In praise of Music Reference Libraries

One of the unexpected opportunities I’ve had since embracing a freelance life has been reconnecting with the industry I first worked in after I graduated with a music degree. Today, poring over books in the Victoria Music Reference Library is a good example.

The consequence of a poorly paid job

I stuck it out for a while, but ended up abandoning it in a huff. I was on £7K (for comparison’s sake my friends in leisure marketing and health and safety were on £25K and in their first jobs). It was a pitiful amount. I was taking out loans from the bank in order to live. There was something a bit wrong with that set-up I thought.

Shortly before I threw in the towel something rather unpleasant had dawned on me. Poor levels of pay were often justified by management with a wave of the hand. The opportunity I found myself in was one I should feel grateful had been bestowed on me by them. ‘This was the arts, after all. We’re all on lower pay.‘ Some of my own research uncovered that my boss was on over three times that amount. The disparity seemed rather rich.

I left the arts to work in IT in East London (around about twenty years to the day as it happens), and doubled my salary in less than two weeks. My life changed radically from there on (but that’s for another post).

Libraries – an antidote to an insistent on-demand world

But today, ferreting around in reference libraries looking at books about classical music, I feel like I’m reconnecting with the bit of the job I rather liked – the research, the history, and the consequence of that low pay and downtrodden mood – a sense of industry community I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

So far, my favourite libraries for channelling this warm nourishing spirit so far have been Barbican, Westminster Media Library, and today the best of all, the Music Library in Buckingham Palace Road.

Returning to places like reference libraries is a strangely restorative experience. These are gloriously studious places diametrically opposed to the manufactured busy-ness and empty career promises of everyday office life.

They are the antidote to the on-demand world where any information we need is only a click-away. Here where learning is tactile and history stubbornly holds on to a reassuringly fusty aroma, my heart-rate drops. This is where I find value, am reminded of what underpins my core identity.

It’s also where I discover on the cover of October’s Gramophone magazine that pianist Daniil Trifonov has aged a little and is looking better for it (I won’t buy a copy – it’s too expensive, so I’ll just look at the library copy).

Also at Victoria library, I can finally get my hands on the final volume of Britten’s letters (‘Santa’ appears to overlook this key volume every Christmas).

The greatest find is undoubtedly a wind band arrangement of John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, something I was completely unaware of.

The opening line of the score is fascinating and terrifying: I had completely overlooked that the opening ostinato was rattled off by the clarinets who, in a wind band arrangement, will no doubt have an incredibly demanding role trying to make that punishing line sound bearable to listen to.

Looking at the score (just like browsing shelves of half-forgotten works) is a tantalising opportunity to look under the bonnet of the music. Such sources are available on the internet of course, but there you’re actively seeking them out.

Here in the library, physical objects on a shelf beg to be delved into. Evocative invitations to reconnect with old friends from university 26 years ago.

What I came in here for was a chance to flick through Rhinegold’s brilliant ‘bible’ for the classical music world: the British Music Yearbook.

When I first started looking for work 20-odd years ago it was the BMY where I started. I remember feeling excited and relieved. A long list of endless of organisations where I might find work in a field I knew I would feel most at home in.

The Music Industry Bible 

The British Music Yearbook was a much-need alternative path than that followed by my contemporaries. It was a starting point for a journey with numerous destinations.

Today, looking through the sections and seeing familiar names and faces, I end up thinking that the industry hasn’t really changed that much. The sense of anticipation is still very much there too. I see glaring omissions. I even see some orchestras whose admin staff clearly need to update their personnel lists (some are alarmingly out of date by two or three years).

But the overriding feeling is a sense of hope, amplified by the reassuring glow created by a library stocked full of well-thumbed familiar texts, and endless new paths.

Oh. And it’s quiet. So blissfully quiet.


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