In the music-for-picture world, composers get most of the glory. But there's another group of professionals who have a big impact on which music gets into a film or TV show: music supervisors. While film composers write custom instrumental music to set moods and fit with the action in various scenes, music supervisors choose their music from songs and compositions that have already been written. Music supervisors are therefore a conduit for songwriters and independent composers who are trying to get their music on the screen.
FIG. 1: Jack Rudy frequently places songs from independent bands and artists on TV shows and in films.
For a better understanding of what music supervisors do, I recently spoke with Jack Rudy (see Fig. 1), who has supervised the music for feature film, sitcom, Comedy Central, and more. Rudy brings plenty of musical skill and experience to his job, having worked as a professional harmonica player for years, playing with artists such as Dave Alvin, the Blasters, and John Lee Hooker.
What is the role of the music supervisor in a production?
I complement the work of the composer by providing cues that come from outside of the composer's brain — so band cues, rock music songs, preexisting songs. That's why my specialty as a music supervisor is to stay on top of the music of all current bands: bands that have albums, bands that don't have albums, bands that are playing in clubs.
In the rock world, mostly?
Not necessarily just the rock world — the whole world of music. Anybody who is playing music live for people is at the top of my list. And not just because those songs work well in movies. It's also because those musicians and I have a similar self-interest in a project. What will work for me and my film will also work for those artists in their careers. Obtaining a film placement or a television placement is a very valuable and positive step in a live musician's career. It's kind of like what getting on the radio meant in 1955.
So with a film or TV show, does the audience focus on your music less than it would if it were on the radio?
Yes, but a lot of shows are music driven. A huge percentage of the people who are of record-buying age buy their music based on what they've seen on television. The people who are selecting music for television shows are trusted; their taste is trusted by the watchers of those shows. So in a weird twist of fate, I am able to function in much the same way that, say, Wolfman Jack did back in 1970 — by finding songs and helping people discover new music.
What types of scenes require songs rather than music written by the film composer?
There are certain obvious places where we put songs from bands. Source music is one of them — every time a character in a film or show turns on a radio, walks into a bar, sits in a waiting room, or turns on a jukebox. Then there are the cues in which the composer and the music supervisor must work together to decide whether a composed piece or a song from a band would work best. Things such as a musical montage segment sometimes work great with a band and sometimes it works great with a composer's own work.
Can you generalize about what particular attributes of a song make it useful for a film or TV show?
What you're looking for first in a particular scene is credibility (as opposed to musical innovation), and everything follows after.
By “credibility” do you mean that the song has authenticity from a stylistic standpoint?
You're getting there. But I actually mean it more literally than metaphorically. What I'm saying is that you as a listener need to believe it. Forget that it's music for a second. If it were a person talking to you and telling you something, would you believe them, or would you think that they were not credible, not believable?
Based on the lyrics?
Just ask yourself if the music captures an emotional component of a scene that needs to be there. Because the component is emotional, it can't ring false. An example of a song that lacks credibility would be one in which the composer tries too hard to be literal with the lyrics and what's going on in a particular scene and ends up with something that's too matchy-matchy.
What happens when a noncredible song is used?
If there's one insincere note in the song, the actors will look like bad actors. One song in the background that's baloney can wipe out the hard work of an actor, a lighting designer, or a set director.
Do you ever go to music libraries for material?
Yes, I absolutely do. Mostly for instrumental tracks, and mostly if a particular scene requires a style of music that my composer isn't familiar with.
For a song to be considered for a movie, I assume that it has to have a certain level of quality, productionwise.
Yeah, absolutely. These days, everybody has to have high-quality production. Nobody is walking around with a 4-track cassette tape anymore.
There's a big variation in quality on independently released CDs.
That's true. But practically speaking, if the mix is okay, the music is fine by the time it gets compressed and pushed into the background of a TV show. In fact, we've run with MP3s on TV shows and haven't had a problem. What makes the interests of the band musicians align with the music supervisor's is that the guy who's playing in a band has rehearsed and performed these songs in front of people repeatedly. And he has had the benefit of what — to an ad agency, for example — would be a very expensive focus group. He's playing the songs over and over again, and that's why he's getting a crowd to come and see him. That's the reason a well-placed band track will leap off the screen, compared to a custom-composed song for that particular scene. Now that is my own personal taste; that's subjective. And a band benefits from having its song on a TV show or in a film in ways that a composer sitting at home doesn't. Even though they both get performance-rights royalties and some sort of a license fee.
What's a typical licensing fee that an artist would get for use of his song in a movie or TV show?
Some TV shows pay less than $500 for an up-front license fee.
How can artists maximize their exposure to music supervisors?
If your band is successful locally and you are playing a great gig that gathers a large crowd, and you look out into the audience and ask yourself if there might be someone in that audience who might help your career, it's more likely that a music supervisor is out there scouting than a record company executive.
Is it only in L.A. and New York that this happens, or can it happen in, say, Lubbock, Texas?
It could happen to somebody in Lubbock. I'm not going to fly to Lubbock to see a country band perform, but I am going to pick up the phone and I'm going to call someone who knows country music and ask them to tell me who is out there right now playing, and who is good.
Do you require people to get permission from you to submit something?
That's an interesting question. Oftentimes with record companies you can't even find their address. There's all that crazy, weird secrecy. That's not true at all for me — not one bit. If I solicit for a song through a network, I give an address. Whoever answers is submitting based on my solicitation.
So music supervisors are generally more accessible than record company A&R people?
We're on the ground. We're where the rubber hits the road, where music meets film. We are actually interested in finding new music, and we aren't motivated in the way that so many record companies are: by profit and sale of the album. We're seeking out and searching for songs that fit scenes. So when you submit your work to us, we'll truly listen to it. We don't have prejudice between a known band and an unknown band.
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.