SongBizness: Music Supervisors

The following article by music supervisor Michael Rogers is the first in a regular column for Film Music Magazine, a must-read for anyone interested in writing music for film and TV. This is a great introduction to what music supervisors do.

Michael Rogers is owner of Rogers Entertainment, a full-service film & television music supervision and clearance company in Los Angeles.

by Michael Rogers

Adventures in Music Supervision 101

This is the first in a series of columns on the craft of music supervision. As a relatively new specialty in film production (and sometimes pre-production-more on this later), this monthly column will attempt to both educate and (with any luck) entertain you.

For the past 20 years, almost every feature film has had a music supervisor or coordinator. Their role is often misunderstood, and they are in all fairness not quite as powerful as frequently perceived. However, they are inherently essential to the contemporary filmmaking process.

LESS IS MORE (or, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have the director hum a few bars?)
It might prove fruitful to begin with what music supervision is not. Apart from the superstar music supervisors (including among others, Budd Carr, Bonnie Greenberg, Peter Aftermath, Sharon Boyle, and Karyn Rachtman), most are not the initial decision-makers about which composer to hire for underscore and/or which source songs to license. In the affable words of composer John Ottman, “music supervisors are dead wood.” In theory, the director and producer(s) usually provide the suggestions from which to select film music.

A typical scenario involves the director/producer leaning toward a particular composer with whom they already have a previously successful working relationship or whose work has made an impression. Likewise, particular source songs may be dancing around their heads as they shower (hopefully not singing too loudly-as only their loved ones would appreciate). The music supervisor’s job tends to be as creative as his or her collaboration with the director/producer allows it to be. Contrary to some popular views, part of a music supervisor’s job is not to interfere with the freedom and creative process of the composer. If a supervisor’s background happens to include composition, arrangement, production/engineering, theory, or even tin-ear syndrome-so be it. But once a composer is hired it is always advisable to oversee at a distance to allow him or her to actualize the talent they are hired to utilize.

A SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY (or what does that guy over there do, anyway?)
An initial determination must be made about whether there will be a need for pre-recorded music to be used in coordination with principle photography (i.e., a scene requires a character to write an original song because he/she plays the part of a musician in the film). In this case, the supervisor will usually be required to hire an original songwriter (details about songwriter deals will be covered in a future column) to create the original song, book studio time, hire any necessary vocalist(s) or musicians to record the song, and oversee the mixing and mastering processes to ensure that the song is ready prior to principle photography.

Depending on a music supervisor’s industry credentials and relationship with the producer and/or director, he or she may or may not be involved in the composer selection process. The final call is that of the director and producer. Once the composer has been selected, the supervisor may negotiate and structure the composer deal. The music supervisor may be present during spotting (watching the footage to determine where music will go) but it is usually advisable to leave this process to the director and composer. In fact, the supervisor undoubtedly works more closely with the music editor than with the composer. Music supervisor Gerry Gershman (Buffalo 66) confirms, “For the most part, supervisors oversee that the big-picture musical vision is being realized and that the composer is staying within budget. Usually the music supervisor’s creativity is in deciding what source songs will most seamlessly match the tone and theme of the composer’s underscore and vice versa.” Part of the job also becomes the fine art of ensuring fair compensation for the artists while at the same time staying within the studio/production company music budget.

Next, the supervisor must work with the director and producer to determine what, if any, source songs will best enhance particular scenes and sequences in a picture. This process can often be the most creative aspect of the job. However, going about the business of clearing and licensing songs is an art in and of itself. The supervisor must close a deal with both the song’s record company (who owns the Master rights) and the author’s publishing company (who owns the Sync or publishing rights) before permission is legally granted to sync the song (a sync license is a fee paid by the film company to wed (synchronize) a song to a visual image).

A music budget range for a major film is typically between $500,000 to $2,000,000. Attempting to get film executives to appreciate why composers and source songs are worth shelling out some cash for is often an arduous process (but one well worth the effort for truly talented supervisors who value how the right music can literally make or break a film). For student films or projects to be shown at festivals, publishers will often quote a significantly lower price to accommodate the budget (issuing a limited festival license). However, if a festival film is picked up by a commercial distribution company, the distributor will usually have to re-negotiate a commercial license.

Once the songs are decided upon, the race is on to get them licensed, cleared, and into post-production in order to meet the film’s release date.

Despite the challenging expectations and pressures under which music supervisors are expected to deliver, the good ones are invaluable and very well-compensated. The next time you watch a film or television program, ask yourself if you would be as engaged in it if a music supervisor hadn’t effectively overseen the strategic placement of music.

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3 Responses to SongBizness: Music Supervisors

  1. Christy Saguanpong June 11, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    Dear Michael Rogers,

    I am a 26 year-old resident of Los Angeles. My life long dream is to become a Music Supervisor, a title I only recently discovered. Every time I watch a movie or tv show, I think of the playing soundtrack and think how a different song would’ve made the scene so much better. When I hear a song I instantly think of what kind of scene this song would be good for. I know being a music supervisor is so much more than this, but I dont know exactly how much more. I’m wondering if you can help me. Maybe give me advice on what I can do to be in this field of work or what’s a good step for me to take from here? I am driven, smart, determined and know that I would be an amazing music supervisor. Any advice you can give me I would greatly appreciate. Thanks. Christy S.

  2. atlanta property management October 31, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read…


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