David Hollander is an artist, filmmaker, extensive collector of artist-made films and library music, and the co-founder of CineMarfa, a film festival dedicated to showcasing rare and unseen films. In 2018, he penned Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, a 400-page visual celebration of biblical proportions, that brings to life this genre-bending, ready-made musical form. In the heyday of low-budget television and scrappy genre filmmaking, producers who needed a soundtrack for their commercial entertainment could reach for a selection of library music: royalty-free albums of stock recordings whose contents fit any mood required. From jingles and fanfares to bridges and extended scores, library music accompanied the action for cinema, TV shows, advertising and more. In this edited excerpt from Red Bull Radio’s Peak Time, Vivian Host talks to David about this enigmatic musical universe, which has mostly only been accessible to producers and record collectors.
It occurred to me that this stuff really is hidden and obscure. If you search “library music” on iTunes you don’t even pull up a compilation of library music. If you don’t know the names of the people you’re searching for, or perhaps the films or TV shows that they soundtracked, you come up empty-handed.
That’s basically the case. [With] library music over the past, let’s say, 15 years, people have put compilations of it together and it certainly has informed quite a bit of sample-based music production, especially hip-hop. But in general library music is music that – just to fully define it – was pre-made for budget-conscious film, television and radio production and so it was never commercially released. It was pressed to LP, those LPs were distributed to filmmakers who would then use them to preview the music and make selections; and then they would request a tape of the master, which they could use when they were doing the mix for their films.
So these records were pressed in really small numbers. At this point with certain labels, there are virtually no records left. A lot of the libraries themselves did not really keep the records. At some point they decided to throw them all out. So I have been, for the past 20-some-odd years, rescuing these things from garbage cans and offices where they are gathering dust because basically there was no use for them.
Now there is contemporary library music. People still make library music and it’s used totally frequently. But vintage library music is really something that’s gone the way of the dinosaur.
How did you go about selecting what you wanted to use in the book? Obviously there are a lot of beautiful record covers, so I think people can appreciate this from a visual angle, and I’m sure that was part of the selection. But what kind of story did you want to tell about library music? What did you want to let people in on for those who perhaps aren’t ardent record collectors of this genre?
I tried to make the selection in the book an overview of library music in general. Library music, for the most part, was made in Europe, and used in North America. So what I tried to do is give a real overview, meaning that I grouped it by country. A lot of the library music that is most well known comes from the UK, but then additionally there’s library music that comes from France, Germany and Italy. And so I tried to give each of those categories of library music a fair shake.
And then I definitely included some of the more famous pieces of library music, both from the standpoint of the music itself and the covers. A lot of library LPs have generic covers.
It was a site of, in certain cases, extreme experimentation. So some of the most interesting music to me is music that is really uncategorizable.
When I was diving into this book I was sad for all of these people making library music that didn’t get credited a lot of times. They were session players that maybe didn’t get the due that they deserved. But then one thing that you take pains to highlight is that it really was a free world where composers were making music for films and TV that didn’t exist yet. So they could try out a lot of things that maybe somebody who was a player in a jazz combo or somebody in a rock band wouldn’t have had the freedom to do.
Yeah, that’s true. And I would also add that, while they might have toiled in anonymity, their music wasn’t necessarily obscure. Certain pieces of library music went on to have usages that were very widely heard and seen. So I think the composers themselves knew when their music was being used in high-profile contexts. Someone like Alan Tew, who was a British big band composer, did two records on a British label called Themes International called Drama Suite Vol. 1 and Drama Suite Vol. 2. Those particular records are really exemplary examples of what I call British cop funk. And so they were used really widely, first in the UK on the TV shows The Sweeney, The Two Ronnies and Van der Valk; then one of the tracks called “The Big One,” went on to even higher profile usage as the theme song to The People’s Court. Alan Tew was aware of that usage and able to benefit from it.
So while we might not know Alan Tew, he’s not a household name per se, certainly his music has been heard by literally everybody. And then there’s a handful of British composers, like Keith Mansfield, Alan Hawkshaw and Brian Bennett – I’d put John Cameron in there as well, and they’re all interviewed in the book – who really did become superstars in the UK and are really well-known and have huge fanbases now because people know their music so well.
You discovered this music over 20 years ago at a record store in West Los Angeles called Record Supply. But what, for you, is so special about this music itself? What do you think has kept you obsessively listening to it and collecting it all these years?
As you pointed out before, it was a site of, in certain cases, extreme experimentation. So some of the most interesting music to me is music that is really uncategorizable. And in fact, I worked with the music extensively as a music supervisor and a music editor synchronizing vintage library music exclusively. And the stuff that I tend to like the best is the stuff that you listen to you and you think, “How could you ever possibly use this?” It just seems impossible to synchronize. And there’s quite a lot of music like that.
