A music supervisor is responsible for choosing songs or recordings for a given movie, TV, video game, or advertising project. He or she is also responsible for properly licensing the actual song or track so there would be no legal battles going onward.
Music has 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? Well, this is where music supervisors come into play.
What to Music Supervisors actually do?
A music supervisor is an expert in the field of music for 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!
Music supervisors essentially carry out three tasks:
- Selection – 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.
- Rights – They get both mastering and publishing rights cleared.
- Negotiation – 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 it, 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 into 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 tighter the deadline, the easier it is 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 selection stage of the job.
Additional Responsibility of Music Supervisors
Not only does a music supervisor have to clear the music, come up with ideas, and negotiate the process throughout, but he or she must also be involved in the project in a different way. If it’s a movie, for example, they must also supervise the shoot if there are any ‘singing’ bits or parts within the movie.
What this means is that they have to supervise so that even when the actors sing, the lyrics have to be right, or if they lip-sync, the lip-syncing has to be flawless. Basically, any musical reference within the project falls under the music supervisor’s back.
You can see what Julie Michaels has to say on this topic.
What skills do Music Supervisors need for their work?
As you can probably tell by now, a music supervisor’s job is not at all easy. There are a few qualifications and skills that a music supervisor must have in order to do their job right.
- Good knowledge of music – This is a no-brainer. Music supervisors need to have a vast knowledge of music and a creative mind as well to connect a scene, advertisement, or shot with the correct music. They need to establish the mood and pick just the right recording or song.
- Legal knowledge – They have to know the licensing deals for music as they are in charge of if anything is copyrighted before being cleared first. You can imagine that it’s a huge burden to bear, which is why they have to be flawless in that department.
- Good negotiators – People skills are just as important as all the major deals are done face-to-face. When the music supervisor meets with a director or band, they need to seal the deal in regard to compensation.
How much do Music Supervisors make?
The salary for music supervisors can vary depending on their skill level, popularity, and the project they are working on. Usually, their salaries can vary from $35k annually to upward of $250k, depending on the project and person.
There are also music supervisors that work under the umbrella of a music supervision company. This is called an “in-house” supervisor. When this is the case, their salary can vary depending on their standing in the company, their activity, and the company’s earnings.
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 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. So, how can independent artists overcome these difficulties and have a chance to be included in a movie soundtrack?
- 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.
- 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 on their roster your music will be more likely to get to a music supervisor’s ears.
- Get your music on online libraries: If you want to keep a D.I.Y. setting, get your music from online royalty-free music websites. 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.
Music supervisors are in charge of finding the right music for the video material, licensing the recordings or songs for the project, and negotiating the financial side of the music beforehand. They also have to be present for the making of the videos in order to supervise that everything goes smoothly and any musical aspect is correct. As you can see, it is, by no means, an easy job to be a music supervisor.