So You Want to be a Music Supervisor?
I want to begin by letting you know that you can become a music supervisor. If it is your dream, I urge you to follow it. I’ve often tried to be realistic but encouraging while discussing this job and the path to get there. This column is meant to give you a broad overview of what this career entails in order to help you to make a more informed decision on whether or not it’s something you want to pursue.
When teaching a course on music supervision at UCLA extension this past semester, I began the class with a question: “By a show of hands, who thinks they have good taste in music?” It was unanimous and expected — every student thought they had pristine taste, just as I had a decade ago when I started my journey into music supervision. But I quickly learned that a passion and ear for music, while vital, were only small parts of what it takes to be a music supervisor.
By definition, a music supervisor oversees all aspects of music in a project. This can include everything from working with a composer to pitching songs to managing a budget to negotiating deals — the list goes on. Collaboration is truly at the heart of this job. A good music supervisor must be open-minded, easily able to assimilate and prepared to be the calm in the middle of a storm (of which there are many).
Starting out as a production assistant on a network TV show prepared me well for this career. At 22, with a lack of inhibition and a concrete vision of where I wanted to go, I was doing everything I could to make it known that I wanted to be a music supervisor: reading scripts and handing out mix CDs to writers; sitting in the edit bay and pitching songs to editors; discussing music with other assistants and the showrunner. The importance of being a production assistant was immeasurable; I gained a firsthand understanding of the diverse and sometimes conflicting personalities that work on a TV show, as well as the structure of power, the dynamics of relationships, and, ultimately, how decisions are made.
In a crowded room, there’s no room for ego. On any given project, I’m working with a team of creatives that may all have very different thoughts on what the sound of the project might be. Music is the universal language after all, and, as a result, everyone believes they are fluent in it.
On some of my very first projects, I learned an important lesson: taste is subjective. What I personally believe works best for a scene may not actually be the right song for that moment — or may not best serve the narrative. We carry our own emotional weight with us and that can shade how we perceive a certain song or how it complements a specific story. It’s important to step back and be unbiased in helping fill out someone else’s work.
My job is that of the mediator, the liaison, the voice of reason and often the bearer of bad news (i.e. No, unfortunately, we cannot afford this Rolling Stones song). At the end of the day, my responsibility is to fulfill the director or showrunner’s vision, whether or not I fully share in it.
How involved I am in the creative process of this is generally up to the director or showrunner. S/he may want my input, to fully take over creative or to simply sit back and clear the songs s/he has put into the film. I may end up doing only creative or only clearance; most often it’s a combination of the two.
Like most gigs in the entertainment industry, music supervision requires a varied skillset — although I’d argue at the core you must be a people person. On any given day, you’re engaging with different personalities, people in different tiers of power who have conflicting perspectives as well as artists, labels, managers, etc. You’re always straddling a line as a music supervisor.
You’re employed by the production and working with them to put together a cohesive soundtrack that everyone is excited about — that you can also afford. So you need to be able to negotiate and land a deal that that production feels is a good one. Simultaneously, you’re working with labels and publishers every day of the week, and you want to make sure that the agreement with them is fair and that they feel appropriately compensated for their musician’s art.
One of my biggest fears is having an artist feel like we have undervalued their work. The stark reality is that the money is just not always there; budgets are a sliding scale, they can change in an instant, and they rarely reflect what you wish you could offer an artist. All you can do is offer what you have and know that if it doesn’t work out this time, it’ll hopefully come back around. Having the opportunity over the last several years to work with up-and-coming artists (who have since blown up) such as Fletcher, Dagny and MILCK in creating original songs and covers, as well as world premieres, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.
There’s no set path to becoming a music supervisor, which can be both exciting and daunting. It’s not as simple as connecting the dots — but you do have the ability to create your own path. Friends of mine in the industry have worked under other supervisors (perhaps the most common way into the field), while others have come into it through DJing, working at a label or managing an artist.
In an already relationship-based industry, this is a particularly relationship-heavy sector — supervisors often look to establish long lasting relationships with prominent filmmakers or showrunners, hoping to enjoy the journey with the creatives along many mediums and many projects.
I’ve been fortunate enough to cultivate such working partnerships and ultimately friendships – working with directors on multiple films, and showrunners and writers across various TV shows. I’ve worked with a lot of writers I PA’d for in the past already – and have more projects coming down the pipeline.
It’s often believed there are two types of jobs: fun jobs and boring jobs. What gets lost in this idea is that fun jobs can also be a lot of work. Music supervision is and has always been my dream job and it is immeasurably fun — at times. It is also a lot of grueling paperwork, mindless data entry, tedious budget management and frustrating negotiation.
All of this is not meant to take away the magic and immensely emotionally gratifying aspect of music supervision. It is not lost on me that I have found myself in a position that I dreamed about when I was a kid, being able to work on films and television shows that I am a massive fan of — and to create their soundtracks using artists that I absolutely love.
Passion is what fueled me into this career, forced me to find a path — because there was no backup plan, no alternative. And it continues to be passion that keeps me employed, inspired and excited. It takes time to nurture your love for something when that something becomes your career, your livelihood, your paycheck. But it’s that little reminder of what got me here in the first place that has me looking forward to what’s yet to come.
(Photo credit: Eunbyul Lee)
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