After the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent national lockdown, people have turned to social media as a means of escape and one of the viral sensations to storm the nation was BBC regional weather presenter Owain Wyn Evans who after finishing his forecast from home, drummed along to the news title sequence.
The Presenter Magazine interviewed the man behind the music David Lowe, who was guest speaking at a special industry event, late last year.
Television ‘theme tunes’ hold a unique place in our hearts as the soundtracks to our TV viewing lives. Whether it’s your favourite soap opera, talent show or current affairs programme, when those opening titles start to roll, the ‘title music’ is the ultimate signal that the show is about to begin.
A man that has been making these memorable tunes for over 30 years is David Lowe, a name unheard of to almost everyone outside of the most inner sanctums of the BBC but whose work has been heard in probably every living room in the UK.
David is the composer of the BBC News title music and he was speaking at a special event for aspiring musicians on ‘How to Place Your Music in Film & TV’. Alongside other successful industry experts, he was there to help inspire the next generation of musical talent, offering local songwriters, composers, producers and artists the chance to learn how to write for a TV show or create music for advertising campaigns.
David has had his musical compositions placed on many well-known TV programmes such as the BBC News, Panorama, Cash in the Attic and Grand Designs as well as TV advertising campaigns like Barclays Bank, Santander, HSBC and British Airways. So there is no better expert to talk on the subject.
Like many successful people David epitomises how having a desire and a focus at an early age, along with some talent and a helping hand in serendipity, can lead to great things. He readily admits he had no formal training and learnt his craft on the job after discovering his interest in media production.
“The first lucky break I got was a teacher at school had done some work experience at the BBC and he gave us a talk about it and afterwards I was like ‘arhh that’s what I want to do!’ and it sort of crystallized in that one particular moment. I always think if I hadn’t gone to that one particular talk I would not be doing what I’m doing now. He took me down to his office and phoned up the producer of the local radio station and they said ‘yes, send him in on Saturday’ and so I went into the BBC in Birmingham to the old Pebble Mill studios into the local radio part there at radio WM. I was just blown away and I just thought this is where I want to be. This is it. I’ve arrived. From then on that was the focus.”
Having got his foot in the door David was determined to succeed. He was a music fan and says he was always tapping out tunes from a young age so it wasn’t long before he was experimenting in a band too, but it was working for the BBC that fulfilled a burning ambition of his.
“I started out life at the BBC on radio and I got into radio production and then I got really into mixing and editing music and making jingles. I really enjoyed that technical creative side. Then I got a job more in sound, a bit more technical and not creative. At that point, I started earning a bit of money and synthesisers and electronic keyboards suddenly had become available in the domestic market and that was always an area I was fascinated by so I went and bought one of the first synthesisers that came out that was a G Note 6, a Roland and that was it I was hooked on that and I spent every moment I had writing music, coming up with songs. I got a little band together did some gigs but I was more into the production and studio side of it rather than the out on the road bit, touring and gigging.”
Although there’s a modest undertone of surprise when David talks about how his career took flight, his energy and enthusiasm resonate and he identifies his ability to seize opportunities when they present themselves as being foremost in his own success.
“The second lucky break that happened was after work one day at the BBC I was talking to a friend at the bar, who was talking to another guy and he was telling him about my keyboard and how amazing it all was and the guy was like ‘well I’m actually looking for some music right now for our local news show do you want to have a go and come up with an idea?’ and suddenly the waters parted in front of me. That’s what I can do! I can write music and work in TV, it covers every single passion I’ve got basically. So I came up with this idea and he said yeah we like that and it took off from there really.
I just focused on going around saying ‘do you want any music for any shows?’ because I was in the building and people were like yeah fine have a go. Nobody else was doing it. So I became the go-to guy for writing theme tunes and it has just taken off from there really and that was about 34 years ago now.”
You can watch an insightful behind the scenes YouTube clip he did talking about his music design for the BBC News titles that makes interesting viewing to hear him speaking about how this particular composition came together. It all sounds so simple as each stage is added, step-by-step, in comparison to the final product, which is an intricate cacophony of sounds. The BBC news with its iconic ‘pips’ as David calls them is as instantly recognizable as Coronation Street or Match of the Day and is a unique part of UK TV culture that reverberates, not just in the living rooms of the UK, but around the world too – albeit to a much lesser extent.
“It’s like creating a brand sound and continuing that brand throughout the whole BBC output of news on TV, the internet and radio as well; locally, nationally and internationally.
The idea of it was to come up with a concept and a sound that people would recognize and immediately identify in the first second of hearing it and so it is like a calling card for the news. You know the news is on when you hear that sound. That was always part of the brief when doing it. It was creating a sound that had longevity, that could be used, updated and rearranged but would always retain that core thing.”
With a crate load of credits behind him he’s clearly a revered and respected man in the industry, and with his knowledge and experience producers can feel safe that he will deliver and get the job done. With these credentials, he is still very much in demand.
“I did the X Factor last month. I got an email from one of the guys on the show who was a fan and so he knew of me. Apparently Simon Cowell had got really bored of the regional theme tunes he’d been using and he was quite keen to try something different. I agreed they shouldn’t lose that original melody line that everybody recognizes, that’s part of people’s whole enjoyment of the show when you hear it – “It’s on. Quick. Sit down!” It’s part of that thing, the whole familiarity and the warmth of watching the show you love and hearing the theme tune, it puts you in that frame of mind. So we kept the tune and I came up with 3 different angles so they could like redo it with the beat and the over the top Hollywood big feel and then I just had to wait for Simon Cowell to give us the thumbs up. It was a bit like us waiting for him to press the big red button.”
