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All About Library Music

A surprising amount of the music you hear on TV and radio is not specially commissioned but is taken instead from libraries of ready‑written themes. Nigel Beaham‑powell explains how the library music system works and gives some pointers on getting into it.

Most readers of SOS will have heard of 'library' music, but not many will know about how it's used and the amount of money it generates within the UK and abroad.

Around 25‑30% of all music used on TV, radio and cable/satellite in the UK is library music, which is sometimes known by its American term, production music. This includes well‑known TV themes (News at Ten and Grandstand), music beds for commercials (Persil), radio station idents and themes (the Radio 4 evergreen Desert Island Discs) and about a quarter of the total incidental music within television programmes generally.

Around 70% of the music used in corporate videos comes from the music libraries, and there is a fast‑expanding multimedia market which also uses music from the same sources. The total amount of money generated from royalties in the UK by library music is between £8 and £10 million. Outside the UK, music written by the main libraries based here has about 20% of the global market share.

Who Are They?

There are about 80 companies in the UK who make library CDs, ranging from specialist companies who just record military music, for example, to KPM, which is one of the largest and most successful and which is owned by EMI. KPM produce 35‑40 CDs a year, and have a back catalogue of over 400 discs. There are many private companies in between, such as De Wolfe and Carlin Production Music, and a series of branded libraries, such as Chappell, Bruton, Killer Tracks and First Com, which come under the Zomba umbrella. One of the five music majors, BMG, runs the highly‑successful Atmosphere Music.

Who Commissions Composers?

Most companies have arrangements with composers, and although very few composer/writers are on record company‑style contracts, it is not unusual to find composers who produce a library album a year, and who have a long history of working with the same company.

So what sort of music are they on the lookout for? Every style you can possibly imagine, and some you might not — such as barrel organ or patriotic themes from around the world. The major libraries try to cover most areas, from French accordion music to African tribal, minimalist to rave. They aim to have a complete range so that the people who use them can go to them for everything, and are also able to recognise a house style. The smaller companies focus their efforts on exploiting a niche in the marketplace.

By now you might be wondering who these companies commission and how you might get in. Well, there are always opportunities, but they prefer to use composers with a proven track record. It makes sense for companies to use composers who are say, writing music on a weekly basis for TV ads, for a commercial music project. Similarly, if they want serious contemporary music in a minimalist idiom, they will approach someone who has already done it, or who is adept at different orchestral styles. In my experience, it is better to approach a company with a project rather than send in a random cassette of pastiche music. KPM, for example, receive a dozen cassettes a week, and they say they listen to every one, but it is relatively rare that this leads to a commission. Carlin Production Music always listen to tapes, and they've found pieces which have been used on compilation projects, but once again it would be extremely unusual to send in a cassette and get an immediate commission for a whole CD. All libraries tend to plan a year or so in advance, so there will always be quite a time lag before a commissioned work gets a CD pressing. Most of the libraries produce catalogues of their work. You can find these in post‑production houses, or even obtain them from the libraries themselves. If, for example, you have a talent and a track record in writing sports fanfares or themes, you can check a catalogue of a particular library and see if there's a gap, or something that sounds out of date. If there is, approach the company with some ideas. A bit of preliminary research goes a long way.

Luck, talent and who you know are always pertinent. The standard of library music is high, and getting better. Many composers who are well known in the TV and film industry write very good library music, and it requires pretty sophisticated skills. Generally speaking, the libraries are on the lookout for composers with experience and a reputation, whether it be in the latest dance production techniques or silent movie piano styles.

How Do You Get Paid?

Most composers do a 50/50 deal on all royalties with the library company. If you were writing a large orchestral project, you'd expect the cost of the orchestra, the recording studio and post production to be paid for by the the library. If you were working on an all‑electronic production, it would be up to you to negotiate some money up‑front for the recording costs. Some composers, however, just work on a royalty split. The more successful you are, the more likely you'd be to get some kind of retainer, but the real money in either instance comes from usage of the music.

As to how the royalties are delivered, a composer will sign a contract with the library company detailing specific tracks with titles and the agreed royalty split. All mechanical royalties generated by use of that CD will be payable to the composer from the library company at a specific time in the year — usually at the end of September. Your share of the performing royalties — which, in the main, derive from broadcasting (TV, radio, cable/satellite) — will come as a result of membership of the Performing Right Society (PRS) and will arrive between four and nine months after UK usage, and anything up to two years after foreign usage.

How Is The Music Used?

A lot of library music is used in post‑production suites all over the country. They will be sent masses of CDs from all the different libraries, and it's not unusual to see floor‑to‑ceiling racks crammed with library CDs. These are sent free in the hope that an editor or producer requiring music will use them. If music from a library CD is used in a TV or video production, the producer will fill in a cue sheet/licence application form, which has to be sent to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), together with a cheque at the required rate. This means thousands of forms are used every day.

