How to Write Library Music That Sells – We All Make Music

How to Write Library Music That Sells

[Editor’s Note: The following post is the second in veteran composer, studio musician, consultant and writer Eric Jensen’s multi-part series about library music. Previous entries can be found here]

The licensing opportunities for library music continue to expand as do the catalogs and business models. With up-front fees shrinking, how do you increase your chance of high-profile placements that will earn you residuals and additional writing commissions?

What sells best has always been a mix of traditional, contemporary, and an understanding of your audience.

Think Like a Director
Directors are storytellers. Their focus is the arc of the story, whether it is a commercial or a feature film. The most important thing you can do is to understand the emotional and energetic effect they are looking to achieve with music. Their sometimes-odd descriptions and requests often say much more about the grand vision than explicit musical direction.The more adept you become at channeling directors and producers, the more effective your tracks will be.
Keep Tracks Consistent
Film and television underscore follows the shifting emotional arc of a scene. Generally, library cues have to stay in one mood to be useful. Any modulations and stylistic shifts should be designed for easy editing.

At the end of the day, library music is background music. Make sure to avoid any elements that would fight against (or distract from) dialog. Melodies are often legato, or absent all together.

Metadata is Key
Speaking of track descriptions, explicit descriptions are very important to getting your tracks heard. Often producers will only listen for a few seconds, so the intro and the description are the hooks. Keep it simple and visually evocative. For example:

“Mysterious, brooding string textures with occasional accents.”

“Propulsive speed-sports theme. Grungy rock groove with brass punctuation.”

“Poignant acoustic guitar builds to triumphant orchestral climax.”

Edits and Alternate Mixes
Your full track may sell a producer, but it’s rare that a full track will be used in a film or television episode. Usually, the :60, :30, or :15, often a background mix, will be licensed instead. Be sure to provide as many different mixes and edits as possible. At the very least, create full and background mixes for all the key timings. Create stems, (mixes of isolated elements in the track), when there are distinctive layers. “Rhythm only” or ”pads only” mixes are often key sellers.

Use Live Musicians!
Live players add enormous value to library music tracks. If you are an arranger or producer with access to great live musicians use them whenever possible. As good as samples are today there is no substitute for a real orchestra, or a killer live band.
Traditional Music Styles
Strong, classic tracks can have a long shelf life. These include genres like, Action/Drama, Cinematic/Orchestral, Comedy, Human Interest, Themes/News, Motivational, and Sports. Libraries may also need collections of specific styles like bluegrass, solo piano, jazz, etc. If you are interested in working for a particular company, familiarize yourself with their catalog and look for gaps that could be filled with your musical strengths.

Contemporary Styles, Timeless Brands
Clients are often looking for a concrete musical style (“I want something that sounds like pre-Beggar’s Banquet Stones”). Providing these sounds is one of the prime niches library music fills,

In the above example, the client is looking for something reminiscent of a specific artist’s work. At other times, libraries get requests tfor music that sounds like current pop, or hit TV shows. If contemporary styles are your strength, transcribe and analyze the production techniques of TV themes and hip commercials to stay on top of these trends.

Sound-A-Likes
Writing music that’s reminiscent of big hits can be lucrative, but there are risks associated with it. There are generally two reasons why a producer wants a track that sounds like another piece of music:

1. They are trying to evoke a particular period with a musical style.

2. They really want a specific track but don’t have the budget to license it.

That first scenario is totally fine. A scene about ‘60s London might use a cue that was evocative of the British Invasion sound, and creating these kinds of tracks can be a lot of fun.

But if an uneducated listener would confuse your track with the one you are modeling, you may be getting into hot water. If that is what a producer wants, I tell them ”No” and try to find another solution for them. Often, a gentle education on copyright helps. If you are creating a work-for-hire for a library, discuss the boundaries with them.

Do What You Do Best
Writing library music tends to appeal to composers with broad palettes and diverse musical tastes. Nevertheless, focusing on what you do best will create the strongest tracks and increase the likelihood of successful placements. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Make your music stand out.