Does Hollywood Understand What Music Supervision Is?

Breaking Bad and Walking Dead music supervisor Thomas Golubic in his office
Breaking Bad and Walking Dead music supervisor Thomas Golubic in his office
Photo by Elis Jolie

The Primetime Emmys are this Sunday, but among the combined 100-plus awards of the Primetime and Creative Emmys, there is none for music supervision. Likewise, there is no Oscar, technical or otherwise, for music supervision. Nor has there ever been.

In fact, this upcoming Emmy event is the first time that music supervisors have been permitted to cast votes for the majority of the Emmy categories. There are plenty of awards for music composition and performance, as well as various aspects of sound design (mixing, editing, effects) at both the Oscars and Emmys. But none for music supervision.

Not surprisingly, music supervisors think this is a problem. The Guild of Music Supervisors — founded in 2010 — will host its first State of Music in Media conference this weekend at the Emerson College Hollywood campus to continue its fight for recognition and to educate newcomers and other members of the media production community.

For those unsure of what a supervisor does, the guild has provided a definition that has become the standard. He or she is “a qualified professional who oversees all music-related aspects of film, television, advertising, video games and any other existing or emerging visual media platforms as required.”

In essence, a music supervisor is the department head of music for a movie, TV show or other piece of media. He or she is responsible for overseeing all of the musically related creative, technical and legal components of a project, whether that’s hiring someone to create a new piece of music or negotiating to license a pre-existing piece of music. Put another way: A music supervisor is the person who tells the director that they don’t have the budget for that Nickelback song, and comes up with another solution (say, a less famous band that sounds like Nickelback, or even a generic piece of hard rock from one of several "music libraries" that cater specifically to low-budget media).

Sounds important, right? So why is there no award category recognizing music supervision in the same way as, say, sound editing?

Guild of Music Supervisors President John Houlihan says, “I do not think there is a lack of respect for music supervisors, but there is a good deal of confusion about what we do. ... It is a complex job that overlaps into many other areas of the process in creating a piece of media, and not every project is budgeted properly to be able to hire a music supervisor.”

Houlihan has music supervised dozens of feature films (Looper, Charlie’s Angels, Training Day) and several TV shows, and one of his goals with the relatively young guild is to make people aware of all of the intricacies of the field. They can’t fully respect you until they know what it is you do — and right now, most people in Hollywood still don’t seem to get it.

The music supervision problem is similar to the counter-intuitive struggles the visual effects (VFX) industry voiced several years ago (and still fights to this day). Whereas the demand for VFX has become almost infinite, many of the top VFX shops in town have been systematically shortchanged and screwed, because they lacked a collective bargaining body and a set of industry-wide best practices.

Like music supervision, VFX is often one of the last elements of a film to be contracted and completed, and overages in other budgetary lines typically translate to a lower VFX or music budget — or delinquent payments. When VFX studio Rhythm 'N Hues won for the Oscar for Life of Pi, the company announced — in a truncated acceptance speech — that it could no longer pay its employees and had filed for bankruptcy.

A small section of the vast music library at Golubic's company, SuperMusicVision
A small section of the vast music library at Golubic's company, SuperMusicVision
Photo by Elis Jolie

Music supervisors also face the misperception that their job is largely comprised of picking cool tunes and putting together mixtapes (which is often part of the job, but usually only a small fraction). Robin Kaye, supervisor of shows ranging from American Idol to the NAACP Image Awards, says that “the general public assumes that music supervision is a glamorous and exciting job — being paid to work with one of everyone's favorite pastimes, music, with film and television.” In reality, it’s filled with an endless series of creative crises, largely due to inadequate budgets. The general rule of thumb is that music gets 10% of the total budget, but Kaye says that percentage is often far lower.

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“In most films and scripted television ... the music is usually the very last thing that happens, and sometimes there is not enough budget left to fill all the music needs," Kaye explains. "Music supervisors are often expected to work fast and pull miracles creatively and financially to complete the project.”

Even when supervisors have the good fortune to work with a larger budget, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all smooth sailing. Thomas Golubic, supervisor of shows like Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead, says that “projects with generous music budgets have unique challenges of their own. Mo' money, mo' problems. Successful music supervisors use budget limitations as a creative opportunity and, through their experience and ingenuity, articulate and navigate a path that best serves a project within the existing budgetary constraints. We try to do a lot, often with very little.”

But, in order for that to happen, directors and producers need to be very aware of what it is their supervisors do. And too often, that still isn’t the case.

If Hollywood wants to keep feeding the bottomless content hole with great films, TV shows and video games, the producers of these forms of media need to start recognizing that projects demand adequate budgets to pay the music supervisors, the artists, the songwriters and the publishers enough to keep the lights on. Because nothing cheapens a project more than generic, sound-alike library music — or just poorly placed music.

And an award for music supervision wouldn't hurt, either.


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