The Frame

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How 'Master of None's' music supervisor got one of the coolest jobs in the world

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Zach Cowie performs at "Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting" exhibition opening and book launch at L.A.'s Sonos Studio in 2014. John Sciulli/Getty Images for Sonos Studio

Among the new Emmy categories recognized by the Television Academy this year is music supervision — that’s the enviable job in which someone picks the songs that appear in a TV show or film.  

But it’s not as glamorous as it might sound. Music supervisors also have to secure the rights to use those songs — and get 'em for a price that won’t blow out the show’s budget.  

Music supervisor Zach Cowie is nominated this year for his work on the Netflix series, “Master of None.”

Cowie collaborates with show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang to make sure that the music on “Master of None” hits all the right beats. 

It's a job he comes to naturally. Cowie grew up hanging out in record stores and working for indie labels like SubPop and Rhino. He's a vinyl collector who also DJs on the side, which is quite common among supervisors. 

When Cowie sat down with The Frame's host, John Horn, he described how he used to discover music as a kid, and how that seems to have changed a lot over the years. 

Interview Highlights: 

On how he discovered music as a teenager:

I am the product of a generation where music was just kind of given to you. I grew up working at record stores, and I was a young, eager, curious music lover. And that's the job of the person 15 years older than me, to look at what I'm buying and help with the next steps. I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. I think it's how I'm able to do my job today. The Internet has made that easier than ever. It's so funny to me that in an era when it's never been easier to discover, that people are just waiting around for Pandora to tell them what to do. 

On the main job of a music supervisor:

My number one job is supporting a story. I'm working with producers, writers, directors, show-runners to hit these emotional marks that they've identified as needing some support. Something I like about supervision is you have to take your own ego out of it. My awesome mixtape is not going to make any sense for this particular show or movie, so my job becomes providing the information and being the quality filter. 

On using the song "Computer Love" by Kraftwerk as an "on the nose" cue in season 2:

There is what I'd call a comedy cue. The on-the-noseness helps hit the joke. Let me just say that Kraftwerk is one of the most important groups ever. Anything that I can do to let some younger people know of their existence is really important to me. Aziz and Alan, we were all friends before the show started, and we have very similar taste. But they're all Kraftwerk fans, too, so that was a quick decision to get signed off on by all three of us. 

On the importance of the TV Academy recognizing music supervision:

It's big and I'm new at this stuff. I had a whole other life in the record business and the first thing I did when [the nomination] came up was to thank all the people who have been doing this for a long time. I'm just indebted to all of these people. I think it's safe to say that with streaming and Showtime [and] HBO, some of the shows being made now are thought of more as films. It makes sense to me that you would take a harder look at the music in more of a film sense. A lot of the music in TV, up until this golden era, was kind of like comedy cues. But to use it as a real emotional tool is where we're at now, and it makes sense to me that it's getting the recognition. 

On using the Skatman John song "Skatman" in season 2 of the series:

Oh boy. Well, let's just say to get me out of any trouble, that the whole thing was based on a real story. Like a lot of the stuff that Alan and Aziz write has happened to them in real life. We didn't want to use the artist that this actually happened with, and had to think of something that was just as funny as the real thing. That is where Alan and Aziz just shine. Anything that is hilarious musically in this is their idea. I did one really good joke in the whole season. It was in the first season, the Aphex Twin thing, "Come to Daddy" — that was me. But Skatman, Venga Boys, that's [Alan and Aziz], and those things are in the script before I even get them. I leave the comedy to the comedians. 

How would you describe your relationship to vinyl?

It's my life, I would say. All the different jobs that I've done in music have been ways to be able to afford my record habit. I buy records every day, and at this point with the DJ stuff I do, I've been lucky enough to travel the world for years and years — just looking for records and meeting other collectors, learning from them. It's a little cheesy, but I have a whole wall of records at my house and I'll just sit there sometimes and look at the wall and recognize that most of the friends in my life, the places I've gone, the jobs that I've done, have all been because of these things. It means a lot to me. 

On how he knows when he's doing his job well as a music supervisor:

The streaming world really puts you to the test. We work on this thing every day for a year and overnight everybody's going to see this thing that took us a year, and many of them will finish it in one to two days and have this grand opinion on it. That is so scary. There's nothing crazier than an iPhone during the weekend your Netflix show comes out. You hear from every single person you've ever known, sometimes in a bad way, sometimes in a good way. I was joking once: if you ever need to find your roommate [from] when you were 19, work on a Netflix show, because they're going to figure out a way to text you or email you or something. I kind of keep a tight friend group, it's really just the nod from a few of those people that makes me think that everything is going to be OK. And I was blown away this season by how this was received by some of the people that I really look up to. 

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