Placing any such weighty importance on a little jingle, which really has little to do with the programme, goes to show the influence music plays in the enjoyment of TV programmes and the unsung role of the title theme tune. As we all know there is nothing quite like music to add drama, feeling and emotion to our favourite TV shows, which David is quite the master of.
“I think it just comes down to experience really. In general, it doesn’t matter what style it’s in, whether it is classical jazz, pop or whatever. I always try to aim for something that is memorable. An old fashioned tune that all people know and can hum along to is still an idea that has stood the test of time, even though production values have changed and things need to sound contemporary and modern. It’s really interesting to find a nice chunky tune that people get to love. You want people to attach themselves to and feel that familiarity and warmth to and identify with and that’s always been my approach.”
The ‘How to Place Your Music in TV and Advertising’ event David was speaking at was being organised by PRS for Music who collect royalties on behalf of David each time his music is broadcast, streamed, downloaded, reproduced or played in public or used in film or TV. They arean integral part of the industry and offer organisational support, including not least, collecting royalties.
“Music publishers are a fact of life. When you’re doing a show you have to sign some of your rights away to the publisher – you don’t have to but that’s the way things have developed and it’s an industry-standard these days. PRS collect on behalf of all music composers in the UK. If you join the PRS they are a fantastic organisation, they’ve been going since the 1920s or earlier with the idea that the writer of the music should be rewarded if it’s performed publicly which makes complete sense. As a writer as soon as you’ve written a piece of music it belongs to you totally but at some point down the line a publisher might come along and the publisher would agree to take half in an agreement that they will go out and sell your music for you. It’s a two-way relationship and in songwriting, that’s how it works all the time. You’ve got the writer that writes it and the publisher that goes and sells it and exploits it. You both share the money you get from it. That’s the system.”
David’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the business are quite apparent and his hard-earned insights he’s accumulated offer invaluable insight and advice from a career spanning more than three decades in the industry.
“The technology is phenomenal but the process for me hasn’t changed much. In the old days, you used to meet up more for a face-to-face relationship with people but now with email and technology people seem to have less time to do that, it is much more working remotely. But it’s the same process, you get on the phone and chat to them, find out what they want, send them ideas and it happens like that but the technology has been amazing, the change in technology and what used to take me days to do now I can do within hours. 16MB was a massive amount of storage, now you’ve got gigabytes and terabytes so that’s been phenomenal. Everything I do is sitting on my laptop and I can do everything on my Mac laptop with a hard drive full of chunky sounds.”
Another melody, which David is extremely proud of having given his magical reworking to, was the music for the 2012 Olympic award ceremonies with Vangelis’ sublime ‘Chariots of Fire’, which he proudly recalls being played at the Games medal ceremony.
“When the athletes got their medals they had this music playing in the stadium accompanying them receiving their medals. That was really thrilling especially when Andrew Murray got his gold for winning the tennis; my music started wafting away in the background that was quite a thrilling moment.
There’s loads of stuff I’m really proud of but ‘the news’ is the big one because it goes right back to when I wanted to start to work for the BBC. It is pretty special really, to know as everyone has heard it, there are Prime Ministers like Boris Johnson and probably Donald Trump and the Queen. Somewhere or another it has been on. I would imagine it has been in lots of people’s psyches.”
David is quite possibly the most famous musician no one has heard of, whose musical creations have been embedded in the minds of a nation. Love or loath the ‘title music’ it’s immediately identifiable, placing a programme in a moment and time and charging the emotions with expectation or nostalgia. Their daily or weekly broadcasting is no guarantee of their overall popularity, but there is definitely no denying David’s other perhaps somewhat surprising success when it comes to popular music.
“I suppose the dream we all have is to write a number one hit and that was always a dream I had when I first started out. When I started doing TV stuff I thought this is a good way I can write things and put them on TV and people might like them and want to go out and buy them as a record. So part of my style was to try and come up with ideas for the programme, coming up with ideas that people might like. I was still doing TV music as my main thing and this was just another branch of things I was doing at the time. I came up with this track “Would You…?” under the project name Touch and Go. That was a spot on example of how a publisher works. I’d come up with this song and I hadn’t got a clue what to do with and then Charlie (my publisher, producer friend) took it under his wing and went out and he got it to no.3 in the charts. If it hadn’t been for him and his side of it, it wouldn’t have happened, it’s a real symbiosis of work. Cher was no.1, George Michael was no.2 and U2 were no.4 and I was no. 3. I was in there with the icons of pop music, it was very exciting”.
Even though he has reached the heady heights of the UK pop chart David has always felt more at home in the studio, however, being a music composer has bought its own challenges too.
“The only slight downside of being a self-employed composer is literally working alone for a lot of the time and having no real support from a group of colleagues in the conventional sense – you have to think everything through for yourself. So I’d recommend any writers/music creators out there to join the Ivors Academy of Music Creators – it’s an excellent way to bridge that gap, meet other composers and writers and hear their experiences, to be part of a community. Perhaps most importantly though it stands up for us as a group, and campaigns on our behalf for our rights in this fast changing world. It’s a great organization to be part of and get involved with.”
And what would he recommend to those aspiring to make it in the world of television and film music?
“It’s always been a bit of a fickle industry to get into. There is no set course, no set path in. Sometimes it is about a lucky break and meeting the right person and maintaining that and you can’t give people that so all I can say is keep looking for it and keep persevering and don’t give up. Keep enjoying what you do and keep the passion for what you are doing.
Also don’t think you are going to go to the top straight away it takes a very long time and it is always good to try and have something in reserve that you can make a living out of. Almost do music for fun for as long as you can so you’re not relying on it and that takes the pressure off and you can do better work then. It’s a case of keep going basically.”