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How to get started (and get paid) composing library music

music producer
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Do you dream of writing music for film and TV, but don’t know where to start? Library music could be your way in. Whether you’re a session veteran or a part-time producer, your sounds could make it to the big screen and become a source of royalties for years to come. 

A few years ago, I decided to get into the library music game. I set myself the goal of earning a single dollar from my music and resolved that if I achieved that in the first year, I would keep trying. The results a few years down the line are far more substantial than I expected, and I’m still adding to my library music portfolio every month while watching my earnings grow.

Here are some tips and tricks to get started - and get paid. 

What is library music?

Also called production music, library music has been specifically composed to be used by music editors for a variety of media. Usually the result of a relatively low-cost production process, albums are curated by publishers and catalogued by style, length, tempo, and various other metadata, much like a library that potential clients can browse. The composers are compensated through royalties for usage, and pieces can be used time and again across various productions. 

Where is library music used?

In television and film, library music is used when the budget or time-scale doesn’t allow for a commissioned composer. The music editor is charged with the task of matching music to the image, and they use library music publisher’s search tools to find the right track for their brief. Library music is used across all sorts of productions, from advertising and reality shows to game shows and documentaries. You never know where your piece might end up. Other common uses for library music are corporate videos or YouTube tutorials, although many of those tracks come from royalty-free platforms, which entail a different fee structure for the composer. 

What do I need to get started?

All you need is the ability to produce music that’s broadcast quality: it has to be professionally produced. The levels have to be right - no hisses, hums or amateur mixes. They aren’t expecting you to be Mark Ronson or Daniel Lanois, but publishers have professional ears and will not hesitate to let you know if your tracks aren’t up to scratch. You can get some great results with a modestly priced laptop and audio interface, but your skills as a composer and producer have to be up to the job.  

Plenty of library music is made using sample instruments: if you’re using them, make sure you use the best samples that you can afford and learn how to make your programmed parts sound realistic. The worst comment you can get is that your strings sound too ‘MIDI’ or synthetic. It should sound like real, live instrumentation.

Plenty of library music is made using sample instruments: if you’re using them, make sure you use the best samples that you can afford

If you produce electronic music, don’t just throw loops together: create original material. There have been issues with copyright where two producers have used the same loop on their productions, and while the issue was resolved, it creates a headache for publishers. I would avoid loops altogether, or if you do use them, make sure you make them your own by chopping, layering or processing them. 

There is also the question of EULA (End-User License Agreement) infringement: you’ll be required to submit stems, and with the availability of high-quality pre-made packs and sounds, it’s a dangerous game to play if you’re not careful. It’s advisable to write your own material and produce your own sound design. 

Any live instruments you can add to your production will make it sound more organic, so if you play guitar or drums or any other instruments, use that to maximum efficiency. Even one live instrumental performance in a MIDI-based production can lift the whole thing up.

What kind of music should I write?

The styles found in library music are wide-ranging and varied. Rock, pop, hip-hop, EDM, indie, orchestral, folk, world… almost any style or cross-over you can imagine has been dreamt up by some keen composer. The trick is to make something that a music editor or videographer wants to use for their visuals. Mostly that will mean instrumental compositions, although some libraries will specialise in vocal-led songs which they licence. 

Keep in mind that library music tends to be used in supporting other media, oftentimes under dialogue, so maintaining simplicity is key. Complex melodies and odd-time prog rock epics are not typically the sort of thing that will get picked up. Basic harmonic beds and drones, or simple, striking pieces for guitar and piano see a lot of usage. Upbeat transition pieces, tension build-ups, trailer music, dramatic swells and hits, and current-sounding pop instrumentals are tried-and-tested library music bestsellers. 

A good place to start is to observe the type of music that’s being used in current TV shows. Many of these will have been commissioned specifically for these titles, but once they’re successful, the producers behind other shows will take notice and go after the same type of sound. Another popular brief is to emulate the latest pop styles in an instrumental context. Be wary when you put these together, as there is a fine line between plagiarism and submitting material “in the style of” another artist. Another approach is to just do whatever you’re good at: there’s a chance that there is a market for it. There is a lot of music out there, and finding a niche could give your tracks a higher chance of standing out and being used.  

How do I get my music published?

Once you have something to pitch, the next step is to approach publishers. There are a few big ones (BMG, Universal) and a whole universe of smaller ones. Some of these smaller entities are sub-publishers for the bigger ones, others are independent.

If you have five or six tracks, you should pitch to publishers. There is no right or wrong way to do this; ask around for recommendations from fellow composers, join social media groups dedicated to library music, or just Google away and cold email. It can be a thankless task to get in with your first publisher, but once you’ve managed to crack it and get your first tracks published - and hopefully used - you’ll have more leverage to approach the next ones. 

