The Song Remains the Shame '22
On the world of music supervision
Going on five years ago, Sean T. Collins and I ruminated on the ascension of the music supervisor as a distinct creative entity.
Urged by the announcement of an Emmy Award category to formalize the supremacy of one music supervisor over another, we debated the increasing ease with which films and especially streaming series were able to rent the already-established significance of a piece of music, lending emotional gravity to their disjointed Where's Wally? dioramas of pop culture callbacks. The burned CD-Rs labeled with laundry marker in Mr. Robot. Everything in Stranger Things.
On one level, anyone spun into a moralizing pique over the use of a pop song in some film is a bitter librarian cradling sacred texts they’ll only share with vetted initiates. I’ve skirted this line in the past: in the podcast above, and a DSLR rant I had out in 2018 called We Are the Music Supervisors. My chief complaint was the notion that a music supervisor should be coronated for simply being aware of popular music. What drove me to make the video was 1) the use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” as the dramatic bed for an adolescent school dance in 1983 (a choice literally anyone could have arrived at by looking at the 1983 Billboard charts), and 2) a series of interviews with the music supervisor for Atlanta, who took outsize credit for the future success of musicians she’d placed in the show, and serially demonstrated an unctuously high opinion of herself and her profession (she’s gone on to handle supervision for Euphoria, and on cursory review of some recent interviews, hasn’t changed much). But it seemed like the world’s interest in music supervision peaked around 2018, and I drifted away from paying the industry very much attention. To which 2022 has answered, “We both matter, don’t we?”
I don’t wholly reject the notion that artistic choices are being made by persons with specialized knowledge, but music cues usually break one of two ways. Using Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” as the backdrop for a supernatural event occurring in the mid-1980s is about as on-the-nose as it gets; conversely, Zach Cowie’s use of a Burundi beat standard in Master of None remains the high water mark for self-indulgent pretension.
Any cue can complement a film or show, but today showrunners want cues that generate secondary attention, that go viral. In some sense the cycle of creating thousands of The World’s Biggest Kate Bush Fans (for the Next Two Weeks) is akin to the UK’s timeworn Christmas #1, an ahistoric meme enjoyed by an entire nation that doesn’t require a multimillion-dollar Netflix series (although plenty of BBC series have pulled off the same trick, cf. The Office and Yazoo). Happenstance associations like these can become cultural flashpoints from any direction; the songs chosen for Levi’s commercials in the ‘80s and ‘90s repopularized dozens of stagnating artists and genres (point of fact: this is where I first heard Eddie Cochran). Modern examinations of the phenomenon will invariably mention Volkswagen’s use of “Pink Moon,” José González’s “Heartbeats,” or the Shins’ “New Slang” in a McDonald’s commercial, but these are transactional, point-in-time marriages of art and commerce. Using music to heighten the resonance of an evolving, evergreen cinematic narrative is a dicier business, yet it’s nothing new.
I haven’t seen analogies drawn to the specific history of recontextualizing the past as per films like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. These films did almost exactly what a show like Stranger Things is doing today: they told stories of an era in a tone that was inaccessible to the popular entertainment of that era. Themes of alcohol and drug use, violence, and broken families on down to subtler notes like sarcasm and sexual tension (or indeed sexuality) were code-struck in the 1950s; no filmmaker could employ the level of nuance and realism that George Lucas did in the 1970s with American Graffiti. Adam Goldberg’s character in Dazed is clearly either gay or drawn to lifestyle choices that would make him a social pariah in his hometown; his anxiety is gloriously believable and it’s a rare if vague early example of representation (you know, beyond Duckie). Cinema of the late-1970s is endlessly celebrated for its “grit” and the auteurs it surfaced, but on the whole transgressive films like Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver — while no less important for widening cultural mores — are histrionic in their self-seriousness. In a word, they’re unsympathetic.
Sympathy is at the core of all complaints regarding the use and abuse of pop music in modern streaming series. Using familiar and/or powerful music lends those qualities to shows that haven’t earned it through storytelling. You’re made to care about one thing because you already care about another, a transitive trick that excuses a lack of literary skill with the charisma and rhetoric of its staging. One could easily level this complaint at Dazed and Confused were it released today, but the 1970s were thematically deeply uncool when it arrived, and the practice of mining the past for contextual assistance was in its infancy.