There is an Italian composer, for instance, named Giampiero Boneschi. Boneschi was an older guy, he was a well known band leader in Italy, and he arrived at library music later in life. And he actually got his hands on a Moog synthesizer when it came out, but he was already older. And he then went on to make these solo electronic records, dozens of them, that I have a tough time believing were ever synchronized but are some of the most out-there music I’ve ever heard.
One of the things that I think is so great about Unusual Sounds is that you tell the backstories of a lot of people who made these library records. And it sounds like it was quite a funny and wild and sometimes hard-partying scene. I was just reading a story about somebody that was playing the trumpet underwater in a cold bathtub to make underwater trumpet sounds. What were some of the craziest stories you came across?
The heyday that I’m focused on, the early ’70s, a lot of the UK musicians were forced to record at Trixi Studios in Munich. And in addition to having state-of-the-art German recording equipment and techniques in play, these guys would go and drink a lot and work all day long and then party at night. There are definitely stories about guys who were having a really good time being abroad and making this music. But I will say that I myself have had some pretty good times just tracking it down.
It’s great to be able to share this music with a larger audience and be able to identify it. When I first got started, the companies who own the music really saw me as a little bit eccentric, maybe insane even, because they really weren’t going to use any of this music ever again. There might have been some performance rights that they could have gotten, royalties from way back, but the idea of this music being digitized, the idea of the music finding a new audience, was the furthest thing from their minds. And it’s taken a long time, but at this point I really do have the major companies who have conglomerated to own this music – mostly at this point EMI and Universal, and some smaller companies like Sonitone – who I think have begun to see the value in these old recordings. And I think that they’re looking forward to seeing them being used in contemporary film, television and radio production.
What is your ultimate dream as far as what would happen with some of this music? I know you mentioned that a lot of it has just been either thrown out or left to dust and not really maintained, and you’ve been saving it. But what would you like to happen with library music?
I’ve been saving some of it. There are other people who are doing this work as well. I will say that I’m haunted by stories. There was one library called the Southern Peer Library that includes some of the greatest library music ever made, including a record called Mind Bender. But that was one where I stalked this guy, I really haunted him for years and years and years just trying to get the records from him. He also had the last set of extant master tapes.
And then I would call him every year, right around January 1st, and finally one year I called him and he said, “I threw everything away a week ago.” And he meant he threw away all the LPs and all the master tapes. They were the only master tapes of hundreds of records. And sure enough I went down to that dumpster only to find it emptied. Some of the stuff is literally gone.
In terms of where I’d like to see it go, I feel like it’s already going there. EMI is doing a great job right now of digitizing stuff. They finally digitized the entire KPM Greensleeves series, and then they’re finishing up with the Colorsound Library, which I think is a really superlative one. And, in fact, in October , EMI is going to donate the KPM master tapes to the British Library. And I will say that 20 years ago I could not have ever imagined something like that happening. And so I think it’s starting to happen.
I think I’m now working with a bunch of vintage Italian library music to bring it back to market for filmmakers of today to be able to use. And that’s super rewarding, because I actually feel like, just for my own personal preferences, the Italian library music is some of the best.
Each of the different countries that produced library music tended to impart a regional twist to the music.
Could you go into that a little more specifically, the vibe of the different countries making library music, and why Italian library music is some of your favorite?
I’m a fan of genre filmmaking, and a lot of this music was used in genre filmmaking, both in Europe and in the US. In fact, it was genre filmmaking that I think really drove the expansion of library music because it was blaxploitation, it was horror, it was science fiction and it was porn that widely used library music. So a lot of the reason why I like both Italian and French library music is that it really is the sound of a lot of the softcore erotica of the day; things sounding like Emmanuelle soundtracks is just a sound I always really liked.
In Italy you find a lot of library music with wordless vocals, the Edda Dell’Orso vibe. And, in fact, in Italy you have a lot of crossover composers who were well known for doing soundtracks who then also made library music – people like Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai and Franco Micalizzi, all the greatest Italian composers, dipped into library. So if you like that sound then you will find it in the library of Italy.
I think it’s important to mention too that a lot of people have probably heard library music sampled. I know that Luke Vibert has done a series of Nuggets compilations, Strut Records has done some compilations. But a lot of crate-digging producers have found these records in the 99-cent bin since they were thrown out, and then used them for their own nefarious devices. So even if you think that you’re not familiar, you probably have heard a lot of it in your life in various places.
To this day, even with films where there’s an original score that’s created, whenever there’s a need for what they call source music – just incidental music, muzak coming out of a radio or something like that – that is typically library music.
For the first time ever, I’m talking to a bunch of contemporary musicians who are really interested in library music, and making [library music], and I’m helping them connect the dots. What we’re going to start to see is library music made by some household names in the music industry right now, because it’s actually cool. It’s suddenly a cool thing.