Everything You Need to Know About Music Supervisors
Music supervisors are probably responsible for some of your favourite moments in TV and film. Take the iconic end sequence to The Breakfast Club, who do you think scouted Simple Minds for the soundtrack? Music doesn’t just fall into films or video games; it requires masterful track selection and an array of licensing agreements before it appears on your screen.
An Introduction to Sync and Music Supervisors
A well-placed sync can change your career; take Simple Minds, it was the mid-80s and they had just released their album ‘Sparkle in the Rain’. Without the digital social channels now available to all artists, you had to work really hard to build a global audience. For this Scottish group who had made waves at home in the UK, the US market was proving more difficult. Then came along the opportunity to record a track for John Hughes’ new movie, The Breakfast Club, which initially they turned down, as they didn’t want to record music they didn’t write.
Thankfully for Simple Minds, John Hughes and the rest of the world who now love this incredible song, they changed their minds. ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ was a hit worldwide, as was the film, and gave Simple Minds their only No.1 hit in the US throughout their career.
Getting your music placed in TV or film can be ground-breaking for emerging artists. Depending on the placement, the exposure alone can propel your career and sync royalties are a handy bonus. But how can you achieve this? Who do you talk to?
This is where Music Supervisors come in; they manage the competitive and confusing world of sync licensing. Sync, in a nutshell, is the pairing of music to visuals. Whether it’s an advert, film, TV show or any other piece of media, someone is out there looking for the right piece of music for the job. It’s also their responsibility to manage the various licenses that exist in order to compensate the rights holders for the use of their work.
Usually, with a background either in music (such as working at a publisher or label) or in film, they are always people with a deep passion for both. Most find themselves falling into the role, none are there by chance but out of a love for the work they do. You’ll probably never be rich as a supervisor, but the fulfilment is in abundance. Music supervisors are employed by the media creator, maybe a director, producer or advertising agent, to source and license the music for a project.
If sync sounds like a good option for you and your band or you’re interested in potentially becoming a music supervisor, keep reading as we dissect the role and practises below…
Education and Training
For anyone starting out in the world of sync, a clear understanding of the legal, clearance and licensing process is vital. For UK students, finding a specific music supervision course might be tricky. A music business degree can provide an overview of which rights exist and where. If you’re studying in the US, look into the courses run in the music school of your college. If you’re not one for conventional education however, there is no shortage of resources from other sources. Books are readily available, podcasts such as Setlist by CMU’s Andy Malt and Chris Cooke, and online resources.
While a deep understanding of every element of intellectual property law is not necessary from day one, it is a music supervisor’s responsibility to make sure that everything is licensed appropriately and every rightsholder is paid their fair share. Sharing the wealth is their mantra. Therefore, understanding the difference between mechanical, performance and synchronisation rights is crucial to complete the job.
A good overview of how labels and music publishers work is also advantageous, as this will aid your approach to rights negotiations and fees with them.
Licenses and Rights Holders
Let’s dive into the legality of sync licensing, as it can be a bit to get your head around. There are the rights that you need to be aware of:
Master and composition rights – This is for the benefit of artists and applies to the song itself. The master right is owned by the individual(s) who recorded the track, and the composition belongs to the owner of the lyrics/musical composition. How these are split is decided between the parties involved in a song’s production. If an indie artist both wrote and recorded the track then they own 100% of the rights. If you’re signed to a label, the label may possess the master rights. Once a song is created it is protected by copyright. Many artists publish their music with a rights organisation in order to protect it.
Publishing rights – Usually an artist will use a rights organisation to publish their music. It’s publishers who, as a supervisor, you will have the most interaction with regarding music. You ask to use a track by an artist under their representation, they talk to the artist, and the two of you negotiate the sync license and a one-off sync fee. Sync royalties are earned when your track is used alongside a visual, these are then paid to the artist via the publisher.
Mechanical rights – This is the right to copy music onto a CD, DVD, record or tape granted to an organisation by the copyright holder. When a song is sold or streamed as part of a soundtrack, physical or digital, the publisher will collect the mechanical royalty and pay the artist their split, usually 50%. Unfortunately, due to digital distribution and streaming services, not as many soundtracks are being printed as CDs. This has had a big impact as artists are not collecting the same royalties they used to on their synced tracks.