My own library music journey started by joining a company called Taxi. They are an independent A&R company whose role is to supply publishers and music editors with quality music. You may think that paying a yearly fee and then paying per submission is beneath you or not good for business, but I felt it was good value. The people at Taxi provide you with detailed feedback if your track was refused, and that can be a valuable tool in learning how to improve your composition skills.  

Taxi also give you the opportunity to pitch to people who probably wouldn’t answer your cold-call emails. You get briefs delivered daily by email, they’ll send these to you without joining, and those briefs could be enough to set you down the right path. There are other companies offering this type of service - such as Syncr and Broadjam - should you choose to explore this avenue further.

You don’t really need to write full albums to pitch, but if you have a strong concept and enough material to warrant an album release, some publishers could pick it up as is. In my experience, publishers tend to put together albums, or series’ of albums, with anywhere from 20 to 100 tracks from a range of composers, so there’s no real need for you to slave away on a whole album. Write enough to show what you can do, and send it off. 

What happens next?

Once the publishers give you the green light, they may want you to prepare stems and alternative mixes in addition to presenting them with a ready-to-publish master. Other publishers will do all of this work themselves, and could rename your tracks to fit in with the vision they have for a particular album. 

They’ll want to have a variety of options to present to clients. One thing to keep in mind: your music will be used to enhance whatever media it’s put under. Sometimes they’ll strip your track to the bare minimum, just a synth pad and a shaker, and you’ll barely recognise it in the scene in which it is used. Or they may use only five seconds of your carefully constructed 4-minute opus. That can be disheartening from an artistic perspective, but the fact is, you’ll still get paid. On a fundamental level, that is what library music is about. 

How do I get paid?

The main source of income for library music composers is through performance royalties. Once your track gets picked up to be used in a show, PROs (Performance Rights Organisations) will track usage and collect the royalties for you. To get paid, you’ll need to join your local PRO: PRS in the UK, BMI or ASCAP in the USA. There is a local PRO in most countries.

Every quarter you’ll receive a statement, and they’ll pay you according to where and how your track has been used. This is a very slow process, and it can take years for the money to make its way through the system to your pocket. Library music is a long game. It could potentially be your main source of income if you completely dedicate yourself to the task, but it takes time. There are no shortcuts.

There is also some income through MCPS and neighbouring rights, which are another variety of royalties tied to mechanicals and recording performances, some of which your publisher will collect for you. You typically split these earnings with your publisher 50/50.

As far as earnings per track usage go, the numbers are small, but it can be recurrent income, so it builds up. A track used in a BBC1 prime-time show can pull in about £15. If you have 200 tracks in the system, and they pull in £50 every quarter, you could be earning a living from library music alone.

This is not an easy feat to achieve, and even if you’re blessed with the perfect sensibilities, it can take a few years to build up to that. But it is achievable. More realistically, library music royalties can be a nice yearly bonus in addition to your main gig.

Other companies offer a buy-out, where for a flat fee they collect all future royalties for you. Some require you to sign off your rights to royalties and pay you per download on their site. Some composers really look down on the buy-out scheme, arguing that it steals from the writers and lowers the bar for what people should get paid for their work, but it can work for some people. 

If you’re well-known or have a great track record, some publishers will offer you an advance, or even pay for a full orchestra to record your pieces. Those scenarios are far and few between and are getting rarer every year. 

Get writing!

Like most other areas of the music business, library music success relies on hard work, persistence, and a fair bit of luck. But if you aim to monetise your music making, it can be a handy bit of extra cash for years to come. Once your track gets published it can be used for the next 20 years, and you’ll collect the royalties. In my first year I wrote close to 100 tracks, of which 25 were published, and out of these, about 10 have become regular earners. Unless you hit a homerun with your first tracks, you can expect similar numbers. It takes a while to figure out how to best apply your skill in writing successful tracks. 

In my second year I wrote less, but my percentage of published tracks was higher, as I was working directly with publishers on specific briefs. I also managed to recycle some ideas that were originally refused. Time will tell if the tracks I’ve written will buy me a house, but having pieces used on BBC1, ITV and Jimmy Kimmel feels like an accomplishment in itself, and the quarterly pay-outs keep growing.

Whether you’re a bedroom producer or a session ace, work with what you have, write some three-minute nuggets that will appeal to producers, music editors and music supervisors, and get pitching to library music companies. You may end up with your music on prime-time TV, and that’s a special feeling. 

Further reading...

Dan Graham’s excellent book, A Composer’s Guide To Library Music, has a lot to offer, and he hosts a Facebook group that should be a useful resource.

Steve Barden's Writing Production Music for TV is another reliable source of information about the nuts and bolts of writing successful library music. 

Originally from Montreal in Canada, Eric Guy has been functioning as a bass player for hire in and around London for the last 15 years. Adept at the doghouse and the plank, he’s played countless shows in most styles, from punk rock to theatre gigs, free jazz and French chanson. As a budding library composer he’s had placements worldwide, notably on the BBC, ITV and the Jimmy Kimmel Show.