Obsessing over needle drops on buzzy shows has become a fun pastime in the era of peak TV. But music supervisor Jen Malone, whose credits include “Euphoria,” “The Offer,” “Atlanta,” “Yellowjackets” and many other series, warns us not to forget our TV history.
“Music has always been a part of the storytelling process,” she points out. Even in the broadcast era.
We may not remember these moments because, in many cases, songs that aired on TV episodes then were cleared for one-time use and stripped out of repeats.
Sadly, I was too young to remember “WKRP in Cincinnati” during its original CBS run, but I will never forget the tearful scene where the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” played on ABC’s “The Wonder Years” in 1991 or Billy Vera and the Beaters’ “At This Moment” punctuated a key romantic moment on NBC’s “Family Ties.”
More attention was paid to the role of TV series music supervisors during the 2000s, with shows like “The O.C.” on Fox elevating the visibility of this unsung, yet crucial part, of the show-making process. Studios realized it was important enough to license those tracks in perpetuity. And of course, social media has further helped create a dialogue about music on TV — and the artisans tasked with making it all happen.
“It’s so much more part of the conversation,” Malone acknowledges. And yet, it’s been a long road for those in the field to get to Television Academy and Emmy recognition: Music supervisors only gained entry to the org’s music branch in 2015, and finally got their own category in 2017.
Even then, it came with a bit of controversy: With no policing over who could be nominated in the music supervision category, showrunners who contributed musical ideas to their shows began popping up in the field. That’s how Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” received Emmys in the category, alongside music supervisor Robin Urdang, in 2018, 2019 and 2020. (Last year, Ryan Murphy was nominated with others for “Halston”).
A rule change has closed that loophole: As of this year, entrants must be a credited music supervisor, and that on-screen credit “must reflect their primary function.”
Says Malone: “The acknowledgement of our job and our contribution to the shows as the head of the department is extremely validating.”
But she says there are still some false impressions about her field. “There’s legwork and nuances and special skills to be able to get the songs that the director and the music supervisor collaborate on, and what the director ultimately picks,” she says. “The other misconception is that we sit around and listen to music all day. That is definitely not our job. We have to look over every single aspect, whether that’s creating original music for the show, creating an original song, creating an original soundtrack, putting together artists and songwriters.”
Budgets have ballooned for prestige TV, but music teams are usually the first to feel the pinch when dollars are cut. “When special effects goes over budget, or production design, they come take money out of the music budget,” Malone says. “And then we are left to be extremely creative. Music is so important and so high- profile right now, but budgets are not matching that, and it makes our job much more difficult.”
Sounds like the network and studio bean counters need to get in tune with the times.