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At State of Music in Media Conference, Demystifying the Role of Music Supervisor

The job of a music supervisor is largely misunderstood, according to panelists at the Guild of Music Supervisors State of Music in Media Conference, who said their role is as much about detective and curatorial work as it is about sound-tracking. “I love creating something new with audio and picture, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Maggie Phillips, who handles song chores for the FX series “Fargo.”  Speaking last night at USC’s Bovard Auditorium as part of the “Emmy TV Music Supervision Deep Dive,” Phillips said people considering a career as a music supervisor need to know “it’s not a sexy job.”

Although the field attracts people who are passionate about music, compromise is a key skill, according to Zach Cowie, who with Kerri Drootin supervises the Netflix series “Master of None.” “Having your awesome mix tape does help, but you’ll rarely get to use those songs, because the project you’re working on doesn’t have room.” The third annual GMS Conference was a curtain-raiser on a new partnership between the guild and USC, which is developing a masters degree in music supervision that may be offered as soon as next year, according Paul Young, chair of the USC Thornton School of Music’s Music Industry Program.

Cowie urged the audience of 500 to “teach yourself something about music every single day.” When “Master of None” co-creator and star Aziz Ansari became a fan of the ᾿60s Italian pop singer Mina and made her “the guiding voice for the season” it helped that Cowie was steeped in scores of Ennio Morricone and could even recommend some obscure Italian tunes.

One song, Lucio Battisti’s “Amarsi Un Po,” wound up closing an episode that was in turn named for the song. “That was a really big deal to me, but what was even more important was the guy, Battisti, who was  as popular as the Beatles in Italy in the ᾿60s through ᾿80s, never allowed his music to be licensed outside of Italy,” Cowie said, describing how Drootin spent months chasing  rights. “We cleared it the day before we had to mix the episode,” Cowie said.

“Atlanta” music supervisor Jen Malone described a similar challenge clearing “Let Me Find Out” by Doe B two years after the artist was killed. “It came out on a mix tape on Warner, which didn’t own the publishing, but I managed to track it down on Instagram, then find the lawyers for the estate, who didn’t really understand the process, so we weren’t sure if it was gonna happen.”

The importance of a fallback plan was something on which all panelists agreed. “As supervisors we’re not only curators but we are trying to deliver an idea,” said SuperMusicVision chief Thomas Golubić, who oversees tracks on “Better Call Saul” and “The Walking Dead” and was recently named president of the Guild of Music Supervisors. “There are times we can’t get the song either because there’s a publisher that’s unwilling to work with us, or has unrealistic notions of the value is of the copyright, or an artist says no. It’s an ecosystem. You need to have many solutions.”

As a composer, Jeff Russo – who just won the Emmy for original series music for “Fargo” after being nominated for each of its three years– said art of his job is to fill in any music gaps.  “Maybe the music doesn’t need to score to scene, but to help the scene rather than moving around with the picture, so treating [score] more like a song, where it stands on its own.” Russo said he’s been asked f a license falls through, sometimes score can step up. “I’ve been asked to replace a song because either they couldn’t clear the song, didn’t have enough money for the song or never found the right song.”

As professionals, most supervisors have learned not to get too passionately attached to the idea of a particular song “because the odds of it not working out always exist,” Cowie added. That’s not to say diligence doesn’t pay off. Pursuing Tupac Shakur was an exercise in working obscure channels, including distant relatives. “Uncle Tony, who I’d never met, runs a hip hop recording studio in New York and it all worked out,” shared Drootin (prompting moderator John Horn, host of KPCC’s 89.3’s “The Frame,” to observe “there’s a fine line between being a music supervisor and a stalker!”).

Manish Raval, a music supervisor on USA’s “Mr. Robot” and HBO’s “Girls,” has also coordinated music for several Peter and Bobby Farrelly films. Raval recalled trying to license Steely Dan songs for the risqué 1998 comedy “There’s Something About Mary.” “We sent them the script, and the response was ‘Are you kidding?’ Then movie came out and it was huge. The next Farrelly brothers film was ‘Me, Myself and Irene,’ so we went back and said, ‘We want to do all Steely Dan covers,’ and they said ‘Sure!’”

Use of music to help actors understand a character or create a mood on-set is becoming somewhat standard for certain types of project. Since “Master of None” show runners Alan Yang and Ansari “are such music people, they use music on the set a lot to get actors to the right place quickly,” Cowie said, noting, there were lots of songs “we knew would never get into the show” that would nonetheless wind up on make mix tapes to help actors “get into the zone.”

Golubić cautions that can come with risks. ‟Sometimes they’ll record a scene with music in the background that hasn’t been cleared. If it can be removed in post, great. If not, they can’t use that scene, and they’re like ‘Who is the idiot that sent over a Kanye West song?’ It can be nerve-wracking, but if the team is professional it can be very exciting to have music inform what’s happening on the set,” Golubić said.

The importance of music editors was also emphasized. ‟Cold Case” composer Michael Levine, a Television Academy music governor, recalled one instance where the show learned they’d been turned down on the license for a key piece of music “on the stage the last day of mixing the dub.” Levine suggested a substitute from a friend’s independent album. “She owned both sides, the publishing and the performance. Everyone loved it, but there was one problem: it had the F-bomb in the lyric, but the music editor was able to artfully work around it.”

“Atlanta” music editor Isaac Hagy memorably selected Outkast’s “Elevators (Me & You)” to play over the closing moments of the season one finale. In general, the music pros agreed they prefer to use songs they’re introducing to the show’s audience. “We like to be contrarians and find music people haven’t heard,” Hagy said. “This was the opposite, but by saving that song for the final moment of the season, I kind of felt like we earned it.” Hagy “tried to undermine” the song’s celebrity “by cutting out at certain points then bringing it back in, and holding off on the chorus till the very end.”

“Atlanta” music supervisor Jen Malone said showcasing indie artists is “something we love to do.” Indie songs can help define a series, and inclusion can be a life-changing event for the performer, she said. Cowie also spoke up for the role of record stores in fueling creativity. “I’m in a record store three or four times a week,” said the Chicago native, who estimates he owns 10,000 vinyl albums. “I’m going to Japan on Saturday strictly to shop for records. Record stores are still here and they’re kind of better than ever because they have to be to survive all this.”

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