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Music Supervisors Celebrate Finally Winning Recognition From Creative Arts Emmys

Emmy Awards category growth continues apace.

For the first time this September, music supervision will be rewarded with an Emmy.

Rules for the new category, the sixth for music, defines it as “exceptional creative contributions to a program through the use of music, including the narrative impact of lyric-based songs, both original and pre-existing, the use of instrumental source music, and on-camera musical performances.”

Music supervisors have been lobbying for this honor for more than five years. They were finally allowed to join the TV Academy in 2015 and, three months ago, they were granted their own category.

“The job of music supervision has evolved, from what was once primarily an administrative task to becoming a creative and artistic one,” says Michael A. Levine, one of the Academy’s two music governors and a longtime advocate for the new category.

“The music supervision field has been overlooked for a long time,” adds Thomas Golubic, whose song choices were a highlight of both “Six Feet Under” and “Breaking Bad,” and who has entered episodes of “Better Call Saul,” “Love” and “Halt and Catch Fire” in this year’s competition. “We feel that this is something that we’ve earned.”

About 75 shows have been entered for the new category, but snaring one of those five nomination slots won’t be easy. Each entrant must complete a questionnaire demanding details about their work on the show: What exactly was their creative contribution? How did songs enhance the narrative?

Even experienced TV people weren’t entirely sure what a music supervisor did before Guild of Music Supervisors president John Houlihan and vice president Tracy McKnight, late last year, went before the board of governors to present their case. “We are an important part of the storytelling process,” says Mc-
Knight, who has entered her work on “Outsiders.” “We help create the musical landscape.”

More specifically, Academy rules say, a music supervisor “creatively contributes to the story, character development and overall narrative of a program by engaging in song selection, guiding original song creation and production, overseeing on-camera music performances, participating in the creative aspects of music spotting, and contributing to the creation of a unique music aesthetic.”

Says Nora Felder, music supervisor for “Ray Donovan,” “Stranger Things” and “The OA”: “Finding that right song or songs to play behind a character, whose strength is in what is not → said, is far from obvious. Oftentimes, where we land musically is very far from where we began. That, to me, is simultaneously the hardest and the most rewarding experience.”

She adds with a laugh, “To be able to complete the message, whatever that may be, in such a subliminal manner, is painfully exhilarating.”

Not yet clear is whether shows whose songs are performed on-camera will have any kind of advantage over those in which songs are simply heard on the soundtrack. “Outsiders,” for example, involves scenes of Appalachian folk music and homemade instruments; Fox’s “Empire” is filled with hip-hop tracks that are created specifically for the series.

“There are so many moving pieces,” says Jen Ross, music supervisor for “Empire” and “Star.” “Not only do you have to creatively hit the mark, you also have to hit it from a functional perspective, and you’re doing it within a TV timeframe,” she notes. Sometimes a song must be written, demo’d, recorded by the actor, and then filmed, often in just a matter of a few days.

Yet shows whose music deepens the drama are also likely to be on that final list. The songs of “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix show about teen suicide, range from ’80s-era hits to the more recent Lord Huron ballad “The Night We Met” that became a sensation after its use on the show.

“Lyrics were extremely important,” says Season Kent, who supervises music on the show and notes that showrunner Brian Yorkey is a Tony-winning lyricist (“Next to Normal”). “Every song was very specific to what was going on in the story – the mystery, the darkness, a love song, a haunting song.”

Unlike the other five music categories, which undergo screenings to determine the nominees, the entire 400-member music branch will be able to choose both nominees and the eventual winner, according to Academy executives.

But, with so many factors in play, what should voters consider?

“Ultimately, it is what best services the storytelling,” says Golubic. “It’s what is helping to advance the story as far as character and story goes.”

Golubic acknowledges that “those can be very subjective to align. Music supervision is also about the complexities of putting together a vision; if you’re looking at a show that’s very music-intensive, that can be complicated and challenging. Do you feel engaged in the music choices, or feel a sense of surprise or adventure? [The music can transport you] to greater immersion into the experience of narrative storytelling.”

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