Music Supervisors: Who Needs ‘Em?

By Ed Bailie / Leland Music

Ed Bailie gives an insight into the life of a music supervisor

Photo Credits: Gavin Whitner, 

The days of mandatory crate digging are behind us.

Digitisation has unshackled our music collections from stacks of records, tapes, CDs and now even local hard drives, and opened up a new era of all-you-can-eat music consumption. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have liberated would-be record hoarders and unleashed a new wave of playlist junkies, able to access all (well, most) of the world’s music on the go. 

So now we can all curate vast playlists with ease, are music supervisors facing an identity crisis at a potential democratisation of their craft? What’s even the point of a music supervisor now you can task anyone with access to an iPhone to pull together a playlist for you?

Here we take a deeper look at the role and purpose of a Music Supervisor.

1. Curation from the obsessives

Music supervisors are obsessive music lovers, true audio geeks, building their knowledge and music databases all day, every day. A supervisor’s toolset is their secret weapon, but one thing is for sure – their geekdom moves well beyond surface level Spotify and blog skimming. A well-versed supervisor’s music collection is a culmination of years and years curating a vast array of playlists, delving deep into research projects on specific musical topics, and building unshakable experience tailoring playlists for a broad range of clients each with a unique set of needs.

Everyone in the media industry understands that your contacts are everything, and music supervision is no exception. Being plugged in to activity from all record labels, publishers, managers, promoters and taste-makers is essential – from major players to indie upstarts – getting hold of the latest and greatest music before anyone else is a key trait for this role. Hunting out those new music gems comes with the territory, and knowing who to get them from is essential. It takes years to build close, trusting relationships with top level music industry contacts, to get insider knowledge before anyone else and ultimately to negotiate the best deals.

Another string to the bow is knowing when and how to look beyond personal taste.

For example, thinking ‘brand’ is key to a successful use of music in an advertising campaign, and it takes true research to dig into what’s right for a particular advert and the brand’s demographic. Does this artist’s public image match the brand tone of voice and long-term campaign message? Does their upcoming activity align with campaign timings? Is audience reach being maximised by engaging an artist with social media clout with the target demographic? These and more questions will be asked by a pro music supervisor, and they’ll know where to find the answers.

Additionally, thinking ‘scene’ is a complex creative craft that relies on intuition and an experienced eye & ear for true audio-visual marriage. With natural talent and time honing the craft, this is where the best of the best really stand out from the crowd… and where simply playlisting songs will not cut it. Some of the most iconic film and tv cues didn’t just copy and paste the archetype – they developed or subverted it, tried something new, and yet all the while felt naturally wedded to the moving image.

2. The art of setting a trend

Which leads to the notion that in it’s purest state, the use of music in film is as much an art form as the moving image itself – and being a part of the team that creates new and exciting art is a driving motivation for the best music supervisors.

In our ever-more connected world, successful entertainment content travels fast, and music plays a major role in that audience engagement.

Look at Netflix Original TV series Stranger Things. It’s original score drew massive attention from critics and viewers alike, striking a spellbinding balance of nostalgia and cinematic purpose. It performed wildly successfully for a TV score release, having (at the time of writing) over 5 million plays for the main theme on Spotify alone.

In feature films we’ve witnessed John Williams triumphantly neglect the golden era of Sci-Fi synthesis for his Star Wars score, Alejandro G. Iñárritu interject on-screen jazz drumming in Birdman, Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo & Juliet juxtapose Shakespeare with Butthole Surfers, and the Coen brothers amplify the suffocating landscape of No Country For Old Men with Carter Burwell’s equally sparse original score.

Take a peek too at UK retailer John Lewis and their Christmas campaigns, whose re-records of contemporary classics have landed multiple UK top 10 hit singles (including the top spot twice). Their ad launch has become an annual event signalling the arrival of Christmas, with 2016’s being the most shared ad of the year (source: Unruly).

Each of these have in common the mark of trend setting, as other media producers have quickly taken inspiration from their style (and success), adopting the new archetype.

Expressing an interesting and engaging musical idea in film can have a profound lasting impact on the viewer, helping define their own personal taste and marking a point in their memory for years to come. For music supervisors, creativity and strategy go hand in hand to make these cultural moments, and success can be defined when the artistic value of the film itself is enhanced by their work.

3. Creation from the in-tune

Art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recalled his friend J.G. Ballard stating “a curator is a junction-maker” – an essential mediator that forges collaborative relationships to enable the successful creation and amplification of art.  That rings true for the relationship builder in every music supervisor, who for example connects director to composer, and composer to performing artist… and alongside this adopts the role of editor.

The world of original composition and music production for sync is highly significant.  Be it a re-record, remix or original score – creating something new and unique for a production is a deeply involving creative process with not only many creative goals to achieve, but budgets to meet plus clients (and ultimately audiences) to please.

Effectively communicating a musical idea is daunting for the most inspiring of film makers, advertising creatives and game developers. It’s not their field to ‘talk music’, and why should it be? Collaborating with someone who can help you develop an idea and successfully direct a composer to bring it to reality is the answer. Your music supervisor should not only know (or know where to find) the right composers, producers, remixers, musicians and studios to create and record an original track for your production – but how to musically direct each contributor along the way. All on time. All on budget. All in-tune with the creative.

4. Fighting for your rights to party

And then the fun part – music licensing. Putting to task someone lacking experience in music rights to license a song that’s split across multiple publishers with differing shares by territory is not only cruel, but stacked up to end in disaster. A production can’t afford to get music rights clearances wrong, the repercussions are too great, and navigating the rights ownership minefield with unequivocal professionalism takes knowledge and experience.

Your music consultant should have the rolodex for quick music clearances, having built close relationships with rights owners and performer unions around the globe over a number of years negotiating usages for brands, feature films, computer games or television shows. Understanding how to make all this work to your schedule and budget can be make or break for ensuring your production ends up with the soundtrack you desire.

A music supervisor should know their contracts – crunching licenses, musician buyouts and other such agreements with confidence – working in their client’s best interest to ensure the clearance process and resulting paperwork is handled vigilantly and with utmost professionalism.

So back to the premise… has music supervision been democratised with the advent of instant, universal access to the world’s recorded music catalogue?

In a word…no. A successful music supervisor is the sum of many parts, and the ability to create a playlist is just a singular tool in their arsenal. To put it simply, you may own a hammer, but it doesn’t mean you can build a house

Membership to the UK and European Guild of Music Supervisors gives you access to a whole host of informative articles, workshops and more. To find out how you can become a member you can get in touch here. 

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