1. But it is only the largest corporations that can afford to play the Medici, hiring skilled artisans to custom-design musical expressions of their corporate culture. In the day-to-day world of business communications, music is not commissioned—it is bought and sold in bulk, as a commodity.

  2. Ever since Adorno formulated his critique of the music business as a "culture industry," popular music scholars have had to contend with his vision of its most absolute evil: "the reification of music, its naked commodity character."1 Even outside the Frankfurt School, commodification is hardly a nice word to throw around, either in the recording studio or the seminar room. ("It’s just product, man!" and so on.) But to enter the domain of production music is to enter a strange para-aesthetic realm where music is unashamedly "product," and where all the supposed evils of the mass-produced commodity form—reification, standardization, interchangeability of parts, planned obsolescence—are everyday virtues.




  3. Production music gets its name from the producers who use it to score a wide range of corporate communications. It is ubiquitous: Network Music, Inc., purveyor of one of the largest production music libraries, licenses its tracks for use in "slide shows, radio and television programming, films, web sites, commercials, promos, multimedia presentations, documentaries, training videos, music-on-hold, in-flight services, and computer programs."

  4. In material form, a production music library is a collection of CDs, constantly updated, usually by subscription. Each CD contains about a dozen thematically organized tracks. Production music, like any useful mass-produced commodity, comes in all shapes and sizes, conveniently packaged. You get full-length musical themes (2:00-4:00), plus 60- or 30-second edits for use in broadcast commercials; some of the cuts have been decomposed further into detachable stings and fanfares. Several tracks will appear—with instrumentation reduced and prominent melodic lines excised—as underscores, suitable for voice-overs. Many houses offer a classical music library; there is usually a sound effects library; and some companies offer production elements libraries, which allow you to construct your own sonic punctuation by piling up Glides, Sweeps, Drones, Winds, Jets, Flybys, Lasers, Zaps, Bursts, Sprays, Snarls, Missiles, Guitars, Explosions, Hits, and Kickers. (Your least favorite top-40 station undoubtedly owns one of these collections.)

  5. In effect, what is being sold is the sonic equivalent of clip art; and, just as with clip art, indexing is key. The need for a powerful indexing system is much more acute in the aural realm than in the visual: the eye can scan dozens of images at once, while music must be listened to and through in real time. Unlike visual images, which are "naturally" organized by their manifest representational content, music, especially instrumental (abstract) music, provides us with no obvious hooks upon which to hang our categories.

  6. Production music companies have thus recognized indexing and retrieval as the challenge for large music libraries; semiotic clarity is now a key selling point. A 1998 demo clip from the Network Music web site makes the value proposition persuasively explicit.

  7. The sales pitch assures us blithly that we can "link a precise image, nuance, and feeling with just the right Network theme…" This is a powerful semiotic claim—perhaps, in the minds of many music aestheticians, an incredible one. Consult the list of over 300 keywords
    Explore TrakFinder's
    Production Music Library
    used in Network Music’s TrakFinder™; then see the software in action. Keywords like "desolate," "sensual," and "bold" call up lists of evocatively named tracks—Margin of Victory; Cold Sweat; Body Talk.These names are supplemented with pithy descriptive sentences. Here are three excerpts from the Network Music Production Library, along with their descriptions, to help calibrate your music-semiotic ear: Aftermath; Inner Strength; Common Vision.


  8. Let’s stop for a moment to ponder the structural implications of all this. The Trakfinder database, literally thousands of paired musical themes and expressive descriptions, looks for all the world like a systematic linking of signifiers (music) and signifieds (description). In other words, a language in the Saussure-ian sense. (Another production music company touts its software, Music Finder, as "…a simple language, which has been designed professionally to, as closely as possible, relate words to music.") This would explain one of the most oddly attractive things about production music: its hermeneutic panache. Unlike academic musicology, production music houses seem completely uninvested in a discourse of musical autonomy. (It doesn't sell.) They take musical semantics for granted.

  9. The initial excitement quickly sours, however. A glance back at Orchestral Corporate makes the problem painfully clear: the same adjectives recur again and again, and there is thus no one-to-one correspondence of signifier and signified, no real différence. (What’s the difference between an "optimistic confident theme" and an "optimistic prestigious building theme"?) Trakfinder’s keywords are sledgehammers, not scalpels. Many of the 300+ terms overlap: bold, dynamic, assertive, aspiring, competition all dredge up pretty much the same set of tracks.

  10. This is not really a language of musical expression; it is something interestingly less, something more in keeping with the radically commodified nature of production music: a system of musical objects. The System of Objects was the title of Jean Baudrillard’s first book, an investigation of the signifying power of commodities in consumer society. Baudrillard was impatient with apologists for advertising who spoke idly of branded objects as a "language." Yes, he admits, we all classify people by the make and model of car they drive, and think we can thereby deduce their personalities; but this is "a system of classification and not a language." Lacking syntax, and endowed with only a semi-coherent lexicon, the system of objects is "merely a range of distinguishing marks more or less arbitrarily keyed to a range of stereotyped personalities … a set of pigeonholes."2

  11. A system of musical objects arises when music stops trying to be—or trying not to be—a language, and accepts its "naked commodity character"; we get the Trakfinder, in which a range of distinguishing musical marks is more or less arbitrarily keyed to a range of stereotyped expressive contents.

  12. More or less arbitrarily—but it undoubtedly works. (One hardly imagines the average TV watcher springing up during the nightly news and exclaiming something like, "That is just not correct musical underscoring for a school shooting!" I thought not.) Both the classical musician and the rock star have taken for granted that music’s significance ends where its commodification begins; but the pragmatics of production music argue the opposite, and point the way towards a post-aesthetic discourse of musical meaning. Music may or may not be a language; but in late-capitalist society it is always a commodity, and thus is always part of a (signifying) system.


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1. Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, trans. E.B Ashton, (New York: Continuum, 1989), 26

2. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict, (London, New York: Verso, 1996), 190.




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