The Frame

Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment, straight from Southern California. Hosted by John Horn

Music supervision is one of the most misunderstood gigs in Hollywood

by Michelle Lanz and The Frame Staff | The Frame

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Music supervisors Maggie Phillips and Thomas Golubic. Michelle Lanz/KPCC

This is part two of our conversation with music supervisors Maggie Phillips and Thomas Golubic. You can find part one from yesterday’s show here or on your podcast app of choice.

The music supervisors’ job is often misunderstood. Though their main focus is to help a director find a song to fit their vision, their actual job involves doing a lot more than just perusing Spotify.

They often have to adapt to the whims and needs of several people on their team from composer to director to music editors. They sometimes have to beg an artist for permission to use a song and they have to negotiate with music publishers and clear song rights from numerous people. 

A music supervisor can even help boost an upcoming musician’s career. While working on "Six Feet Under," Thomas Golubic and his former partner, Gary Calamar, chose a track from a singer who was, at the time, not-so-well-known:

In addition to working on "Six Feet Under," Golubic was the music supervisor on "Breaking Bad" and he currently works on "Better Call Saul" and "Love."

Maggie Phillips has worked with Noah Hawley on both of his TV series, "Fargo" and "Legion" and she did music supervision on the Oscar-winning movie "Moonlight." 

Below are highlights of their conversation with The Frame's John Horn.

So who is this artist and how did you find her?

Thomas Golubic: That is Sia, it was from her second album. I was a DJ at KCRW and we got an early advance of her first album, which honestly didn't knock me out very much, but I found her voice very compelling. We reached out to her management and asked her to send her second record, which was forthcoming. We loved it and we ended up pitching one of the songs at the end of season 4, which didn't make it in the scene, but one of those songs we sent over to Alan Ball and Alan Poul really responded to was "Breathe Me." We ended up using it for the closing montage, which was an incredibly complicated thing. We had a 6:40 sequence and a song that was 4:20 long. She had not mastered her instrumental so we had to literally work with an unmastered instrumental and a mastered vocal version and find a way to merge them so you couldn't hear the extensions. Then somehow make it all feel natural, which after an enormous amount of work and amazing music editing by Bruno Roussel, it kind of came together, but it was a very tricky sequence. 

If you really want a song do you have to make sure your interest isn't too obvious? Is it that the more interested in a song you are the higher the price will be?

TG: I think you have to stay flexible. Ultimately, the key is for a director of a film or a showrunner to recognize that there are other options. We are always available to find other options...If somebody comes back because they're being difficult or a publisher says I want twice as much as the other publisher and you can't push it forward, we have to always be able to find another option that feels just as exciting, even if not more so. Some of my favorite syncs have been ones where we were stuck on a song and we couldn't clear it and I had huge fights with the publisher and drama everywhere, and at the end of the day I just had to stay up two or three nights until I found that one song that really made that scene work. 

Is it always over money, is that always the issue?

TG: Sometimes it's over subject matter, I did a pilot recently where they were concerned about a show that had a military theme, and it's a perfectly legitimate reason to say, you know what, I don't want to be a part of a show that may in any way romanticize the military. 

Maggie Phillips: I'm working on a show on FX that's premiering in July called "Snowfall" and it's about the drug trade in the early '80s in LA, the crack cocaine epidemic and we had a few people say no, they just didn't want to be a part of that. You have to respect the artist's choice, it's their art. They created something really special. It's up to them to decide where they want to put it and where they want to use it. 

Maggie, I want to talk your use of the song "Hello Stranger" by Barbara Lewis in the diner scene of "Moonlight":

MP: That song, I don't know if it was in the script or not, I came on really late in the project and that song was already a part of it. It's such a special song. I love that song so much and it works beautifully in that instance. That was one that was going to be cost prohibitive. I did try to find alternatives, and we did, I think, we found some that could have worked, but it was just magic. I think finally the studio and the production company realized that and opened up their budget. 

How hard is it to clear a hip hop song?

TG: If you want to have a Byzantine adventure, try clearing hip hop. I love hip hop and I've always wanted to work on a really hip hop intensive project and every time one shows up I'm like, damn why didn't I get that gig? Then you realize that pretty much the entire 1990's is unavailable to you because of uncleared samples. Certainly the top tier of those songs are all uncleared samples or the samples are in some sort of copyright hell. Pretty much nothing from Kanye West is clearable, it just is one of those situations where because nobody really built in the copyrights into the songs when they were originally done, you're playing catch up.

Now you have companies who all think this is their pay day and no one's really willing to agree. I mean, I've called a number of times and I've had to talk to somebody about 2 ½  percent and I realize this is the weed guy. The weed guy was in the room and he got 2 ½  percent of the song and I've got to find him and hope that his pager is going to go off. It's really fun and I love hip hop and it's a huge part of my culture and my world, but I know also that when I go after hip hop song it's going to be a long, complicated adventure. 

MP: Yeah "Moonlight," was so challenging. There was one song that was 14 writers involved in one song and there was 4 percent that would not agree to the price. Actually, the writers gave them a percentage because one of their beats was close enough to the song that it was more of a tribute. So they didn't even sample anything from them. 

What was the song?

MP: It was a Jidenna song...It replaced a Kendrick Lamar song that we also weren't able to clear. 

If there's somebody who is interested in pursuing this career, what advice would you give to them?

MP: I would encourage them to intern and really get a good grasp of what we do. It seems like a very sexy, glamorous job to choose songs for TV and film, but it's not, it's a really challenging career, there's a lot involved, the pay is low, you have to really love it. I mean I hesitate to say it, but if I were to go back 10 years and see where I was right now, I still don't know if I would do it. It's a challenging job. 

TG: I feel the same, I think the frustrating aspect of it is, again, the TV academy, the film academy, the profession of a whole has undervalued music supervision, and the studios have been so unwilling to pay music supervisors properly, we're in positions, and I think Maggie and I are working among the best shows in television, we struggle make ends meet...I'm not in a situation where I can realistically look into buyi  ng a house or raising a family and that's unreasonable for a working professional to be in that siruation. I think ultimately the studios need to recognize that we are operating at an extremely high level of difficulty, we do extremely hard work that is complicated on a business level on a relationships level on a music level on a creative level, on a negotiation level on an organizational level, and they don't pay people properly for it. I think the struggle for the guild as a whole and for supervisors like Maggie and myself is to find a way to keep making ends meet until the studios begin to recognize that this is a worthy profession of paying a proper living wage. 

Even in the industry there is such a misunderstanding about how key your contributions are?

MP: I think in the industry there are people that do recognize what it is. Because there's a misunderstanding of what we do and how involved it is, I really doubt that almost anyone other than other music supervisors understand what it takes to just clear one song and to clear one song for a price that works within our budget...It's a very competitive career path, there's a lot of music supervisors out there. There's also a lot of aspiring music supervisors I think every year there's more and more, I hear from someone daily. If we say no to a project, there's someone right there behind us.

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