Interview / Russell Ziecker, Head of Television Music and A&R at Lionsgate1
By Amanda DK
Behind many independent music supervisors, especially in the television world, there is a studio executive working with several other independent music supervisors trying to keep multiple shows on course and colleagues on all levels happy.More often than not, these are the less glamorous positions; their names may not be in the credits, but studio music execs are still reading every script, watching every cut, solving clearance struggles and giving creative notes. Not only that, the creatives on a project (director, producers) can sometimes perceive them as the “bad guy,” pushing corporate studio agendas at the expense of their vision. The best ones can serve both to an equal degree at the same time – Russell Ziecker is one of these.
Like most music supervisors working today, Ziecker didn’t start out in supervision, however, his journey is likely one of the most eclectic. His first gig in music was in his early twenties, touring the world playing in bands with the likes of Frank Zappa and others, but after a few years he knew he needed to do something else. Ziecker then entered the music publishing world with stints at both Chrysalis Music Group and Virgin Music Publishing, working with bands such as Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction and Stone Temple Pilots. In the years that followed, he continued to try on many hats…President/COO of Milan Records, managing US operations for Simon LeBon’s (Duran Duran) Tokyo-based music production company, and then starting his own business, FUZZ Music and Sound Design. He managed major label artists such as Jason Falkner, Jeremy Toback, and Lazlo Bane, and has produced music for over 350 commercials. The amount of badges from various festivals and conferences he’s participated in over the years could fill at least one large shoebox – he will be adding another badge to his collection next month, as he will be speaking at SXSW on my panel, “Music in TV Pilots: Sales Tool or Strategy?”. Now at Lionsgate he oversees all television music for the company including Mad Men (AMC), Weeds (Showtime), Nurse Jackie (Showtime), Blue Mountain State (Spike) and BOSS (Starz), in addition to directly supervising all pilots.
Meeting Ziecker, you would never guess any of the above. Not that he’s not an extremely cool guy, he’s just more laid back and collected than many studio executives you will encounter. I sat down to chat with him about Lionsgate’s most recent success, BOSS. The show was nominated for two Golden Globes: Best Television Series – Drama, and Best Performance by an Actor In A Television Series – Drama for it’s star (and producer), Kelsey Grammar, and won the latter. The music, however, also got some attention, largely due to the use of Robert Plant’s “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” as the main title. In addition providing a selection of tunes that he feels captures the tone of the show, Ziecker also shares how the song was chosen, as well as some of the struggles and key decisions to be made when music supervising the trickiest of all mediums: the television pilot.
Tom Jones “What Good Am I”
Wolf Gang “The King And All Of His Men”
Milos Karadaglic “Lågrima”
Elizaveta “Odi Et Amo”
Band of Skulls “Light of the Morning”
TA: Like most music supervisors you didn’t start off in the profession. I know you’ve done many, many things…can you list a few?
Russell Ziecker: I joke that I’ve had five careers in one vocation (music)…but it’s really true. Started as a musician, then music publishing, worked at record labels, in management, music supervision, now studio executive.
TA: At what point in all of that did you get into supervision and why?
RZ: Well, it was a dark, and stormy night…actually, I had been running soundtrack label Milan Records, and dealing with a number of high-profile film directors and composers while creating the soundtracks. It was director Mike Figgis that really woke me up to the powerful intersection of images and music.
TA: Was there any particular experience in your background that you found particularly valuable in supervision?
RZ: Therapy. Music supervision is as much a people-management skill as music-management skill.
TA: When you begin work on a pilot, at what point do main titles start being discussed? Is it something where you want to start feeding ideas early on, or do the producers generally not want to get into until shooting is complete?
RZ: More often than not I’d say, very early. The thing about a pilot though, is that your collection field is so very vast until you see the shape of the show, then you end up throwing out many ideas that no longer fit with the tonality.
TA: It often seems like theme songs are becoming a dying art these days. Do you feel strongly that a good main title theme is important, or does it depend on the show?
RZ: There is a legitimate argument for both sides of this. Every show may not benefit from having a (music) main title. Personally, I think it represents a branding element and an instant “ID” for the show.
TA: What about the trend in general? Are too many shows missing opportunities by foregoing themes?
RZ: No. I do think it’s maybe better to have no main title (music) than a poorly conceived one – that doesn’t represent the tonality of the show.
TA: In your opinion, is it more effective to choose a song for a main title that people are familiar with, or one that no one has heard/is completely original?
RZ: In terms of marketing for a show, I tend to think that a very well known song is not the way to go as it is associated with “a sound, a scene, and/or a particular artist” – and takes the viewer out of the show. The theme song or main title should invite you into the show – I think the more obscure the song, the better the odds at making it a special branded element for the show.
TA: What is the most important skill every music supervisor should have? Either tactical (i.e. music editing, or music licensing) or interpersonal.
RZ: Both of those are, at times, used in equal measure, depending upon the needs of the project. I can’t pretend that “interpersonal” skills and ego management don’t seem to take priority (or perhaps it’s that’s what takes the most work for me personally).
TA: With the traditional soundtrack model dying, what do you think makes a successful soundtrack right now? Or should the industry be turning to alternate ways to use music to brand film/TV properties?
