Once again, you find yourself staring down at the fax machine, contemplating a paper jam and wondering what the innards of this machine might look like if splayed across the ground with a baseball bat. Invariably, a certain tune pops into your head. Now that “Still” by the Geto Boys will be running through your mind all day, you can thank a music supervisor for that track’s placement in the film Office Space.
The music supervisor is primarily concerned with selecting songs to be placed in a film or television show’s soundtrack, and the licensing process necessary to clear the rights. The job starts with breaking down the script and discussing the director’s concept; this person is responsible for helping the director realize her or his vision by selecting the right song for the scene based on mood, tone, and style. In post-production the supervisor will slide placeholder songs (a.k.a. the temp track) into the film for initial review by the producer and studio, and inevitably the director will fall in love with this dream cast of tunes; the trouble starts when the supervisor must break the bad news that the production can’t afford a master recording of “Dream On.” To appease both the producer holding the purse strings and the director with a dream, the supervisor must artfully scour publishers’ catalogs (and his or her own deep musical knowledge) for a suitable, more affordable replacement. In addition to shopping for recorded material, this person also oversees all music-related business on a project; this includes assisting with the budget, working with the director to find the right composer and music editor, and coordinating soundtrack releases with record labels. The music supervisor is a wrangler and facilitator who puts together the many people that create a production’s musical backdrop, from songs to score to soundtrack.
Skills & Education
Big ears are great—the innate ability to distinguish the “it” factor of a song and skillfully match the tune to the visual medium. More than that, a music supervisor must understand song clearance, how a film is scored, and the ins and outs of editing. A college degree in entertainment business is helpful, though not required. Education in recording arts, film and television production, and entertainment law can serve to strengthen your fundamental knowledge, but the real must-have is a steel-trap grasp of synchronization, performance, and master rights. You should be well-versed in numerous musical genres and understand songcraft; courses in music history and appreciation are invaluable. To succeed in this business you must stay current, so get out to the clubs and comb the trades every morning.
What to Expect
Music supervisors are the A&R executives of the film business; they scout for new talent and always keep an eye open for the next right project. There are widely divergent paths to arrive at this career. Experience at a publishing house or record label, or time at a performing rights organization, as a licensing administrator, or as an advertising music assistant, can put in you in front of the right people and teach you the inner workings of the industry—there is no right or wrong place to start. Once you have the gig, be prepared to play the politics and be diplomatic. You work for the producer and the studio, but you must also answer to the director and try to preserve that relationship. When or if there is conflict between the two, you must find creative compromises that will maintain the integrity and quality of the project. Music supervisors can work as independent freelancers, or as a full-time employee of a film studio, game developer, television production company, or advertising agency.
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