Richard Linklater was able to license monumental American rock music for Dazed and Confused for next-to-nothing because he was so far ahead of the curve: he was pitching a film industry that spent the 1980s sourcing new music above all else, in order to earn credibility with teenage audiences. John Hughes was the uncontested king of this age: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was explicitly written for The Breakfast Club; Pretty in Pink was arguably the most artistically significant soundtrack of the 1980s (you leave Nik Kershaw alone); and it’s presently relevant to point out that Kate Bush’s audience grew factorially via “This Woman’s Work,” which debuted in Hughes’ She’s Having a Baby almost two years before appearing on The Sensual World. I haven’t even mentioned Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the insane diegetic soundtrack in Sixteen Candles, and this is just John Hughes movies. Cameron Crowe’s tribute to Hughes — 1989’s Say Anything — revitalized youth interest in Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and its balladeering 1986 parent LP So, which further benefitted Kate Bush (honestly, 1988-89 was far more her year than 2022).
Without getting into diegetic vs. non-diegetic cues, and all the boring lexicography music supervisors use to reassure themselves they’re creatives and not bullshitters getting away with listening to music for a living, I have to shatter the jewel for anyone fantasizing about this as some sort of dream job: Music supervision is subrights1 with eyeliner. The Decision Tree isn’t some new midwest emo tribute act, and it does not rock (on the other hand, all that time you spent on Tiermaker might pay off). Listening to music is maybe 10% of this gig; the other 90% is staring at Smartsheets and reducing the music that means so much to you; that changed your life; soundtracked your first kiss; still gives you goosebumps…to money.
If you want to pursue a job in music supervision, you’ll need to get comfortable with data management. The spreadsheets you’re going to be using will give any normal person an aneurysm, so prepare yourself. Start by doing what supers do: build a grid of your favorite songs, cross-referenced by genre (of music/show), era, and of course cost. You won’t know what the various forms of sync/blanket/etc. licensing cost until and unless you get a job in the business, but you can train yourself to think along those lines, so when someone has a hit and the show they wrote in their twenties that nobody made it three pages into gets picked up and the only thing they care about is having David Bowie’s “Modern Love” over the opening credits you can say, “What about INXS’ “New Sensation”?
You’ll also need to know when and where any of these songs have been used in any movie or show, because this will more than likely rule them out on a body heat basis. “Running Up That Hill” will not recover from its current association with Stranger Things — it’s unlikely to be licensed for anything ever again — but this is a peerless situation involving one of the most successful series in episodic television history. Syncs from mid-level shows, failed prestige launches, an indie movie that comes and goes…that’s all on a sliding scale. “Every Breath You Take” was in Stranger Things, the Police didn’t exactly blow up off that. It’s impossible to predict what gains traction or why, but once it does, you color code the song (if it’s in your grid) based on how many months or years out before the association likely decays. Like, forget “Running Up That Hill” for a second: you could hear the hushed fffffuuuck-s from a dozen music supervisors when Russian Doll needle-dropped “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” thereby taking it out of contention for a year or more. Brienne Rose absolutely punched her ticket in Season Two — what a run — but it’s a nuanced thing. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” both worked and was just sitting there for the taking.
It’s about so much more than the song: it’s about the ratio between its innate and historical potency, whether the scene and show can tap into that — or better yet recast it through the show’s lens — and finally whether people are clocking it on TikTok, or literally anywhere someone else could take credit for having surfaced it within the last six months. “Personal Jesus” — easily the biggest cue in Russian Doll — dwarfs anything you could do or show on screen, and so it works more as knowing comfort food, a semi-irony with overt textual correlations. It’s handled so deftly, sans any pretense to “owning” Personal Fucking Jesus by Depeche Mode, you just want to lean over on the couch and high-five the entire show.
Back to the grid I mentioned, and lenses: your grid is your lens into popular music and film, the moonshot choices you’ve dreamed of using alongside the pragmatic, cheaper alternates (alts) which demonstrate that you understand this is a business. You will be asked to reveal your grid/favorite songs during your interview and soon after you get a gig, which is a completely uncomfortable reality in the industry: If you think you hold cards, you hold none. Everyone in this business knows every song you think is your secret weapon. When and if you get about three-quarters of the way up the ladder, everything flips, and the songs in your back pocket become trade secrets, because you’re actually in a position to use them, unlike the little people staring at spreadsheets all day.
