[Ed. note: Recently, L.A. Weekly published an opinion piece titled "TV and Film Music Supervisors Are Killing Real Songwriting." Due to the outpouring of criticism the piece received from music supervisors and their industry peers, we felt that it was important to give a member of their community a chance to respond. L.A.-based music supervisor Thomas Golubic kindly agreed to do so.]
In a year where almost every stupid thing that pops out of Donald Trump’s mouth becomes a national headline, I am getting used to ignorance and misinformation masquerading as news. But as a working music supervisor, seeing Patrick Duniven’s highly misinformed article “TV and Film Music Supervisors Are Killing Real Songwriting,” I feel compelled to offer up a response. This is especially important considering that the L.A. Weekly is regular reading for many talented and hardworking songwriters, musicians, producers, filmmakers and TV creatives across our fine city.
The article claims that “music supervisors, the gatekeepers to music placement (or 'syncs') in TV and film, are asking and encouraging songwriters and recording artists to churn out generic, uninspired music with no real message.” This is utter nonsense, and frankly expresses a deep ignorance about what music supervisors actually do.
Let’s get a few things straight ...
Music supervisors are, first and foremost, lovers of music.
We are no more interested in generic music than chefs are compelled by bland food. We listen to more music than perhaps any other profession. My 10 years as a DJ and programmer at KCRW has helped to confirm this. It is our job to become experts in every imaginable genre, with an ever-expanding palate and sophistication level, so we can best serve our different projects. There is zero motivation to counsel artists to create music that is devoid of personality. If we are looking for unobtrusive background music at an affordable rate, there are plenty of production libraries that deliver that service. Whomever Duniven spoke with clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about. And for the record, I work on the Netflix series Love and we do license songs that include that word a lot.
Synch licensing is not here to save you.
As the economics of the music business continues to present challenges to working songwriters and artists, many look to synch licensing to solve their problems. That is a mistake. While selling overpriced plastic and vinyl to an audience with limited options is no longer a working business model, there are far too many factors involved in making a successful synch happen to rely on it as a steady source of income. Ask any music licensing representative (you should!). Music supervisors deliver options — often many options — frequently culled from a wide variety of resources and are rarely in a position to dictate what a final choice of music for a scene will be. Music supervision is a collaborative art, and the artists that work best in our world are the ones that make the business side of things as honest and straightforward as possible. Duniven claims that music supervisors are asking songwriters “to write some stuff that blends into the background better.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We simply ask that if you are going to present your passionately personal music for film and television licensing that you make sure you have your business in order, or work with a licensing representative that helps you do that.
We work with songwriters and musicians every day, and understand as much as anyone the struggle to make ends meet and be creative. We know that a healthy ecosystem involves honest communication, transparency and cooperation, but it also requires that everyone represent themselves as they really are. Simply put, some artists are able to adapt to working in the synch licensing world more than others, but just because you weren’t invited to the dance doesn’t mean you should stop dancing.
Music supervisors work as storytellers, adapting to the unique needs of each project.
Duniven claims to have spoken with music supervisors who have “admitted that for the most part they don’t care about trying to place one memorable song in one spot that could have a big impact; they would rather have something less impactful that they could use to hedge their bets.” Again, I don’t know who he spoke with, but this shows a complete misunderstanding of what music supervision is designed to do.
In collaboration with writers, directors, editors and other creative contributors, music supervisors work in the service of character and story. Each story is unique and we draw upon years of reading and analyzing scripts, carefully watching films, and studying the storytelling craft — in addition to countless hours listening to music — to counsel our creative partners on how we think music can best contribute to a story. A casting director doesn’t look for bland and uninteresting actors, or suggest performers dial down what makes them unique. They take their love of the acting craft to meet with and get to know as many talented and compelling actors as possible and then suggest the right ones for the right project. Music supervisors work the same way, only we employ composers, songwriters, musicians, and the ever-expanding catalog of recorded music to help tell the specific story we are working on.
Music supervision is contributing more to films and television than ever before.
Duniven writes “today’s music supervisors, for the most part, play it safe. They would rather have a library of plastic, superficial music designs than make the effort to seek out truly original artists with something to say.” What world is he living in? Nobody can deny we are in a golden age of television right now, with some of the most talented artists in the world working on dynamic and ambitious storytelling on a scale never seen before. The breadth and variety of options is absolutely inspiring and music supervisors are key contributors to this new wave of creativity.
Spreading ill-informed advice doesn’t help anyone.
Aspiring artists in all fields are vulnerable to terrible advice in hopes of cracking some "secret code" to success. Screenwriters spend thousands on pricey how-to seminars; actors and actresses visit plastic surgeons; producers fall under the influence of self-proclaimed gurus. But following those paths isn’t necessarily a good idea, nor will it often do anything to help you accomplish your goals. That applies equally to songwriters and music artists. If you have the benefit of a public forum, at least put effort into fact-checking your work.
Becoming better informed is easier than ever.
For those interested, there are many excellent resources on film and television licensing. A simple Google search will yield countless online articles, books available, and contact information for music licensing companies and music libraries. We recommend drawing from multiple resources and confirming with trusted colleagues on what is the right fit.
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The Guild of Music Supervisors held its second annual "State of Music in Media" Conference at Emerson College in Hollywood to a capacity crowd of over 500 only a few weeks ago, and featured a full day of highly informative panels and lectures about film and television licensing, in addition to music supervision for video games, advertising and trailers, all from the very top practitioners of the craft. There is much songwriters and artists could learn from events like this one, and from doing a bit more research before typing out an angry screed.
The simple truth is that success in film and television placements is a combination of hard work, natural talent, and the magic serendipity of timing. If you get into it as a means to an end, you will probably find yourself frustrated. If you dive in with an open, collaborative energy and trust that your partners are looking for you to succeed and collectively create something special, with time, great results will follow.
For more on this subject, check:
• Music supervisor Michael Perlmutter’s rebuttal to L.A. Weekly's article
• Music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas' “4 Major Misconceptions About Music Supervision”
• Guild of Music Supervisors definition/role of a music supervisor
• Guild of Music Supervisors "State of Music in Media" Conference
Thomas Golubic has music supervision credits that include Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, Grace and Frankie, Love and Six Feet Under among other film and television projects. He heads the education committee for the Guild of Music Supervisors who produce the annual "State of Music in Media" conference.