Here are some examples of the UK rates per 30 seconds of music:

  • Non broadcast audio‑visual (corporate video): £19
  • Terrestrial TV (BBC, ITV): £40
  • Advertisements (full ITV network) £1,173
  • Radio: £19
  • Satellite TV: £29

In addition, there are many variations, depending on the kind of use to which the music is put.


MCPS protects and administers the copyright in production music libraries' works, and the sound recordings through which these are made available. All those who wish to use production music discs must sign the appropriate MCPS code of conduct, giving them authority to use the discs as referred to in the rate card. The code binds the user company to abide by certain reporting procedures, to ensure that the necessary licence for the use of the music is issued and the proper royalty and other fees paid. A valid licence must be obtained and the relevant fees paid before the production is transmitted, broadcast, shown, exhibited, distributed, hired, exploited or used in any way, except for use strictly necessary for the purpose of completing the production. Phew!

You might be wondering why people don't use the music without paying. Well, it's against the law — and the majority of people are honest.

Making The Choice

As I've explained, there are lots of CDs out there, so how do the people who need music for their productions make a choice from all the material available? Quality will out; the music needs to be good for its application, instantly feeling right for the job it's trying to do. There's no point being obscure, or creating something that's a little bit awkward. The better it is, the more it will get used, and the more money you and the library company will make. It's useful for library music composers to check, from PRS statements, which pieces of their own material have been successful, particularly when they have been used abroad. For example, a fast harmonica/blues piece which my partner Bella and I wrote for our first library CD was picked up in Japan by NHK TV and used for a networked weekly fashion show. It seems remarkable to me that someone found it, liked it and used it! Having said that, it's rare for an editor or producer to have the time to sit and listen to a hundred CDs before they come across that perfect track. Often they build up a relationship with one particular library company over the years, and it's not uncommon for that library to be called and asked if they have anything along the lines, say, of a particular Dire Straits track, or something like the Gypsy Kings.

These people could just use the originals, but often, they cost a lot more to clear for worldwide use. Some artists, such as Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel, feel particularly strongly that their music should not be used in commercials. Irving Berlin's catalogue of songs (including 'White Christmas') can never be used for advertisements, because he stipulated that in his estate. This protects the original material from the grimy associations of being used to sell loo paper or financial products.

And Finally...

Bella and I are currently working on a library project with a 48‑piece orchestra, which is extremely interesting — if time‑consuming! It's rare for media writers to have access to such a big orchestral palette, as even the better‑financed TV series don't have the money for so many players. When we started writing music for the media (after being in a band together), we were just working with synths and our fingers. Now we're discussing the most effective pitch for the piccolo flutes against the first violins. No other occupation would have given me the same sort of daily satisfaction as I feel with our progression over the years through many styles of music. Writing library music has been a big part of that.

Money Talk: Making A Library Living

When I first joined the Association of Professional Composers in the late '80s, one of the most financially successful members just wrote library music. Even then, his royalty income was well into six figures — though his career was exceptional. (One of his many tunes was Match of the Day.) With the customary proviso that the music has to be focused enough so that it is instantly applicable to the medium, it is possible to make a living out of writing exclusively library music. However, the most respected writers are those who have parallel careers elsewhere in the music industry.

Library Books

Library music companies can be found listed in commercial music directories such as the Showcase International Music Book and The White Book International Production Directory (both available from SOS Mail Order; see the 'Music Business' heading on the Mail Order pages in this issue for pricing and ordering information). Here's a few of the prominent libraries and relevant industry organisations to get you started.

  • Atmosphere Music Ltd:
  • Bruton Music:
  • Carlin Production Music:
  • Chappell Recorded Music Library:
  • De Wolfe Music Ltd: 80‑88 Wardour Street, London W1B 3LF, UK.
  • KPM Music Ltd:

A 127 Charing Cross Road, London WC20EA, UK.

  • MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society):
  • PRS (Performing Right Society):

About The Author

Nigel Beaham‑Powell and Bella Russell have been writing music for television and film as a composing team since 1984. They are currently working on their fourth library project. Their TV composition work includes over 70 scores for BBC and ITV dramas (including the serials The Chief and Harry's Mad), and a further 85 documentaries which have been broadcast worldwide. Over 60 title sequences for British and American TV include Saturday Night Clive, The Full Wax and Wogan, as well as long‑running series such as The World This Week and The Time, The Place. Recent work includes Prisoners in Time (a BBC1 60‑minute drama starring John Hurt), the fourth series of the ITV children's drama series Harry's Mad, and Wytham Wood, a Natural World production for BBC2.

If you're interested in reading more about Nigel and his musical partner Bella, they were featured in an 'At Home With' article in SOS's April 1996 issue.