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Crate-digging in the age of Spotify

staff note

I tend to discover music in one of two ways: either from the usual cycle of new releases and album reviews, or from a chance trip down the rabbit hole of Spotify’s related-artists feature. The second option seems to make up more and more of my listening habits these days, and it’s remarkably fruitful — by the end of a feverish two-hour span I may have compiled an entire playlist dedicated to a single subgenre, and the endless doors opened by each artist within that subgenre mean it might be weeks, or months, before that particular phase is through. And even then, I still feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the music that’s out there.

This process of discovery feels like the closest digital equivalent we have to literal “crate-digging,” and it delivers a similar thrill — even as the sheer volume of music available on platforms like Spotify means the dirty work has already been done. Rare, collector-style singles that you might find for $60 on Discogs are now easily streamable, and the “fans also like” algorithm (combined with convenient artist bios) allow you to trace out, in minutes, the contours of a scene that once would have required copious liner notes and oral histories to understand.

For the same reason, with each successive phase of discovery, the target of my search seems to become ever narrower, as if I’m testing the limits of this virtual library. At the beginning of college I was just getting into the world of late-‘70s punk. Two years later, it was C86-style twee pop, then the niche underground disco reissued by labels like Minimal Wave and Dark Entries, then back to twee again, and so on. In the last couple of weeks my attention has been captivated once more by “library music” — a broad genre of music, usually instrumental, produced expressly for licensing in TV, film, and radio.

Library music gives a new definition to “rare” music, as much of it, by definition, was never intended to directly reach the ears of the public to begin with. Whereas most popular music tends to split ownership and copyright between the publishing label and the songwriters, library music is owned fully by the label, which commissions and then licenses out its “music library” — hence the name — for affordable use in popular media. Instead of releasing music as a traditional album, labels like Britain’s KPM, by far the most emblematic producer of library music during the late 1960s and early 1970s, instead categorized music by mood and genre, with titles (“West Coast Surf Ride,” “Morning Sundew,” “Party Time”) that give a vague enough idea of the record’s content. Any evidence of a composer behind these works is virtually obviated—every KPM release bears the same blank, green cover. All the same, for otherwise-anonymous session musicians and arrangers, library music presented an outlet for more creative autonomy and an opportunity for experimentation.

As a result, the tracks themselves tend to exist in a kind of musical uncanny valley, at once blandly generic and intriguingly alien, like the soundtrack to a B-movie that was never produced. (And in fact that’s probably what a great many of these are.) Some did break through to the mainstream — Johnny Pearson’s “Heavy Action,” for one, traveled all the way to Monday Night Football — but for the most part, it’s wallpaper music, sounding almost-but-never-quite familiar. 

Listening to library music in the age of streaming means listening to tracks whose original destiny was, at best, to be wallpaper music (or maybe theme music, if they’re lucky) or, at worst, to be quickly and inevitably forgotten. In the case of library music, this can be incredibly revealing: KPM composers like Keith Mansfield, Alan Parker, and David Lindup each take on distinct personalities; the austere green cover art and the placeholder titles mean that any effect derives from the music alone, the instrumentals taking on a life that they wouldn’t had they remained buried in the background of a TV program.

At the same time, library music seems uniquely indicative of just how drastically what we think of as the “archive” has changed with platforms like Spotify. These releases may no longer be doomed to obscurity, but they’re in a precarious position nonetheless: With the ease of accessibility comes a sense of disposability, a divorce from the historical and material context of the music, and, perhaps most worryingly, a reliance on digitization — and if the Universal warehouse fire taught us anything, it’s that an archive based solely on compressed digital copies, at the expense of the original artifact, is not a future we should want for music. The question is whether the thrill of discovery, in so many ways made easier by streaming, has to come at that cost.

Will Atkinson is a Trinity senior and Recess managing editor.

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