Music can be one of the most frustrating parts of the creative process for filmmakers and directors.
Finding suitable music, pacing it to visuals and securing all the necessary rights to use it can easily tug at a director’s attention, distracting their focus from the project as a whole. These factors can also threaten a creative team’s ability to complete a project on time and within budget. Enter the music supervisor. Here, we’ll break down what music supervisors do, why they’re helpful and how their assistance can bring your project to the next level.
What Music Supervisors Do
The Guild of Music Supervisors defines a music supervisor as “a qualified professional who oversees all music related aspects of film, television, advertising, video games and any other existing or emerging visual media platforms as required.”
This short definition encompasses a large list of responsibilities. For instance, on any given project, a music supervisor may:
- Find and hire any music-related talent, like composers, arrangers, performers, engineers or any other party required to fulfil the project’s musical vision
- Serve as a communications link among a project’s directors, artists, designers, camera or animation staff, editors, engineers, financial backers, and other interested parties
- Develop a budget for music associated with the project and stick to it
- Participate in creating a project schedule and ensure that necessary music-related tasks are carried out on time in order to help keep the project on schedule
- Secure necessary legal rights for the use of music in the project, such as licenses
- Evaluate options like the release of soundtrack albums and pursue these where appropriate
Because music supervisors wear many hats, they often have a clear overview of the process as a whole, notes Sokanu. They can also be essential to the success of a project.
Why Your Project Needs a Music Supervisor
“One big oversight that I see within in the DIY filmmaking movement is in music licensing,” Sheri Candler at MovieMaker writes. “Without the proper music clearances, a film can go from poised to explode on the market to a wasted effort only your kids will see.” The solution? Working with a music supervisor.
“Since many filmmakers are more visual than musical, it can be helpful to have someone around to translate the sometimes vague ideas of a director into concrete musical directives a composer can follow,” Justin Morrow writes at No Film School. Music supervisors can help ensure that the sound punctuates the visuals at precisely the right emotional pitch. They can ensure that the power of silence is harnessed at the right points, too. A good music supervisor is an expert at “riding the narrative,” Morrow notes, citing music supervisor and winner of the first-ever Emmy Award for music production Susan Jacobs, who spoke to a panel audience at 2014 IFP Film Week.
Since filmmakers, ad directors and similar creatives tend to think visually, a music supervisor can help blend sounds seamlessly into the narrative, setting the pace for transitions and drawing viewers’ attention to key points in both the narrative itself and the emotional tone it seeks to present.
Where Music Supervisors Are Making Their Marks Right Now
Documentaries and independent films are enjoying a rise in popularity, says David Powell of The Music Bridge, LLC. As in any art form, the more activity centers around filmmaking, the more artists attempt to push the boundaries of the expected, comfortable and secure.
Take, for example, what Jen Malone and Fam Rothstein are doing with the music on the show Atlanta. That show has captivated so, so many people because it strives to capture the authentic essence of the city. A big part of what has made Atlanta, the city, so special over the last several decades is its music scene. “It’s all about authenticity,” Malone told Pigeons and Planes back in March. “When there’s a scene taking place at a strip club, we’re going to place music that’s being played right now at the strip clubs.”
That’s not grittiness for the sake of being gritty. Strip clubs are an important node in the city’s cultural network. Google “magic city hip hop” if you’re not at work and curious to know more.
As a medium, television and its short production cycles let music directors tap into culture as its happening, says Lindsay Wolfington, who has worked on shows such as The Royals and One Tree Hill.
“On One Tree Hill, I would get a song one week and two weeks later I could have it in the show and on the air,” she tells Synchblog. “I was able to be super current, whereas in film and actually even with the cable shows I work on now, I start so many months in advance that I’m calling labels and publishers saying, “What’s coming out five months from now?”
For films — and, increasingly, for advertising as well — the result has been more complex use of visuals, pacing and juxtapositions. This means that the demands placed on a project’s musical soundtrack have risen as well, Powell notes.
Television is also “having a moment,” says music producer Maggie Phillips, which has raised the profile of music producers — but which has not helped many in the industry better understand what music producers do.
“The creative is a really small part of the job,” Phillips tells Creative Future. “The music clearance process is extremely time-consuming and challenging, especially when you’re working with a budget.”
According to Phillips, clearances — obtaining the proper rights to the music to permit its use in a finished piece — require supervisors to juggle numerous contracts, negotiate with multiple parties, and think carefully through the precise ways in which both the music itself and the finished work as a whole will be used, distributed and displayed.
Phillips notes that “managing relationships” between parties that own rights to songs and the creative team can be “taxing.”
Navigating the Thorny Legal Aspects of Licensing Music
Copyright law surrounding music is highly complex. (We have copyright and licensing guides for musicians and content creators that will give you an idea of just how complex these are.) When the work of clearing music rights is piled atop the work of creating a film or an ad, it can be all too easy for a creative team to miss some crucial detail. A music supervisor can help ensure that the project doesn’t face any unnecessary legal hurdles.
Sometimes, project staff will believe they can cut corners on music clearances. “I personally have encountered filmmakers who only cleared their film’s music tracks for festival play, thinking that a distributor would agree to pick up the clearance costs later or the advance will be big enough to pay for the clearances,” Candler at MovieMaker writes.
Music supervisor Liz Gallacher warns against such a gamble. “You have to be prepared down the road that if a distributor won’t pick up those costs and you can’t pay to clear the tracks, you have to take those tracks out,” Gallacher told Candler. “You’ll have to re-edit the film, especially if the music is cut to picture. Or you could take the music out and replace it, but it is never as good when you do that.”
The alternative? You can work with a music supervisor, who can help you not only find the right music, but ensure you can use it in every way your project demands.
Choosing the Right Music Supervisor
Music supervisors tend to specialize in particular areas of a vast field. For instance, some focus on film while others work heavily in advertising.
Reviewing inspiring ads or lists of the best recent creative work, such as this list from AdForum, can help you understand the industry and spot agencies and producers who could be a good fit for your project.
A number of online sources can link creatives to freelance music supervisors, while companies that specialize in licensing and curating music (like us!) can provide connections, as well. Choosing the right music supervisor is essential. Phillips notes that she connected with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley over a shared fondness for “weird” music. “There have been times when I’ve sent songs like [‘Yama Yama’ by the Yamazuki Singers] to people and they were like, ‘This is way too weird for me,’ but I sent it to Noah and he was like, ‘Great – send me even weirder.’ He and I just respond to the same music.”