M for Montreal 2011, Day 2: Putting Music In TV Shows

You know how TV shows feature bits of actual songs to help create atmosphere and move along the story? The person responsible for that is called the music supervisor.  It’s his/her job to listen to music, suggest songs to the producer and/or director, acquire the necessary licensing, make the appropriate payments and then help create edits so the song fits the scene perfectly.

One of the best music supervisors today is Thomas Golubic.  If you’ve ever seen Breaking Bad or Six Feet Under, you’ve heard his work.  Thomas was the keynote speaker at an M for Montreal luncheon yesterday–and he was fascinating.

Tracking down the right music for the right scene is not only hard work, but getting the song into the TV show or movie can be harder.  The reason is you’re taking one copyrighted work (the song) and including it into a new copyrighted work (the TV show).  Each song requires individual negotiations and payments, sometimes to a lot of different people.  Not only can this be a legal hassle, but it can get very political with, as Thomas puts it “a lot of bullshit involved.”

HBO gets it.  Showtime gets it.  The big four networks?  Kind of.  Sony Pictures Television?  Nope.

And surprisingly, this work doesn’t seem to be all that lucrative.  Although it takes time and skill and connections and relationships, a lot of studios recognize that they have artists over a barrel.  More people want their songs in TV shows and movies than ever before because they realize that this can be an excellent way to promote their works.  That demand often drives down what the studios are willing to pay.

Yet it can pay off.  Remember the long sequence that brilliantly ended finale of Six Feet Under?  Claire drives off into the future but not before slipping a CD into the player.  The song that comes on is “Breathe Me” by Sia, a song that Universal had no intention of releasing in North America because they saw no commercial potential.

But after the finale ran, the second volume of the Six Feet Under soundtrack rocketed to #1 on iTunes and stayed there for eight days.  Such is the power of music placement in a TV show.  (Just don’t ask Thomas about how a four minute song was stretched to nearly seven minutes for this sequence.  It was apparently so harrowing from a technical point of view that he turns white and breaks out in a cold sweat.)

I’ve dabbled in music supervision in a tiny, tiny way.  I had dreams of one day doing it in Hollywood.  But after hearing Thomas speak, I’ve decided that this is probably left to experts.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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