Music Supervision: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last month I found myself in Paris, sitting inside what I can only describe as a giant colander in the French Communist Party headquarters. This was, rather bizarrely, the venue of the Paris Sync Summit 2014. An aspiring music supervisor, I wanted to find out if music supervision is as cool a job as it sounds, what’s really involved, and whether or not it is indeed the job for me.

Up first was keynote speaker Mary Ramos, Quentin Taranto’s music supervisor. Anyone who’s seen his films (pictured) will be well aware of the masterful and unique way he uses music. “Quentin is the genius behind everything”, Ramos explains modestly, describing her role as “just” to support him in telling the story.

Each project begins in Tarantino’s music room, she tells us, conjuring images in my mind of an Aladdin’s cave of records. They’ll go over the story and he’ll play her the kind of music he wants to use. “My job with him is to make sure that he can get everything he wants and, if there are holes as there generally are, I’ll be able to help him fill them in”, she continues.

Every film and every director is different, I learn, but typically the music supervision process will begin in pre-production where briefs are sent out, songs are temped in, and decisions on score composers are made. I start to understand that music supervision is an art in itself.

Nora Felder (music supervisor, Californication) explains later that day, “in most cases you’re just trying to underscore and enhance the scene; it’s a fine balance.” The acting might be so powerful that they’ll simply recommend silence.

So what are the down sides? In a nutshell: budgets, timing and rights clearance. “Budgets are not what they should be” says Ramos, but insists there are “creative ways to work them out.” Directors, I discover, can be surprisingly clueless about costs.

Music supervisor Brian McNelis explains that when working on Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn wanted about $3 million worth of 80’s hits such as Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. Stuck with a measly budget of $100,000, they were forced to re-think the whole soundtrack.

Budgets are even more of a challenge with TV, as is timing. “With TV it’s bada bing bada boom”, says Nora; “you choose songs, you license, you mix in a week’s time.”

But it seems the biggest headache is rights clearance. “We can’t spend a long time tracking down publishers”, explains Ramos, who urges rights owners to make clearance a one-stop-shop. Us Europeans seem to be the most useless at this, as McNelis knows too well.

He recounts hilarious stories of tracking down musicians named Marcello in Italy, who were last seen 18 months ago on a boat somewhere and unfortunately have a 10% writers claim on a track he’s trying to clear. I had no idea that music supervision could be reminiscent of an episode of Poirot.

What amazes and encourages me, however, is these supervisors’ attitude to the job. When I interview Ramos later that day and ask her about the best and worst parts of her job she says, absolutely beaming, “everything about it is the best part – it’s a really fantastic job to have, I’m in heaven!”

The bad, she says is not necessarily bad, it just “requires creative budgeting and thought and passion.”

Yes they’re all overworked and sleep deprived, but there’s one major thing they have in common: their extraordinary passion for music and the job.

As McNelis tells me, “You start to learn that music can make one film into a completely different film”.

This article is featured in Music Week online at the following link:

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