for the project - Abbey Road or CTS for the orchestral projects, Snake Ranch or Cruchfield Manor for smaller line-ups and electronic-based material. KPM's output is a great deal broader than that of the average mainstream record compay.
This breadth of need for good music benefits the composer too. Very quickly, users of library music get to note the names of composers whose work they find themselves using extensively. And once you've made a name for yourself, your records will be picked up as soon as they turn up in the production facility, whatever type of music they contain.
Long-established library composers like Keith Mansfield (the composer of the Grandstand theme, who co-owns Cruchfield Manor studios near Bracknell in Berkshire) can be almost any kind of composer they like as long as it's within their capabilities. A major orchestral recording one month, or an album originated on sophisticated MIDI-based systems the next.
What then is the attraction of library music for the new composer? The idea of a piece of music making money has turned up a good deal in this article, but just as in the commercial field, that isn't all there is to it. Certainly, library music is music created for a marketplace, but then so is a hit record to some extent. It is tempting to make a distinction between music that comes from inner emotions that need to be expressed musically and music that comes from a desire to make it fit a market, but it is foolhardy to try and establish such clear-cut dividing lines. Both a hit record and a favourite TV theme are music, and they both express emotions. Is there really a major difference between choosing a song to record for your next album because it's commercial and choosing an instrumental idea to develop into a library track? I think not.
Certainly, to Peter Cox of KPM, both applications need commitment and conviction: the composer needs to say something to the listener in both cases. For many library composers the musical ideas spring to mind in the same way as they do for any musician: they are then developed in a usable direction. This is surely no different in essence from making a pop record?
And, of course, we shouldn't forget that a great deal of classical music was realised in exactly the same way as library music: a patron asked for a piece to be composed for a particular application, and paid for it. In that sense, there's surely little difference between the News At Ten theme tune and Handel's Music For The Royal Fireworks.
Writing for a music library - particularly a forward-looking one like KPM - is a rewarding experience. It enables the composer to broaden his or her musical vocabulary, to experiment in different fields and, yes, to make good money.
The financial deal offered by the majority of music libraries is exceptionally good news for the composer. Generally the library will pick up the recording and manufacturing costs - a usual recording budget being in the £3-6000 range. The money is recouped by the library, and is made by the composer, on the basis of royalties paid by end-users of the music. The amount per unit time depends on the application: so, for example, an MCPS licence for a nationally-networked 30-second TV commercial will be a good deal more than that for an in-house training video. The music libraries will always advise you on the amounts that different applications will generate.
The basic royalty split is 50/50: half of all UK PRS (Performing Rights Society) and MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) money received goes to the composer and half to the library. Overseas, however, 50% of the mechanical royalties go to the agent, so there is less to be made there, but on the other hand the performance royalties are paid direct to the composer. The composer therefore ends up with about 30% of the overseas royalty earnings.
And there is always the chance that a piece of music will earn money on that basis for years to come. The News At Ten theme, for example, was recorded over 20 years ago, and Keith Mansfield's Grandstand has been used for a decade!
Overall, it's probably easier for newcomers to get into library music than it is to break into the popular music field. Having said that, remember before you approach a recorded music library that they are looking for music that excites them every bit as much as an A&R person would be. And with the current precedence of music technology in the library field, they know how easy it is to make stuff sound professional. That's not what they're looking for, however: they're looking for musical ideas that grab them. And you can achieve that on a Casio and a cassette recorder every bit as easily as you can on a sophisticated MIDI system.
So it must be music that's valid in every sense of the word. In fact, these days, the last things people like Peter Cox of KPM are looking for are pieces that sound like 'library music'!!
Feature by Richard Elen
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