The influx of money from streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Apple TV into music supervision and licensing has helped to compensate artists for falling record sales, according to one of the sector’s most prominent figures.
Music supervisors used to be a rarely mentioned role, but the investment in TV from streaming platforms has made having impeccable music supervision another vital element in a standout series. “Some people think supervision is like fantasy football for music,” says Zach Cowie, one of the new breed of music supervisors. “But there is a lot of stuff you need to know beyond just selecting good music.”
Cowie – who worked at record labels and toured with Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes before becoming a DJ and moving into music supervision – has worked on Netflix’s Master of None, Amazon’s Forever, Kirsten Dunst’s series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and Apple’s forthcoming anthology show, Little America.
Cowie says his work on a show should ideally start when the scripts are still being written, rather than in the editing room, where a supervisor attempts to find, match and license a song for a scene that was shot weeks ago. For Master of None, which was Cowie’s first music supervision project for Netflix, he worked with showrunners Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari to pick songs, which were then written into scenes. “We can pre-clear the track and shoot to the song, rather than doing it in the edit,” says Cowie. “The nightmare is finding something that everyone gets attached to and then not getting the clearance”.
Jen Malone, a music supervisor on Atlanta and Euphoria, the HBO and Sky Atlantic teen drama about a dysfunctional American town, found tracks for Euphoria by screengrabbing songs people shared on Instagram. “Whenever I have downtime, I take out my phone and I go through all of the screenshots and listen to the music,” she told the Fader. “And if it’s good for Euphoria, it’ll go in the Euphoria bin. If it’s good for one of my other shows, I’ll throw it in there.”
Cowie’s holistic approach is unusual, with supervisors often spending hours in editing bays ensuring songs fit and more time securing licensing. Thomas Golubić, a veteran supervisor who is president of the Guild of Music Supervisors and best known for his work with Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad, describes supervisors as the “Swiss army knives of post-production”. “We have many different roles and sometimes nobody ever needs to take the screwdriver out,” Golubić told Red Bull Music Academy earlier this year. “Sometimes you just need the saw and a pair of scissors.”
The role of music supervision has started to be recognised within the music industry. Last year’s Grammys was the first in which music supervisors were eligible to win in the compilation soundtrack album category, a step Golubić described as “long overdue”.
The importance of music supervision for young artists looking to establish themselves was outlined by Spotify in a blog that said getting a track picked for a popular show could “embed your song in the memory of new, attentive audiences”. Sync companies (organisations that help to place music in TV shows, films and adverts) such as Rumblefish, Audiosocket and Taxi will pitch unknown artists to supervisors who are attracted because of the buzz that can surround the next big thing and because they cost much less than artists on major labels.
Cowie can’t discuss exact figures for song licensing, but says that artists fall roughly into four groups. The most expensive music to secure is on a major label, followed by what Cowie calls the “major indies”. Then there are the “indy indies”, which cost a bit less, and then artist-owned music, which is generally the cheapest to secure.
“As everyone knows, you don’t make shit from streaming, record sales are down and you have to be at a certain level to make any money from music,” he says. “But the right commercial or show can finance your next project. I like being in that Robin Hood position.” Cowie sees the role as being a way to support more obscure artists, and insists licensing budgets are at a certain level before he will even begin to talk to a studio about a project.
But picking obscure tracks can cause problems. Cowie decided to used hard-to-clear Italo Disco tracks such as Pino d’Angio – Okay Okay in an episode of Master of None’s second season. “The number-one source of drama in my job is getting someone attached to something we can’t keep,” says Cowie. “There’s this phenomenon called ‘temp love’ where you cut a scene with a track, everyone loves it and you figure out you can’t keep it, and no one will ever be happy with anything else.”
But there is a practical benefit to finding more obscure songs to include, too. “At a certain point some of these songs are going to run out of emotional steam because they’ve been attached to so many things. The right unknown song, in the right scene, can do so much for your story.”