Supervise Me

If you’re a fan of HBO’s Six Feet Under, thenyou remember the series finale.
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If you’re a fan of HBO’s Six Feet Under, then you remember the series finale. (And if you’re still catching up after all these years, don’t fret—no spoilers here!) The inspired ending moved viewers to tears, not only for its poignant and beautifully edited tableau of scenes, unspooling one after the next in a rush of flash-forwards, but also for the music that plays over the entire six-plus minutes before the last fade to white. The song is Sia Furler’s epic “Breathe Me”—a spacy, wistful piano ballad that crescendoes with a dam-breaking emotional release. As far as series creator Alan Ball was concerned, placing it over the scene was a stroke of genius.

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“I think the stars were aligned for that one,” recalls Gary Calamar. A longtime resident DJ at KCRW Public Radio (Santa Monica, CA), Calamar was Six Feet Under’s music supervisor, along with colleague Thomas Golubic, for all five of the show’s award-winning seasons. “I was familiar with Sia because she had worked with the band Zero 7, so when this scene came up, her song came to mind. It had a really nice feeling of longing and melancholy, but it was uplifting as well, in its own way. I had a meeting with Alan to discuss what he was looking for, and I pitched him a few songs, which is the normal process—it’s not like I said, ‘This is the one!’—but that was the song he picked. And the scene itself was so amazing; it was like one of those perfect situations for a music supervisor. Rarely do you get to play a song for so long without dialog, so it worked out great.”

As new dramas, comedies, and even entire channels continue to proliferate in the cable viewing space, Calamar and his company GO Music are right there riding the wave. He currently oversees the music for HBO’s True Blood and Showtime’s Dexter (which started its seventh season on September 30), but his list of credits includes House (FOX), Weeds (Showtime), Entourage (HBO) and the films Varsity Blues and I Love You Phillip Morris, among others. Tune in to his radio show on Sunday nights, and you’ll hear a wealth of indie and alternative music. So how does he choose what to pitch to the producers he works with, and what can you do to get your music in front of him?

“I get bombarded,” he admits, “so I don’t really have a formula. I read a lot of music publications and blogs, and I listen to my colleagues at KCRW and Sirius XM—I just try to keep my ear to the ground as much as I can. But if you’re not out playing or getting press, there are licensing companies that I’d recommend if you want to join forces— companies in L.A. and New York that are in tune with what projects are going on. It’s still very tough for them to get music in, but to have them as an ally is a valuable thing. I’d hate to leave anybody out, but there are companies here like Natural Energy Lab and Sugaroo and Secret Road that all do great jobs, and represent different types of artists.”

Each show tends to have its own musical flavor as well, depending on the locale or the storyline. Dexter, for instance, because it takes place in Miami, licenses a fair amount of Latin music, but composer Daniel Licht also plays a prominent role in setting the show’s mood. “I will say we visit some strip clubs in the new season of Dexter,” Calamar says, “so we’ve got some appropriate music for that. But the music isn’t quite as much of a character as it is in True Blood. For instance, we have a certain sound in the vampire bar that’s sort of electronic metal goth, and we use that fairly regularly in small doses. Coming into next season, we’ll be looking for more of that.”

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These days it’s no mean feat to get your music placed in a popular show. Not only is the competition fierce, but the deluge of new artists getting into the game has exerted downward pressure on the fees they and their publishers can demand. On top of that, network producers and music supervisors will sometimes try to use the promotional value of a show as a selling point, especially if their licensing budgets are small. Calamar is lucky enough to have some leeway with HBO and Showtime when it comes to going after the big names; case in point: the song “Let’s Boot and Rally,” which Calamar wrote himself and recorded with Iggy Pop and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, for a recent episode of True Blood. But he’s always willing to give new artists a shot if they’ve done the hard work to build some buzz.

“Again, it’s easy for me to say, but it’s good if you’re not only pitching your music to music supervisors, but also playing out at clubs and getting some press and getting some airplay. Sooner or later, you’re gonna come to my attention, and then if it’s appropriate, you’re in. I do like to use bands that have things happening on their own, because it’s always nice to have some additional excitement going on around the music.”

Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and Bass Player.