A few weeks back I was slumped, semi-sentient in front of the telly watching a rather wonderful episode of Coast, when a peculiar feeling crept up on me. I recognised the background music - at least I thought I did - but there was something about it...
As my somnolent mind lumbered back to something approaching full speed (for a Sunday evening), it dawned that it was Seth Lakeman but that the vocals were missing. I can't remember which song it was now: it was no longer really a song anyway, since the lyrics were gone. But at least one more of his tunes as well as an instrumental version of something by Mumford & Sons were also used on the programme, which was about Sweden and the Baltic.
A choir of voices on Twitter told me that Seth Lakeman's music in particular makes regular appearances in the background on BBC factual programming, including on Countryfile, Lambing Live and Springwatch, which made me wonder exactly how it got there. My first thought was that there could be some kind of cultural bias at the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol. But then I realised I only thought that because I knew someone who went to work there, and he had long, blonde hair that made him look like a folky. God, I'm shallow. Better start from the beginning...
It turns out that the office for Coast is based at BBC Birmingham. However Mike Taylor, the freelance director who made the programme in question, was in the middle of making an episode of Time Team for Channel Four when I caught up with him. "Yes. I chose all the music for the Sweden and the Baltic episode of Coast," he confirmed, though an inquiry whether it reflected his taste led to a declaration in favour of Arcade Fire.
"I try to find stuff that will work but that doesn't impose itself too strongly on the editorial. At the same time you want it to add character, warmth and humanity to the programme. So I'm constantly on the lookout for music that has its own personality but which will not completely overwhelm the film. Lyrics, for instance, get in the way of your voice over." I've since discovered that it's a straightforward thing to remove vocal lines from digital recordings these days, including those to be found on CDs: it can be done on a laptop.
"With that Coast episode I was trying to find a way of keeping the music the same vibe all the way through because it was a series of individual stories, so I thought 'Let's look at modern folk'. I think I ended up with some Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling, as well as Seth Lakeman and Mumford & Sons.
"There used to be a library and researchers you could call on for help with music, but those days at the BBC are gone. It might be just as well really, as the new arrangement puts more control in the hands of the director and you did used to get some odd things happening. For instance, I remember once asking for some music that evoked parks and receiving, from a researcher, Parklife by Blur. I mean, really...
"The new facility is called BBC Jukebox, it's on auntie's intranet and you need permission to access it. It's definitely helped because you have a much wider choice of things to listen to before you make a selection. I think I must have put in two or three days of trawling and sending stuff off to the editor."
Apparently the BBC's music library still exists but the corporation is trying to use the available technology to simplify the process of music editing. Taylor wondered out loud whether Seth Lakeman minds hearing his music used in this way, although since royalty payments are involved I would have thought he could probably stifle any nagging artistic doubts? Especially since there is a move afoot within the BBC to encourage the music industry to volunteer more samples by compiling lists, to be supplied to the public on BBC websites, of music played during programmes.
"I suppose it could have been worse - it could have been on an advert," he mused. "I really think some tracks should be saved for the nation, like listed buildings. I remember once hearing Heroes by Bowie on an advert for insurance and just thinking 'Noooooooooo!'"
So what's BBC Jukebox? And by what process of alchemy does the music that it contains arrive there? I found myself consulting a lady called Maggie Lydon, who rejoices in the job title of Head of Metadata at the BBC. Now here was a woman, I thought, with the ability to bend powerful, invisible forces to her will, if ever I met one. And sure enough she was extremely helpful, pointing me in the direction of a private company called I Like Music, which provides the BBC Jukebox service.
Dugald Brown has day to day responsibility for the BBC contract and explained that the history of I Like Music goes back to the late 1990s. It involves a man called Andy Hill - who is the owner of the company - and a private music collection belonging to a man called Phil Swern (who has worked as a producer for Bob Harris) that includes every tune ever to enter the top 40 in the UK and much of the US top 100 too. It also involved a feeling on the part of the BBC that the since the payment of royalties to musicians ultimately benefited the music industry, the service of showcasing music to directors should also be provided by the music industry. They got them outsourcing blues...
"Andy Hill spotted that the music industry hadn't got its act together and that there was an opportunity to become a music aggregator," explained Dugald. "He bought Phil Swern's collection and set about digitising it. Then in December last year we won the contract to provide the Jukebox service for the BBC. But since it wears BBC branding on their intranet there's really no way that a BBC employee would know that it's a service provided externally."
He describes the company as a small business, providing access to its vast online database at a rate of £50 for 100 downloads and added that 6,000 BBC producers have access to the facility. I Like Music is hoping that film makers and advertising executives will also catch on to its existence, as the BBC contract alone will not make its fortune.
"At the moment we rely on good relationships with record pluggers, as well as buying a lot of CDs, to keep the collection up to date. But we'd like the music industry to start sending us its stuff - anyone who's been recorded by a record company with PRS (Performing Rights Society) and PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) affiliations can go on the database. That's because there has to be a way of paying the musicians."
He says that because there's a strong demand for instrumental versions of songs, he often fields requests about whether they're available: they save clients the trouble of digitally removing the vocal lines themselves (once they have permission to do so).
It could be a coincidence but Seth Lakeman's music is published by EMI, where Dugald formerly worked, and there is regular musical traffic from there to I Like Music's database as a result of good contacts. However, Dugald emphasised that I Like Music's database is a tool used by producers and directors and that the service does not actively promote individual pieces of music. It simply makes them available.
* I Like Music can be contacted at St John's Studios, 6-8 Church Road, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 2QA email@example.com
* If you enjoyed this post you might be interested in How to get yourself on Jools Holland
* And if you would like posts from this blog delivered directly into your Facebook news feed you can make it so by *liking* its Facebook page.