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Just a few of the panels and presentations from the Guild of Music Supervisors State of Music in Media Conference earlier this month.

The secret to getting your music placed in film and television?

Don’t piss off Music Supervisors.

I’m joking of course (CALM DOWN)….but we are a deeply close and very passionate community. If you burn one of us, be it a clearance issue or say, a published article, there is a good chance the word will spread, and quickly. It’s honestly one of the things I love most about being a Music Supervisor: we protect our own and we defend our craft.

In the past month or so there have been a couple articles that have incensed this vocal community.

TV and Film Music Supervisors Are Killing Real Songwriting (LA Weekly)

War Dogs, Suicide Squad and The Lost Art of The Movie Soundtrack (Flavorwire)

Why have these frustrated Music Supervisors so much? They are based upon a lack of education and incorrect assumptions about what the job of a Music Supervisor actually entails. Not that it’s surprising. The job title has been thrown around so much in the media lately it’s no wonder the general public has a skewed opinion. Very few people – even within the entertainment industry – have any idea what we really do.

I don’t have any incisive responses that haven’t already been covered (with style and sass) by my colleagues. Michael Perlmutter’s response on the Instinct Entertainment website is a must-read. Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to address several of these major misconceptions about the craft of Music Supervision – some that are perpetuated in these articles, and some that I’ve found working in the field or heard regularly lamented by peers.

1. Music Supervisors are only responsible for picking songs.

Many seem to think he who has the best taste in music makes the best Music Supervisor. I can’t tell you how many intern interviews start with, “I’m always making mixtapes for my friends….” thinking all we do each day is sit around and make playlists for emotionally reflective or falling in love montages. If it was that simple do you think the Guild of Music Supervisors would have put on a day-long conference with 15+ panels and presentations about the role a few weeks ago? Take a look at the photos throughout this article and you’ll get an idea of just how broad and complicated the job can be. While a passion for music is of course essential and good taste is certainly an asset, knowing which indie band will break in six months is not a prerequisite. If it was I would have gotten out of this career 7 years ago (I’ve fooled you all).

For the most comprehensive definition of the role of a Music Supervisor, click here to read the description on the Guild Of Music Supervisors website. I won’t copy it here, because you’ll find it’s likely much longer than you thought.

In short, most Music Supervisors working regularly in the role will tell you the job is something like 70% business and administrative and 30% creative. Yes, some days are spent searching for songs for specific scenes, general show or film playlists and so forth, but more often than not the hours are consumed by any number of the below (and more):

  • Researching, creating, issuing, negotiating and tracking song clearances
  • Various meetings and calls with filmmakers, showrunners, producers (Spotting Sessions, Score Reviews, Production Meetings, etc.)
  • Liaising with studio creative and legal executives regarding budgets and alerting them to potential issues coming their way whether you’re working to solve them or need assistance
  • Connecting the dots between arrangers, contractors, musicians, producers, engineers, recording studios, production personnel (Assistant Directors, UPM, Production Sound Mixer, Playback Operator, Music Editor….even Props and Costumes) and more to execute on camera performances
  • Reading scripts and watching cuts – making sure no red flags emerge in new versions of the content
  • Generally attempting to keep up with the tidal wave of emails from labels, publishers and third-party pitching companies sending music, show invites, checking in on needs, following up on music sent, etc. (I’m not complaining about the free music – live or digitally! I’m very appreciative!)

2. Clearance is as simple (and quick) as asking permission to use a song.

If you read the above and are now thinking, “How much time can song clearance and sending emails really take?” The short answer is that it can take a very long time, and a great deal of energy. The research on a single song can take days – believe it or not, not every company’s song catalog is perfectly in order (yes even some well-known major labels and publishers). Extracting and puzzling together information can be time-consuming. One song can yield six or more clearance forms being sent, followed up on, multiple fee and rights negotiations, shaking loose split discrepancies…and that’s before you get to confirmation letters for each licensor and license paperwork. For more on this, please read the article 12 Myths and Misunderstandings About Clearing Music.

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3. We just use the music we personally like.

A good Music Supervisor knows it is their responsibility to seek the optimal music to enhance the picture and the story being told (or brand being sold). In our world, the music has to support and enhance the picture. It cannot compete, distract or draw attention away from what the viewer is seeing.

