The Sound Library business: a brief history
By John Manchester
Issue: December 1, 2010

The Sound Library business: a brief history

The evolution of the music library business has been driven by the digital revolution.


Library music emerged in the late ‘20s, under the name “pre-recorded music.” It was priced well below custom scoring. Musicians’ unions in the UK and Germany responded by charging lower rates for library production. The American union did not, which is why all the early libraries, like DeWolfe, KPM and Sonoton, emerged overseas. Eventually an American library – Ascher - started in the ‘60s, followed by Valentino.

The main effect of technology on library music in its first 50 years was the move from wax cylinders to tapes and LPs. Record duplication was expensive until the late 70s, when low-cost short runs of 1,000 became available. That enabled the birth of the American libraries Omnimusic and Network.

The 1980s    

The digital revolution hit the music library business in the mid 80s. Omni introduced the first library CD (Disclosure: it contained an album I composed, “Imagination”). Other libraries followed suit. Customers enjoyed the convenience of CDs – they were harder to scratch than records, offered easier access to individual tracks and took up less shelf space. 

Up to this time visual media had been limited to film, which was very expensive to produce, and one projector slide shows. Now video equipment fell in price, making it a viable alternative to film.  Personal computers allowed multiple slide projectors to be synced together for more enjoyable presentations. Visual productions were better, and cheaper. Businesses that had never dreamed of it could now communicate with the new tools. And they all needed affordable sources of music. 


New libraries arose to provide it — Firstcom, Aircraft and Manhattan in the US, and others in Europe.

By the end of the 1980s there were approximately 15 libraries. Most of them conformed to the traditional model in the business: per use fees, i.e. needledrops, and annual blankets.

In the late 80s someone had a radical idea: sell CDs along with the lifetime rights to use them in an unlimited number of productions. They called it “Buyout.” It’s now known by the popular but misleading term “Royalty free.”

Buyout licensing was cheaper and less of a hassle than traditional methods. It was instantly popular with smaller production companies. Buyout music libraries took advantage of rapidly evolving digital technology for music production. Newly affordable synthesizers and home recording gear allowed them to avoid the expenses of studio musicians and studio time.  If the quality was a little off, the clients didn’t care.  Many of them were the same people whose entry into production had been enabled by inexpensive visual technology. Colleges, churches, smaller companies, even elementary schools — people who’d never dreamed of elaborate productions — could suddenly get their messages out using the new technology.  Low cost music completed the picture. 

Buyout libraries had another advantage to offset their lower revenues. Their customers were so eager for their product that libraries could avoid the expensive trade shows and telephone sales essential to marketing a traditional library. 

The 1990s

In the 1990s more needledrop/blanket libraries entered the fray: Non-Stop, 615, Killer Tracks… But the growth explosion came in royalty-free libraries. Some of those libraries were started by musicians who got tired of banging on the doors of old style companies. Many of these new libraries still had quality issues, but a few were sounding very close to the big guys. 


With the proliferation of libraries, higher end clients who had traditionally owned one library could now take on several. This was good for smaller, niche libraries, which could concentrate on their strengths without bothering to cover all musical bases and be everything to everyone. 


Digital technology did benefit the big libraries in one sense: the telemarketing they’d always relied on for sales came down dramatically in price along with long distance telephone rates.

Video went digital and production prices continued to drop. The library music market grew.

Meanwhile digital audio recording became affordable for home studios, whose quality was rapidly becoming indistinguishable from that of the pro studios. Buyout music improved. Though many of these libraries still couldn’t afford live players, it mattered less and less because music in general was becoming more electronic. Whole genres, like hip-hop, used no live musicians. Composers who played guitar and had good drums samples could make credible rock music by themselves at home. 

The biggest change of all came with the Internet. Now customers could purchase CDs from a Website without ever speaking to a salesperson — something appreciated by busy producers who often spent half the morning fielding calls from the ever-growing number of libraries. This gave the royalty-free libraries a distinct advantage over traditional libraries, whose product could not be licensed from a Website. 

The 2000s

Digital technology kept opening new markets for library music. Satellite. Websites. Message-on-hold, cell phones, iPhones, phone apps, iPads, video games, hotel kiosks and YouTube. They all needed to license music. 

The real game changer came when bandwidth increased enough for clients to download full-resolution music. Now music libraries had a most enviable product — one that could be delivered entirely online. The traditional libraries used this to deliver product to their customers, but their licensing remained person-to-person based. Recently some of the big players have discontinued CD production altogether, saving them a large expense and headache.

The royalty-free libraries had an ideal situation: a product that could be marketed, sold and delivered online, and anonymously, an option increasingly popular with customers used to shopping on Amazon and eBay. Customers could now purchase and download individual tracks online. 

Without the burden of producing CDs more musicians produced tracks at home, put up their own Website, and entered the library business for next to nothing. As the record business disintegrated and jingles left New York for the hinterlands, a flood of top-level pros entered the library music business. 

Since the 1980s, the industry has grown from a couple of handfuls of libraries to over 300. There’s no shortage of music. The problem is finding what you need. But that’s another story. 

I want to thank my old colleague Doug Wood, ASCAP board member and owner of Omnimusic, for offering background on the early days of the library business. 

John Manchester has written library music for 30 years. His music is heard daily worldwide. He’s been a music publisher for the last 17 years. He has participated in both the traditional and royalty-free segments of the market. Music he has written and produced may be heard at