Among all the skills necessary for a music supervisor to master, perhaps the most difficult is how to be an ally to everyone. No two collaborators are the same. Different taste. Different agendas. Different levels of tech savviness. The list goes on. Producers, Studio Executives, Music Editors, Editors, family friends, spouses…I’ve seen all of these folks be called in to submit their opinions on song selection at one time or another. Of course, the most important person to please on the creative team is the director. The director needs to feel taken care of, confident that you are doing everything in your power to serve their vision and make their precious baby come to life exactly how they’d like (which I don’t mean in a derogatory way – I’m sure any director will agree to the film/baby analogy).
But it’s not just those making the film or television show that a music supervisor has to attend to. Even when there are zero dollars in the budget to bargain with, labels and publishers also need to feel appreciated and valued. To know that you are always fighting to get their artists paid what they are worth. It’s their job to support their artists, and to do so they need you to support them. For a music supervisor, problems arise when these two core desires (to complete the director’s vision and ability to pay artists a good/fair price) come into direct conflict.
It’s up to the music supervisor to step in and keep everyone happy. To find a good compromise. To manage expectations. More often than not, these issues stem from an inadequate understanding of music licensing on the part of a filmmaker. I’m not blaming anyone for this – except maybe film schools who don’t mandate music clearance 101 as part of their curriculums. My heart goes out to any director with whom I have had to break the news that the major label song they are attached to is not going to fall under their budget of a few thousand dollars. Why? Because I care about the director’s vision. About telling a great story the best way possible. That’s why I’m in this field, that’s why I will always put forth my very best effort to get good fees on those tracks the filmmakers adore. On the flipside though, I can’t get mad or indignant when a label laughs in my face when I tell them fee I’m hoping for. I know what I’m asking. And I do feel a guilty for asking it.
But I digress. This post isn’t to teach music clearance. It’s about managing expectations. There are several frustrating situations that can arise when it comes to music clearance, and that filmmakers may not anticipate…
Music is expensive! This simple truth seems to shock content creators the most. Yes, you have to pay for music, and yes it can get very, very expensive. An “inexpensive” cue in a feature film can be between $2K – $5K. A huge song can run you upwards of $100K. Seriously. Sure there are many factors that affect the price (term, timing, territory, rights, media) and there is always room for negotiation, but odds are if a song typically goes for $50K, even a documentary exposing kitten slavery in blood diamond mines won’t negate you having to pay at least some money.
Sometimes content can work for you – maybe you want to use an artist’s song in a documentary about a cause they are really passionate about (see above-referenced kitten documentary). Maybe the artist requests to read the script and falls in love with it. Maybe they have always wanted to have their music associated with [insert auteur director’s name here] and their work. But these factors can also work against you. Maybe you want to use a song in a scene making fun of that band or the song. Or in a graphic rape scene. Or in a movie detailing the history of abortions. Yikes. I’m being extreme here, but just as you never know what type of content an artist will support…it’s difficult to predict exactly what an artist (or label) will deny. We had artists deny uses on The Biggest Loser and that show actually helps people!
3. Something else completely out of your control!
And sometimes there are just extenuating circumstances that only someone with years of experience can advise you on. Which songs or artists are easy to clear, shouldn’t be touched with a ten-foot pole. You may think these are easy to predict – more popular the song, the more expensive, right?
Often, but not always. There are both iconic and indie artists that notoriously just do not clear. Maybe they will only license for television, but never for films. Some artists are flexible except for when it comes to certain songs in their catalog which they simply refuse to license, period. Other times it’s completely reliant on the dollar signs, how much money you can offer.
Remember, cost is not determined by your perceived value of a song – it’s how much the label, writer or artist thinks their music is worth.
A good music supervisor will be able to advise you through what may appear to be a minefield of obstacles that can blow up your director’s vision at every step. There is no published guide detailing every potential issue for every song or artist from now until forever; even if past experience indicates a song may be a challenge, there is never any harm in asking. Your music supervisor will know who and what to ask, and how to strategize for the best possible result, whatever it turns out to be.
As daunting as all of this information may seem, you’re already better off than you were at the start of this article. You’re aware of the pitfalls and can be ready if you happen to encounter one, much better than getting taken by surprise. And it never hurts to have a back-up plan.