Sounds Like the Blues - Pacific Standard

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.
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(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

I was several months out of college, interning at a PR company and earning minimum wage packaging mailers for Dolly Parton and Hall & Oates. I wanted to be a music writer, but that year, 2010, I was happy just to work in the industry. A friend told me about a receptionist opening at a distributor for a music-licensing firm called De Wolfe. I leapt.

De Wolfe once provided scores for Monty Python’s Flying Circus and episodes of Doctor Who. Its library included pieces by famous early 20th-century film composers (though not seminal works). The New York office I landed in sold access rights to these songs, but also trafficked in the great American tradition of low-value, high-demand knockoffs: recordings that imitate popular songs but deviate just enough to scrape past copyright infringement. On any given day, a video game designer or a pastor or an assistant to the director of snack food commercials would call to find out if, for example, we had anything that sounded like the new Lady Gaga song (we did), or a good substitute for “Bittersweet Symphony” (we had that, too).

The walls above my desk were fluorescent green, with spray-painted stencils of records, music clefs, and a flock of white seagulls. The salespeople sat in a small room with their backs to one another beneath a life-size painting of someone who looked almost, but not exactly, like Elvis. The job was pretty simple, though I was not good at it. I patched callers through to the sales staff; I scanned forms. Once, I shoved three weeks of paperwork in my desk drawer. I spent most of my time browsing the company’s music collection, sampling its more than 80,000 songs.

"I am engaged in the fabrication of a culture that is antithetical to the notion of culture itself," I declared to my mother. "This is exactly what Adorno talked about in 'The Culture Industry.'"

De Wolfe’s library had four major categories: Genre, Mood, Instrumentation, and Usage. Each had subsets. Usage, for example, had 36 subcategories, such as Cooking, Historical, or Slow Motion. Querying the system for, say, Cool Lifestyle would turn up songs including “Travelling Backwards” (described by file metadata as “Stylish, Rhythmic Late-Night Jazz With Flute”) and “Take It Home” (“Funky & Slick, Cool & Confident”).

I was fascinated and repulsed by that library, disdainful of the music itself but enamored of its ham-fisted naming scheme and the emotional tidiness it promised: Any situation could become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background music. Life, of course, is never so neat—but who could resist that fantasy? Even tracks from the Hip-Hop and Urban shelves, which often included a countdown cobbled together with a nursery rhyme (“One, two, three, and a four, guess who’s knock-knocking on your door?”) were endearing in their striving, their naïveté. I identified with the aesthetic: My life at the time felt like its own fragile facsimile. Things were in place—a job, an apartment, a smattering of beloved friends on whom I gently exercised my social anxiety, primarily by avoiding them—but everything felt hollow. Some mornings, I panicked before my subway commute from Greenpoint to Queens to Midtown. I felt like I was faking the life that I wanted, and not very well.

“Music is everywhere,” a co-worker told me at the beginning of my tenure. “You don’t notice it until you do, but once you’ve been here a few months and are familiar with the catalog, you’ll find you hear our music all over the place.” This was an unappealing prospect, but soon I heard production music in commercials, in B-list movies, and piped through the speakers at budget nail salons.

“I am engaged in the fabrication of a culture that is antithetical to the notion of culture itself,” I declared to my mother. “This is exactly what Adorno talked about in ‘The Culture Industry.’” I hadn’t read the theorist’s work in some time, but I held on to the lofty ideals—and angst—of a recent graduate. I was nostalgic for the living-room concerts I’d hosted in college; for music that felt tender, meaningful, and real. Instead, I had tumbled into a valley of simulacra: Rather than making music that moved people, the company I worked for dealt in music designed to go unnoticed.

I left the job as quickly as I could. I still hear production music everywhere: when on hold with airline representatives; at pivotal moments during disaster films; behind radio chatter. The music still sounds plasticky—music for products, not people—but I appreciate the surety of it, the confidence of its claims. The beauty of the library never lay in its content. The appeal was always in its glossary of human experience, and its simple instructions for what to listen to and how to feel.

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