RZ: To answer your first point, exclusive content. And yes, we must embrace new ways of music delivery and connecting with fans. I think QR codes, scanning technology, Shazam, etc. will be the future of soundtracks.
TA: You were instrumental in both the BOSS main title song (“Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”) and Mad Men (“A Beautiful Mine”) as well as the covers of “Little Boxes” during Season 2 of Weeds…what other main titles were you responsible for that I’m missing?
RZ: For Weeds Seasons 2 and 3 we recorded and used different versions of our (then) theme song, “Little Boxes.” Kill Point, The Dresden Files, Hidden Palms, Nurse Jackie, Blue Mountain State, Lovespring International, Running Wilde, Wendy Williams Talk Show, Fear Itself, all fell under my watch….and then there were the pilots…
TA: How hard is it to convince the owners of an existing song to attach their music to a show in such an important way?
RZ: Depends upon the affinity and cache value that the show carries with it (to artist/performer/writer, manager, label, and/or publisher). I would never use the word convince – rather than “strongly make a case for” – because you seldom have much leverage with a new show that hasn’t yet aired or had any ratings that you can refer to.
TA: For both Mad Men and BOSS, how did you come to choose those songs? What other ideas were being considered at the time?
RZ: There were only a couple of ideas that we’d investigated for Mad Men, one of which was working with David Byrne, who wrote a couple of very cool, component-type songs, where he encouraged me to cut and recut as we wished, swapping bridges for versus, swapping out lines of the chorus, and so on. It would have had a completely different feeling for the show. All credit goes to Matt Weiner (creator of Mad Men) for finding this fairly unknown, hip-hop track by RJD2 (that is 5:31 in it’s original form). He’d heard it played on NPR and then sought it out. Similarly, I’d credit Kelsey Grammer with finding “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” for BOSS. He wanted a song and performer (in this case, Robert Plant), who had the same level of gravitas and heft as the iconic, well-ensconced, fictional mayor of Chicago character. This fit the bill in every way. We tried hundreds of different tracks, many of which were classical, and juxtaposed them against the images of Chicago we had in the title sequence.
TA: What are some adjectives you would use to describe the sound of BOSS, specifically the score?
RZ: Minimalist soundscapes, interwoven with classically-inspired melodies.
TA: Of all the soundtracks you’ve produced, what was the most challenging and why? Which was the most fun?
RZ: The Mad Men Character Playlists, which essentially are seven separate EPs, five songs on each. Starting with 923 songs, we selected material that each character would have listened to during their formative years. These were eventually whittled down, pass after pass, to get to five each…it was interesting to me how the songs communicated the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and literally became a conversation between the characters…or at least I thought they did.
TA: For the “Little Boxes” covers, how many of the artists did you seek out versus how many came to you? Was it difficult to find takers considering the subject matter of the show?
RZ: It’s been awhile, but from what I remember, we probably sought out versions from 70% of the artists we had versions from, while 30% or so surprised us with versions that they had done, in hopes to get it on the show. I don’t think the subject matter of the show was ever a hurdle, in fact, it seems that was the selling point for many artists.
TA: Who are some of the artists that came to you?
RZ: Brett Dennen, Peggy Honeywell did a bluegrass version, and John Mayer asked if he could do a version, but never did hand one in.
TA: Were there any versions done where you were especially bummed they didn’t make it to air?
RZ: Jason Mraz.
TA: When assembling a team for a pilot, who is the most important member?
RZ: Really depends upon what kind of material you have, and the genre/tonality of the show.
TA: Do you try and set up people who could work on the long term, or just for the time of the pilot?
RZ: Yes, I always try and hire both music supervisors and composers that could stay on the show if we to get picked up.
TA: Once a show gets picked up to series, as a studio executive, how does your strategy change? What are your first steps?
RZ: Creatively, shows seem to take three or four episodes to find their true footing, so I think you have to be patient while the baby grows. If you analyze pilots from now successful shows, you quickly realize and see how even the actors were a little tentative in their approach to the characters they’d later become…same with the music team. First steps are getting the right team together that is capable of delivering what the show needs.
TA: What are some of the shows coming up on the Lionsgate docket that you are excited about?
RZ: Anger Management with Charlie Sheen. Next Caller Please, a music intensive comedy about the world of Satellite Radio. A still untitled Nashville project written by Callie Khouri of Thelma & Louise and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood fame.
TA: What new artists are you listening to now?
RZ: Lana Del Rey, Erik Satie, Blind Pilot, Cashier No. 9. Brett Dennen, Danger Mouse/Daniele Luppi, Sleigh Bells, M83, La Santa Cecilia, Beirut, Milos Karadaglic, Scala, The Pixies
TA: You’ve worked with or performed with some of the most iconic bands ever…is there any artist that you’ve never seen (or someone you have) that you would pay top dollar to see perform?
RZ: Do I get a coffee or a drink first? How about a plus one? We seek the things we can’t have – so I’d have to go with Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or one of the stalwart oldies that one can ever see.Tags: BOSS, executive, Golden Globes, interview, Kelsey Grammer, Lionsgate, music, music supervision, Russell Ziecker, Starz, studio, Television