Eye on Design

Library Music: The Design Reference You Didn’t Know You Relied On

From Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions.

“Library record designs have become a shorthand for psychedelic art,” says Mark Iosifescu, an editor at Brooklyn-based publisher Anthology Books. “These airbrush art, op art, and geometric designs persist today and transcend genres.

“With a lot of indie, synth, and psych records, if the designers don’t know library music directly, someone they’re referencing definitely did. Even Factory Records borrowed that utilitarian type vibe. Library music’s fingerprints are everywhere.”

He certainly has a point. Whether or not you’re familiar with the sleeves of library music—also sometimes referred to as stock music or production music—a cursory look across those designs from the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s reveals that their strange, wild, and frequently unhinged approach have had an impact aesthetically way beyond its immediate, somewhat niche, community of record collectors and sampling culture.

Unusual Sounds cover, Published by Anthology Editions

For the uninitiated, library music is music and sound created specifically for use in film, radio, television, and other media, licensed out by the library, and as such, without requiring the permission of individual composers. While low to medium budget productions are the main client base for library music, some highly recognizable TV and film themes are the product of library records: in the UK, take the jaunty theme for sports show Ski Sunday, for instance, and the nail-biting (and very aptly titled) Mastermind theme, ‘Approaching Menace’. Across the pond in America, the themes for Monday Night Football (‘Heavy Action’ by Johnny Pearson), as well as cartoons The Ren and Stimpy Show and SpongeBob SquarePants, are all library music finds.

Somehow, library music turned out to be an absolute goldmine in terms of brilliant graphics, bold illustration styles, and innovative approaches to type.

What’s so striking about the designs of these records is that unlike those for public consumption—your chart toppers and hit paraders—they don’t necessarily have to “sell themselves.” Yet somehow, library music, and especially that released between the 1960s and the mid 1980s, turned out to be an absolute goldmine in terms of brilliant graphics, bold illustration styles, and innovative approaches to type.

“It’s funny, as it does seem like a great deal of effort expended for something that wasn’t meant to be seen by the public,” Iosifescu says. “But they wanted to create something that stood out for potential clients.”

From the ’60s to the ’80s, library music was a relatively lucrative industry, says Iosifescu, so the libraries could pour a lot of effort and some money into the covers. “It created its own market that was under the surface and wasn’t the public record-buying market, but within the industry the records were being scrutinized,” he says. “Through design, they could get a leg-up, and create something that better illustrated the music.”

From Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions.

Thanks to these aesthetics, it’s little surprise that there’s now a comprehensive book celebrating library music, its history, its design, and some of the most important composers in the field. Entitled Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, Anthology’s 400-page blockbuster by artist, filmmaker, and collector David Hollander and co-edited by Dominic Masi Jr offers a “deep dive into a musical universe that has, until now, been accessible only to producers and record collectors,” as the publisher puts it. By collecting these sleeves, the compendium also reveals the strange nexus of art and commerce library music is positioned in.

from Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions

The book is designed by Nicholas Law and art directed by Bryan Cipolla and its cover images and illustrations are, fittingly, created by Robert Beatty, who would surely be the first to extol the visual virtues of library music sleeves. “Robert’s a die-hard fan of music, and his art is full of references to library style, and very influenced by that world. It was an easy call to get him involved,” says Iosifescu.

From Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions.

For Cipolla and Iosifescu, the library music labels that stand out as the most visually arresting include French label MP2000 [EditionsMontparnasse 2000]. “The sleeves have these wavy lines on the side of each of them, and a unifying frame,” he says. “They use more subtle design elements, but then have space to do whatever they want.” Another French label Patchwork, by contrast, takes a more geometric approach. “It’s such a strong, striking design that changing the colorway is enough to give it originality,” Cipolla says. 

UK label Bruton takes a similar approach, with each release unified visually through a stacked cube graphic device and a 3D wordmark as the logo. Meanwhile the best-known library, KPM, uses a stock “greensleeve” cover. “It’s become an iconic design,” says Iosifescu.

From Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions

The overall design of the book’s interior is informed by the catalogs that library music publishers would use to peddle their wares to potential buyers. “They were like binders, partitioned off according to sections for different moods,” Cipolla explains. If a client was looking for music to use with a horror film, for example, they might go to the ‘suspense’ section of the binder. “It became an interesting reference for us to use because they looked very utilitarian. Those catalogs weren’t meant to be visually striking at all, they were just useful guides.”

These catalogs also proved useful inspiration for the typeface used in the book, which sees Replica by Zurich-based design studio Lineto used throughout. “That’s the only typeface I used apart from one other monospaced font, as I wanted to keep it very mechanical and standardized to mimic the catalogs,” says Cipolla. “It keeps the design of the book fairly pared down, to let the album art itself show.”

The introduction to Unusual Sounds is penned by none other than George A. Romero, the late filmmaker best known for horror classics like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. 

from Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions

While the book is a joyful celebration of the designs of library music, sadly, it’s not often a reflection of those designers. Why? Because we simply don’t know who they were. “The music itself is so under-documented,” says Iosifescu. “There are plenty of composers whose identities are disputed, let alone the designers.” 

Sometimes library owners would design the sleeve themselves, or it would be handed over to the musician’s friend, family member or spouse. Some, however, are more high profile, like the German library Coloursound, which boasts a HR Giger image. “Occasionally you see something by a notable artist, but as these records weren’t to be sold to the general public, people didn’t take pains to document who was contributing,” says Iosifescu.

“That’s why we find them so interesting; they were created for a wholly different purpose than any other record art we’re used to seeing,” says Cipolla. “A lot of young designers today use that style—a sort of ‘outsider’ style that was the product of having the freedom of not creating for a mass market—as a sort of code for authenticity, but for the designers then, it was just what they were doing.”

Thanks to the internet (namely Discogs and eBay), these records have in recent years seeped into wider consciousness, working their way out of the underground and clearly into many designers’ mental reference libraries. Few fields blend the corporate and the weird so beautifully: who can’t resist a psychedelic trip that winds up on a very vanilla TV commercial?

from Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions
from Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions
from Unusual Sounds, Published by Anthology Editions