What Does a Music Supervisor Do?

Think about your favorite movie, with all those quirky characters you love, the plot twists that still keep you on the edge of your seat, or the beautiful shots, masterly curated in every detail.

Now, think about that same movie but without a soundtrack. Are those quirky characters, plot twists, and beautiful shots enough to move and surprise you? Probably not.

Music always played a crucial role in movies. In silent movies, it was essential to add emotional layers to the soundless scenes. Today, music is still a protagonist in the movie industry.

The rise of new forms of video-making, such as the work of YouTubers and vloggers, actually resulted in more music being requested to give depth to these projects.

On-demand streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu, with the countless catalogs of TV series and movies they host, constitute another great opportunity for music to be heard.

But who is responsible for picking the right track for the right scene?

What music supervisors do

A music supervisor is an expert in the fields of music in video. He or she knows what song can be the perfect match for a specific scene. They know how to get all the rights connected to that song cleared. Moreover, they are often great negotiators when discussing fees and conditions with the rights holder.

As you can imagine from the brief description I have just outlined, being a music supervisor is a tough job.

First of all, music supervisors get inundated with music from random people. They get thousands of emails each week from unknown acts who hope to get one of their songs into a famous movie or TV show. At the same time, they are probably working on different projects with very tight deadlines.

It can be daunting!

Let’s be a bit more specific about the job of music supervisors. They essentially carry out three tasks:

  1. they select the right music for the project they are working on, trying to match the overall theme and mood of the song with the story, emotions, or actions displayed on the screen
  2. they get both mastering and publishing rights cleared
  3. they negotiate a fee to compensate the copyright holder (the songwriter, the publisher, or any other stakeholder involved).

Before going ahead, what does “clear” mean in this context? It simply means “paying” a certain amount to get a synchronization license. A sync license, as people in the industry more often refer to, is the key element.

Sync licenses are required by law anytime a copyrighted piece of music gets used in synchronization with images. Yes, even on YouTube!

Now let’s dive in more detail.

The first point previously highlighted can often be skipped, as some directors already have a clear idea of the songs they want in their movie (see Tarantino as a very exhaustive example). In this case, points 2 and 3 can get a bit more complicated.

If what a director has in mind for his project is music by some famous rockstar, sync licenses and fees can be very expensive. Here’s where a music supervisor’s negotiating skills come to play, as he or she tries to maintain the expense within the budget.

If this task becomes impossible, a music supervisor might advise the director or producer to look for another solution.

Sometimes point 3 can get skipped, especially in indie and low budget projects, where the only reimbursement the copyright holders get is the clearing of the rights.

In other words, there is no fixed rule in the game. The job of a music supervisor can vary a lot according to the kind of project they are working on, the budget they have for it, and the timing. For example, the tightest the deadline, the easier to get in touch with publishers or artists they already know personally. On the other hand, the more specific a director is about their vision, the more work has to be put into the selecting stage of the job.

How can independent artists get into movies?

For an independent musician, it is essential to know how the movie industry works. Having one of your songs included as the soundtrack of a famous film or TV series is one of the very few opportunities that could literally change the path of your career overnight.

However, it is tough. The competition is crazy and, as I have already mentioned, music supervisors are busy people.

How can independent artists overcome these difficulties and have a chance to be included in a movie soundtrack?

  1. Do your homework: Before getting in touch with a music supervisor, find out everything you can about them. What projects did they work on in the past? What projects are they working on now? Is there any connection between you and them you could mention in your query letter? You are contacting another human being so be professional, polite, and honest.
  2. Get representation: If music supervisors seem just too hard to reach, consider getting representation from an agency or an editor. These third parties are not specifically involved in movies, but they know music supervisors and music supervisors trust them. This means that if you get in their roster your music will be more likely to get to a music supervisor’s ears.
  3. Get your music on online libraries: If you want to keep a D.I.Y. setting, get your music on online libraries such as Songtradr or Pond5. While these platforms are mostly used for smaller, independent projects, big music supervisors sometimes use them too.

Last but not least, remember that both the music and the movie industries are tough environments.

If you don’t get a reply, don’t get discouraged! Keep working hard and never stop learning along the way.

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