When TuneCore first began, we called George: few people understand the music business as deeply. George Howard is a professor of management at Loyola University, New Orleans. He is the former president of Rykodisc, and founder of Slow River Records. He is the senior editor for Artists House Music, and a board member and advisor for a number of companies including Wolfgang's Vault and Daytrotter. He has written two books on the music business for Berklee Media. Check out his personal blog at www.9giantsteps.com.
This article provides an overview of the history of music supervision, the process of placing music in a movie or TV show, and a description of the relevant licenses and parties involved in this process. It is relevant to anyone interested in having their music used in movies, as well as those considering a career as a music supervisor.
Before I begin, let me give you a quick overview of the important details of supervision. First off, music supervision is primarily concerned with connecting the right song with the right moving image; be that a TV commercial, a movie, or a TV show. The more accurate term for “connecting” in the sentence above is “synchronizing.” So, a “synch” or “synchronization,” is the act of taking a piece of music and connecting it with a moving image in a movie or TV show/ad. Given this, you should quickly realize that music supervision has a lot to do with music publishing. You can’t simply grab any piece of music you want and throw it in a film. There are a host of copyright issues surrounding synchronizations that, in large part, define the role of the music supervisor.
First the cool/glamorous part. A music supervisor gets to work with the director of the visual content (movie, TV show, Ad, etc.), and help this person realize her vision by the addition of music. If you’ve ever seen a film where you have the option to turn the music off, you’ve seen just how important music is to making a film successful. Think, for example, what Goodfellas, would have been like without the coda to “Layla” coming in just at the right moment; consider any of the Tarantino films devoid of music; imagine any of the Hitchcock films without the phenomenal contribution of Bernard Herrmann. The music augments and often completes the vision the director had.
Music supervision really came of age in the mid sixties, and it came from a surprising place. The creators of the television show The Monkees, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schnieder, were young and idealistic, and recently flush with money and influence from the unexpected phenomenon that was The Monkees. Being young and idealistic, the pair decided to use their money and influence to make what they deemed an important movie. Their attempt to catch the cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s resulted in Easy Rider.* Notable for many reasons—Jack Nicholson’s stand-out support performance, a pre-“Hey Mickey” Toni Basil, and a drug buyer played by Phil Spector, among other curiosities—it’s most enduring legacy is, I believe, its brilliant use of music to fully flesh out the visual elements. While most people associate the movie with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” the music in the movie is fairly diverse. It includes songs from The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, and others.
Certainly Easy Rider wasn’t the first film to use popular music to make a point—The Graduate, featuring the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, came out a year prior to Easy Rider—but it did it in such an emphatic way that it opened the flood gats. Directors like Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Ashby (Harold and Maude), and many others redefined how music and images could be used together to create a meaningful experience. In the process, the role of the music supervisor emerged.
Role of the Music Supervisor
It’s important to realize from the examples above, that while in theory the music supervisor is responsible for choosing the music to synchronize with the images, it’s really the director (particularly the auteur of the 70s, the last great era of American cinema*) who controls the vision. Often the director will “comp” (i.e. temporarily place) the music in a film, fall in love with the way this music compliments the images, and then task the music supervisor with “clearing” the music. Of course, on the other hand, there may be a relationship of trust between the director and the music supervisor, where the director sort of hands over the film to the music supervisor in order to fill it with music. At that point, the music supervisor comps music in that she feels completes the vision of the director, and—once decided upon by the director— goes out and clears this music.
You note that irrespective of who chooses the music, the music supervisor has to go clear it. Clearing music is typically a two-step process (at least). In order for a piece of music to be used in a film, the music supervisor must get approval from, typically, two parties.
First, the music supervisor must negotiate with the publisher who controls the rights to the song itself. Of course, if you’re an artist who has not assigned any of your songs over to a publisher, you are the de facto publisher, and the music supervisor must negotiate with you directly. The music supervisor is trying to convince the publisher to grant him a “synch” license. Synch is short for synchronization, and this license gives the music supervisor the right to synchronize your music with the director’s moving images. There is not set fee for this, it’s completely negotiable. If you’re an unknown artist who likely benefit from the exposure of having your music used in a film, the music supervisor is unlikely to offer you anything more than a very nominal sum. Of course, if you’re a popular artist, and your music is in large demand, the music supervisor is going to have to pay up to get you to agree to the synch license. Also, it’s important to note that a publisher can flatly deny this request; irrespective of how much money is offered. Some artists (believe it or not) don’t want their music used in films or TV (Neil Young and Radiohead come to mind*), and their publishers will simply turn down a request.
The second party the music supervisor must get approval from is the “master holder.” The master holder is the company or person who controls the recording/download on which the song appears. This is typically the record label, but it can be the artist herself if she has self-released a record. Like the publisher, the master holder can negotiate whatever rate the market will bear, and, again like the publisher, the master holder can simply refuse any request.
So, if you’re a music supervisor, your ideal scenario is what is called a “one-stop” license, where you can “clear” both the publishing and the master rights in one fell swoop. Typically this occurs when artists self release or when the label and the publisher are the same person.
I said above that you typically have to clear both the publishing rights and the master-holder rights, but not always. The exception is when you can clear the publishing rights, but not the master rights. At this point, you can choose to have someone re-record the songs so that you don’t have to deal with the master holder. This occurred on the soundtrack to the movie I am Sam, in which the entire soundtrack is comprised of covers of Beatles songs. In this case, the publisher had to agree to allow the copyright of the songs to be used in the film, but the music supervisor did not have to deal with the master holder (The Beatles’ label, EMI) at all.
Part of the negotiating process of clearing the songs is the extent of use. You may, for example as a music supervisor, only be able to clear the song for use in the film. On the other hand, you might also get rights to the song for a soundtrack album, or to be aired in the trailer or as part of the commercial. Home video is a whole other set of negotiations that the music supervisor must contend with as well. This is all, of course, great for the content holders (publishers and master holders), as it represents potential income and exposure. For the music supervisor, it represents work…and a lot of it. This is why they get their names listed pretty early on in the credits.
To continue on to Part II, please click here.