At the bottom of the ladder, what matters is the speed with which you can rotate all of this dimensional information and respond with a meaningful summary (eventually a detailed cue sheet) that relays both your taste and your understanding of the material and cue. Shows have had to pivot to alts at the last minute for a host of reasons, and depending on perpetuity, format and portability clauses, may need them in the future when licensing a series to another platform (or anything up to and including pure syndication).
Ultimately, your success as a music supervisor will track how quickly you can become a known quantity, but you can get noticed as an apprentice if you come in with an understanding of the industry that’s however many steps ahead of your peers. And you will have to learn all of it on your own time to have any hope of landing a low-paying gig at a music supervision house. You are not getting a job offer out of Spotify playlists.
The most important thing to know is that this world is alarmingly small, and the walls are glass: do not talk shit about or fuck anyone in this business over unless they’re in jail. It will come back to you, and more than likely you will not come back. Once people know you by name, negotiating rights will be the best part of your day, because you can drop the mask and trade gossip and negotiate lower rate schedules based on future business…you can even talk about music you actually like versus what’s likely to do well. As far as clearances go, the process of identifying rights holders and moving money from party to party just gets easier as more masters and catalogs are snatched up by conglomerates and private equity partners looking for positive carry on their assets. The days of flying across the country to some 88 year-old blind songwriter’s shack and reading him the complete script of a four-season series about sentient toothpaste in order to lock up the end titles are long gone. Things like that happened, and rest assured there will be some vainglorious memoirs sooner than later, but sync licensing is far less about relationships, information and research today than it was in the recent past. It’s about money and nothing else.
When’s the fun start? Actually selecting music cues for scenes? SURPRISE: you won’t be doing this any time soon. The scriptwriter, showrunner…everyone involved in the creation, gestation, greenlighting, financing and production of a given property is unwaveringly convinced of the perfect cue for every scene, and it’s always Radiohead2.
By the time you’re in a position to do what you dreamed of, it turns out your job is walking all of these people back from Radiohead, and building consensus around the most suitable and affordable alternatives. Imagine someone doing this to you, the erudite music supervisor to-be. No, no “All My Friends” doesn’t work over the finale. Let me tell you why. This is a tightrope, because if you can’t make your case emotionally or aesthetically, you will have to resort to economic pragmatism or “Simpsons did it,” which can leave people with the impression that you don’t actually love music, and are a suit (with eyeliner). No matter how these conversations go, everyone will be talking shit on you in group chat, so until and unless you can build a track record that allows you to shout everyone down, you’ll need stock strategies when some kid goes, “Bro have you even heaaaarrrrrd Ekkstacy?” Ideally you want a good manager to back you up in all phases, so remember that if you’re able to score an interview. It’s your only chance to get a read on the person who’ll be deciding how far you rise.
My original intention here was to make a sync-troll list of the next “Running Up That Hill”s of music supervision as a goof, that it might get passed around and compared with other super’s grids — a Rock Critical List for the sync set. In recent weeks, reading how music supervision is being marketed as an actual career path, and how brutally favoritism and charisma still control the industry, it seemed odiously cheap to go that route (at least not without a preface, I’m getting to it). What’s worse than the bizarre omnipresence of music supervision as a concept right now is the depressing reality that will unseat the entire industry in the near future: exclusivity retainers for sync licenses.
This is how far we’ve come from artists deciding how their music can be used in other mediums. I can’t say how far out this eventuality is, but the unyielding consolidation in music rights — especially masters — is an aggregate admission that the music you hear in shows from certain streaming platforms, or in films produced by certain studios, will soon be tightly correlated with certain rights holders. Like any business, there is nothing more valuable than control over an asset, no matter the variance in its use value. The right to choose when, where and how often your favorite song is loaned out is priceless. Your favorite song…goes to the highest bidder.
Subrights is a soul-crushing industry of horned owls that determine what can and can’t be done with literary works. Music supervisors by and large perform the same function, only it’s worse, because the history of music royalties is a Vogon horror show of legalized theft, vested interests and fucking artists over whenever possible. If you’d like to familiarize yourself with the spiderweb of bullshit that is music rights, have at it, but I’m not going to bore you with it here.