The Music Library is a challenge to the collector.
Eilon Paz’s book Dust & Grooves, a photographic study of record collectors and their prized possessions, features a detail from the collection of record label founder Jonny Trunk. A run of titles from the Bruton label looks deceptively monotonous, simply a series of brightly colored spines that en masse come off like a color field painting. This is Trunk’s impressive collection of what is known as library music. A new edition of The Music Library takes a look at the album cover art typical of this curious musical subgenre, and demonstrates why these elusive records have become increasingly collectible.
Coffee table books featuring record album covers are a blessing and a curse to crate diggers. Books like Disco, edited by Patrick Vogt, feature the jaw-dropping cover art of albums that are for the most part still plentiful and affordable. While a pleasure to look through, The Music Library is a challenge to the collector. Originally released in 2005, the book’s long out-of-print first edition started to demand three-figure prices on par with the records it pictured. This new expanded edition is essential for record collectors as well as for fans of unusual commercial art, but it will be a frustrating read for anyone who wants to get their hands on original copies without taking out a second mortgage.
Part of what makes library music so elusive is that it was never meant to be commercially available. These recordings came out of production houses that made pre-licensed sounds for radio and television stations to use for whatever mood they needed. These readymade mood recordings span from the 78 era, with labels like De Wolfe, all the way to the digital era with the prolific Sonoton label, which produced CDs full of corporate-sounding music well into the ’90s. The Music Library helpfully notes certain library records that were used for specific programs, so you can track down the music George Romero picked for his zombie consumerist apocalypse Dawn of the Dead and even find the sources for incidental music from “Scooby-Doo” episodes.
Introductory essays by library music collectors like Jonny Trunk and 2 Tone founder Jerry Dammers put the subgenre in context. The bulk of the book is arranged alphabetically by record label, from obscure Italian labels that released only a few known titles to selections from the larger catalogs of labels like De Wolfe and Bruton. Many of the labels have a recognizable house style, ranging from simple block colors and basic typography to the strange 12-cube graphic motif that recurs throughout the Bruton catalogue (and is reflected in this book’s cover design). The approach to cover art reflects the kind of sounds that make library music so compelling: take a simple template and add unusual musical approaches ad infinitum. It doesn’t all work; a lot of library music is little better than canned Muzak, but in the hands of musicians like Nino Nardini and Roger Roger (see our review of their reissued library music album Jungle Obsession here), it sounds quite insane.
Unlike the first edition of The Music Library, this doesn’t come with a CD, though a deluxe slipcased edition with a 10” vinyl sampler is available from the publisher’s website. As Trunk notes in his intro, you can hear a lot of this music on YouTube, and if you dig further there are bloggers who specialize in mp3s of the most obscure library music albums. But the handsomely printed book offers pleasures that are purely visual as well, from minimalist variations on a theme to psychedelic and even one record whose cover seems to depict a man about to be savaged by an Alsatian—an especially specific mood for your evening news program.