To that end, when we begin the process of generating song ideas for a scene we do not start with our personal favorites at the moment, we start with the scene itself. What is happening in the scene? Will the song be in the background (e.g. diegetic in a bar or grocery store, for example) or more featured? What is the time period? What are the characters feeling? What do we want the audience to feel? Do we want them to laugh, cry, think, sigh, be angry or frustrated?

Creative and emotional goals aside, there are the less “sexy” parameters to address as well. Is the scene or content long or short? What is the budget? Is there a lot of important dialogue happening at the same time? Does it need to hit multiple emotional beats or tempos? Which brings me to my point:

Not every song is right for sync.

I’ve moderated two different panels at South By Southwest on this very topic – Music Supervisors, licensors, artists and songwriters agree that some song structures and themes lend themselves to commercials, others to film and television, other to trailers. And some songs are just inherently very, very difficult to place. The reasons though are not made up by Music Supervisors, they are dictated by the medium.

Commercials are often short and need to be easily adapted to different lengths, so songs need to get to the theme or message very quickly and that message needs to be very clear lyrically and tonally in order to sell a product.

There is generally considered to be more flexibility in film and television. There is a wider range of needs, and uses aren’t confined to a 30 second segment; a song can play out over the course of a 3:00 scene. That said, it can happen that a song will fit the desired feel and action at the start of a montage….but then if the sequence takes a dark turn that ukelele is suddenly out of place and we’re unable to use the song. We also sometimes have to deal with lesser budgets, and less frequently seek instrumental only music (e.g. score or orchestral music production libraries) than our counterparts in trailers or advertisements.

Still though, there are some notes that I’ve heard given again and again by colleagues on panels regardless of the media: avoid using specific names or places, or specific stories. Such things make songs very difficult to place.

For example, “The Curse” by Josh Ritter is one of my favorite songs – it’s a compelling and emotional story. But even if I were to come across a scene describing lost love, the passage of time, etc. the song still tells the very specific tale of a mummy. It stands so on it’s own that consciously or not, viewers would be forced to follow the on-screen story or that of the song.

If you don’t believe me, try some songs up to a picture and you’ll see. That’s how I learned.

What does work then? Universal themes. A specific point of view. High-quality production. Passion. Deliberate and/or bold choices. At the end of the day, what we music-loving Music Supervisors want to hear is the best version of your authentic voice and vision. One never knows when a need for “Vampire Weekend with an Asian influence” will arise (true story).

As Michael says in his piece, “If the music is good, virtually anything and everything can be synced in the right project.”

….And if you feel like the parameters of media are stifling your creativity as a songwriter – then don’t do it! Just don’t blame Music Supervisors please.

4. Music Supervisors are the final decisionmakers

Quite the opposite! Like any role in a production, we don’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a collaboration. While a Music Supervisor is frequently the originator of ideas that we then submit to a director, producer or editor for review – we are rarely the final word. In no particular order here are some of the other people that often have a valued opinion in the music selections for film, television, commercials and advertisements and I’m likely missing some:
Director, Showrunner, Producers, Editors, Executives from multiple studios and production companies, Writer, Distributor, Creative Director, CEO, CFO, CCO, Agency President, Agency President’s Daughter, Director’s wife, Focus groups and test audiences, etc.

We may be hired to oversee the music needs on a project, but that doesn’t mean all parties defer to our creative vision, even when we work every angle to sell them on something we are excited about. I recall one major movie I worked on where the end title song that wound up in the film was the one that 5 out of the 8 people with approval power agreed upon. It wasn’t decided by the Music Supervisor, or even the Director, it was chosen by committee.

The bottom line, in the world of synchronizing music in media, passion, hard work, diligence, education and collaboration are all essential tools for success. Keeping those front of mind will get you much farther than the coolest iTunes library. Neglect any of the above and well, you might just find yourself the topic conversation at pre-show drinks for a month.

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  • Thanks for sharing your insights, Amanda. I can understand the frustration supes must feel when reading unfair criticisms. The disgruntled songwriter piece is biased, resentful and largely misinformed. That being said, the article about War Dogs does seem to reflect a really unimaginative, on the nose approach by whoever called the final shots on music selection in it, wouldn’t you say?

  • Fantastic article; thank you for sharing. So many positions surrounding music (and even radio) emit a perception of all fun, all creativity, all party. But it takes a business angle, a sense of objectivity, and a sharp organization to make it seem effortless. Thanks again!

  • @tbturdsday

    I got your pro rata, mfn, 9%split, spot note, temp love, montage, end credits right the f*ck here!