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Production Music: The Songs You Almost Know By Heart

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By Bijan Stephen

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Beyoncé's "Woman Like Me," which samples a piece of production music

Beneath the unruly wilderness of popular music lies an even less orderly world, one where you’ll hardly ever hear of “artists” and where journalists dare not tread, for here there be dragons and a host of anonymous producers who write 86% of the music you come across every day. I’m talking about the music you hear in movie trailers, your favorite TV shows, and even on the radio. These are the songs born from TV producers’ thirst for cheap, accessible tunes; this is production music.

Production music—otherwise known as library music—began in 1927 in England with DeWolfe Music, arising in response to the advent of sound in film and the problems with copyright that came along with the addition of sound to film. Every production music studio owns all of the copyrights for each song in its library of music, owing to the fact that nearly every composition is written on a freelance or contract basis; popular and classical music publishers, in contrast, usually own no more than 50% of the copyrights, as the rest is owned by the composer.

Of course, this presents a convenient solution for media companies: Production music studios license songs in their libraries at reasonable rates, which allows the licensee to sidestep the more exorbitant fees that composers of well-known songs charge.

As the oldest of these studios, DeWolfe has amassed over 80,000 tracks—they’ve provided accompaniments to Doctor Who, Monty Python, Dawn of the Dead, Brokeback Mountain, American Gangster, Top Gear, among others; DeWolfe’s music has even been sampled by studio artists, like Lily Allen, Gorillaz, Beyoncé, and Ja Rule. Point being, production music sounds and feels like things you’ve heard before, like it’s wearing the skin of your favorite artists. That’s the point.

Fulford, on the right

John Fulford is an unassuming, youthful-looking dude: If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t look once, definitely not twice. This is fitting. John is a full-time production musician toiling in obscurity, but you’ve probably heard his work: he’s written music for Glee, Breaking Bad, Catfish, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Teen Mom.

Speaking to me from Los Angeles over the phone, John says he first heard about production music in 1998, while he was still in high school. “The short story is that I was working at a recording studio in Florida, and one of the engineers there used to live in LA and told me about it,” he recalled. “At the same time, we were working on a Miami bass project for a record label based out of Miami, and I heard the music on a TV show called Making The Video: Britney Spears.”

He moved to LA in 2006, intending to become a producer and work with studio artists—but by that time, John had already found enough of a network in TV (MTV, specifically) that he never quite made the leap. “The first show to use my music was Road Rules Challenge on MTV,” he said. “A lot of times when one season of a show ends, the music department will then work on another show for the same network.”

Because John’s music is in demand—and because of the speed of TV production—his daily routine goes something like this: Check to see if any of the TV shows he services directly need anything (most use between 50 and 100 pieces of music per episode so demand is high); if they don’t need anything, there’s usually a call later in the day from a major network, “saying they need a rap song for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, or an episode of Breaking Bad or an episode of Glee.” If he doesn’t have what they need in his library, he hits the lab to crank out a bespoke song—music, lyrics, vocals, mixing—on demand. “TV is super quick,” he told me. “My quickest thing I did, I did a Russian rap song in two and a half hours,” he said. “They used it. And that was in Russian. I don’t speak Russian. I had to find a Russian rapper to rap on it.” This was for the CW show Nikita, and his two-and-a-half hour effort resulted in three months of rent.

It goes without saying that making a living (of any kind) off of music is difficult. John—who is mostly self-taught—has managed to make it work so far, carving out his niche in the industry. “My last day job was in 2007, at $10 an hour,” he said. “And then I came home one day—the same day my girlfriend left me for my roommate—I got home and I got a $5000 ASCAP check. So that was that for me. That’s the day my life changed. In more ways than one.”

I first found production music a few years ago, through Radio Soulwax’s excellent 2011 hour-long mix, “Librarian Girl.” There’s an accompanying video: In it, a woman with large, round glasses and blood-red nails—ostensibly Radio Soulwax’s librarian—drinks tea and writes illegibly on a pad of paper, meticulously inventorying a roomful of records. When I first saw her moving beneath the cracked screen of my iPhone, I was struck by a sense of near-infinite possibility; there are millions of these tracks out there, crafted carefully or not so carefully for the same purpose, for their notes to swell and fade unobtrusively.

Listening to John’s music reminds me of the early days of Limewire, when you’d try to download a song and hear something entirely unexpected as you played it back. Take, for example, the song he’s most proud of, “Get In My Car," first heard on CSI: Miami in 2008. On its surface, the song feels vaguely familiar—it’s got all the rhythmic claps, hi-hat fills, and synthesizer drizzles reminiscent of radio rap six years ago. But John’s proud of it for a different reason, he wrote to me in an email:

I got a call from CSI: Miami back in 2008. They needed me to deliver some songs on CD by 7pm to be considered for an episode they were working on. On the way to drop off the CD this lady hit my car and totaled it. I had a wicked air bag burn from my wrist to my elbow. Long story short I made it to the CSI Miami Music office on time, delivered my CD and landed the placement. It was the first time my music was on network TV.

For John, life’s gotten better than when he started out. “At one point I had no fridge, no bed, no furniture, not even Internet. Now I have all those things, get to work with great artists on great projects, AND get interviewed,” he wrote. “It can't get better than this!!!”

If you knew the story behind the song, would you pay more attention to the background music in TV and movies? I’m not sure that I would.

Whether we like it or not, library music is an evolving cultural record, chronicling the zeitgeist. The subjective weight we assign art based on its context. A pile of trash sitting in a gallery commands attention and analysis; meanwhile, that same pile of trash sitting on a corner in Astoria is ignored. In a hundred years, there’s no way to tell which way people will view library music, or anything else for that matter. Culture moves fast—it’s the leading edge of the wave of humanity’s accomplishments. Which, for library music means one thing: There’s just too much out there, and that’s amazing.

 

Bijan Stephen is a precocious young writer living in Brooklyn. He tweets (also precociously) - @bijanstephen

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