The Evolution of Stock Music

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Every story has a beginning

Have you ever wondered where the music you hear in commercials, documentaries, tv shows, or podcasts comes from? Chances are, it’s stock music. Stock music is music that people make for various library companies to be made available for that kind of use. The production music library usually lets any paying client use the music and owns full distribution rights, so that they don’t need to discuss any sales with the artist. Musicians make a cut, the library company makes a cut, and the sound person in charge of the production gets quick and easy music. Everybody wins.

But did you know stock music libraries were originally created as a cost-effective alternative to custom-written scores, especially for smaller productions? Even since then, they have always been seen as a one-size-fits-all solution, where one track at one length can fit nearly anything. But has that stayed true today? At Smartsound, for instance, we’ve strived to deliver a truly customizable experience.

We’ll follow this journey here, tracing the transformation of stock music from its one-dimensional beginnings to the customized, nuanced tool it is today, highlighting the significant impacts on both creators and consumers.

Early Beginnings

Stock music – or production music, depending on who you’re talking to – is nearly as old as the film industry itself. The first movies shown in cinemas around the world were silent films. Which is a bit of a misnomer, to be honest, as they were only silent in the sense that the sounds weren’t recorded with the visuals. To keep audiences from getting too bored, film houses still had to make some noise. So, they would hire pianists or small ensembles to play some ditties while the action happened on screen. But what music were they playing?

There was business to be had, and stock music was born. London-based Dutchman Meyer de Wolfe had the ingenious idea to hire composers to write loads of innocuous sheet music, so that a customer could find something for everything. There was sheet music for happy scenes, sad scenes, silly scenes, and so on.

Sometimes the film company would send along some sheet music as well – often stock, sometimes ad hoc – along with cue markers for the sound operator to follow. But eventually things would change as the industry toyed with ways to deliver sound to the screen.

A changing industry

As soundtracks emerged – that is, a literal track of sound that played along with the movie – film companies were able to provide recorded music as well. Early soundtracks were also just pre-recorded records that played on a gramophone in place of live musicians, with notes about cues for the sound person to follow. This was a lot cheaper than paying for live musicians, as you had a recording machine copying the music and replaying it for you (er, sound familiar?).

De Wolfe adapted with the changing business. No longer would his company just write scores, but they would record music too. They’d build up a large enough library so that a film company could come to them and ask, “Do you something kind of emotional that turns into something comical?” De Wolf would check the recorded music he had in stock and sell the right to use the recorded music in the production.

And so here, in 1927 in the London offices of the Music de Wolfe company, stock music was born.

Vibrant competition

Music de Wolfe wasn’t alone in their ambitions. They only happened to be the first. If they weren’t there, others would have easily taken their place, as the demand for music and recordings was already huge in the blossoming industry of filmmaking. As quickly as de Wolfe entered the scene, there also appeared a slew of other companies like Sam Fox Moving Picture Music, J.S. Zamecnik’s Theme Music Company, Mood Music Library, and more.

As more and more movies and film studios came onto the market, the demand for music skyrocketed and the new libraries could hardly keep pace. But that didn’t mean the industry wasn’t without its limits.

early stock music was played on gramophones

The Era of Generic Stock Music

As stock music proliferated, it met those limitations. There simply wasn’t enough uniqueness in the recorded music to go around. Libraries were finite, but demand was soaring. The same stale sounds were being used for productions, and people could notice it. As the newness of the technology faded, the faults began to show.

Increasingly, film studios were turning towards custom music – hiring their own composers, orchestras, and so on. The industry had developed, though. By the 1950s, televisions had started being sold to households everywhere, and commercials and shows all demanded quick, on-demand music. But that didn’t mean the stock music would get much better. The old adage was proving true, “You get what you pay for.” The stock music libraries only recorded so much music, and to maximize their profit, they were re-using as much music as they could.

The Rise of the Mass Stock Music Industry

Stock music continued to evolve and expand in the following decades as new media formats and genres came about. It was no longer just used for movies, but also in radio, television, advertising, animation, video games, and more. There was a much higher demand for it than there was supply, which led to it becoming even more stale.

Finally, though, came the 90s and 2000s, when we started seeing the advent of a new wave of stock music. People were able to record music in their own homes. This immediately exploded what libraries could offer, and there became an even larger variety of stock music on the scene. That variety (and increased competition) unfortunately meant less money for the individual artists, but kept the industry going strong and made sure there was nearly always something fresh.

By the mid-2000s, you could select from millions of stock music tracks offered by dozens of providers, mostly from the comfort of your PC at home or in the studio. No need to shop around; just click and download.

But the problem of customizability still persisted. Tracks would still not quite fit, because they don’t really feel like what they’re being used for. They’re not made to the mood, the length, or so on. An artist usually makes a few different cuts and provides them to the stock music library, and that’s your selection.

Smartsound and Customizable Stock Music

And then came Smartsound Cloud. The first company to offer truly customizable stock music, using an incredibly unique algorithm. Working closely with the artists, we manage to make enough variations of the music that provide the algorithm with the ability to seamlessly adjust the length of a track to any length. Add on top of that variations and the ability to mix instruments, and it hands-down has the best customization options of any stock music library out there.

When it came out, it was truly a revolution in stock music. And it continues today.

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