Performing rights – These are owned by the copyright holder. Whenever your music is performed publicly you should be paid performing royalties. This can be a part of TV, radio, film, or on the internet. It’s your publisher’s job to pay you the performance royalty, as they are the ones who grant the license to use or perform your music publically.
As a music supervisor, you will mainly deal with the publishing rights, mechanical rights and performing rights. When it comes to sync licensing, each case is different. As you do more work and start to get provisional quotes from rights holders you’ll learn how much a song costs, however at first it may seem a bit murky. There are a few key elements that will influence the cost, such as:
- How you’ll be using the track – a focal track on an advert will be more expensive than a song barely audible on the radio in a short film.
- How it will be distributed – cinema release? film festivals? SVoD?
- If there are samples on the track or is it a cover – more samples mean more rights to clear.
The best way to learn these are to get cracking and start those negotiations with the rights holders. At the end of the day, they’re people too – just talk to them about what you need.
Guilds and Trade Associations
Guilds exist to unite and protect practitioners of any kind of trade, it’s no different for music supervisors. The UK and European Guild of Music Supervisors seek to raise awareness for their profession within the entertainment industry. They work to promote fair practices and educate as to the business of music licensing. In the US, The Guild of Music Supervisors will support and protect you in your profession.
We’ve talked about rights organisations and music publishers, so who are they? PRS for Music is the biggest rights organisation in the UK, and consists of two societies; PRS (Performing Rights Society) and MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society). In the US, BMI is the biggest rights organisation and grants licenses to perform, use or broadcast their member’s music.
The Job: Music
Now we’ll look at the fun bit; the musical side of the role. Knowing what music works alongside what visual is the fun part and therefore an innate knowledge of what music exists is vital. Creating and maintaining a catalogue of songs to draw upon takes up a huge swathe of a supervisors time. It is not, however, crucial to have expertise in music theory – as someone once said, supervisors need to be the music geek amongst filmmakers, not amongst musicians.
How do you know what music will work for certain projects? Of course you need to have an element of talent, like in any job, to know when you have a good piece of music that could work. This doesn’t mean that you can not learn which music is best suited to certain projects. Just watching films can give you a certain amount of intuition. It is the same with anything, the more practice you get, the more natural it will become for you.
In order to be the geek and get on with the filmmakers, you need to be into films! Watch as many films as you can; from popular blockbusters to small independent films, watch them all! It is important to get to grips with the industry in which you will be working and this is a great starting point. Make sure to watch other content and pay attention to adverts as you could just as likely be employed by an advertising agency.
You’ve got the knowledge, you’ve found a filmmaker who is looking for a piece of existing music, so where do you find these songs that you know are perfect?
Your music library is usually a great starting place. However, it may be that your back catalogue of Beyoncé may not be immediately licensable for your friend’s £2,000 budget short film. If you were looking to use a song by a well-known recording artist signed to one of the major labels, they may be reluctant to involve that artist’s song in your project. Strategize appropriately for the budget and scale of the project.
As a lover of music and an aspiring music supervisor, collect a large music library with something from just about every genre. Your clients could be worlds apart and budgets apart, look out for new artists and new genres that could suit a project you might work on three years from now.
An easy and cheaper way to source music is to start going to gigs. If you already go to gigs, go to more gigs. Your local dark and dingy gig space will be full of talented, cash-strapped musicians who’d love an extra bit of money in their pockets.
With any pre-existing track that has been released for commercial sale, you must obtain the correct licensing from the rights owners. As we’ve mentioned, you will most likely go through the artist’s publisher and they will be your liaison. It benefits both music supervisors and music publishers to make each other’s connections. Publishers might submit music to you with based on your current project, or you might approach them looking for a track based on their artist roster. The two of you deal with the legal work so that your director is saved from the task and so is their artist.
Another place you could source music is from a production library. If you’re looking for a piece of instrumental music rather than a song, you might turn to a production library which has a wide selection of pre-licensed tracks. The production library will have a price for the track, and all the licenses already set up. This allows for quick and easy musical placement.
Of course, it’s not just pre-existing tracks that you could be in charge of. Often it is the music supervisor’s job to commission a composer for a project. In this case, it’s the supervisor’s role to make sure that the director’s vision for the visuals is enforced and translated by the music. Make sure you’re definitely on the same page as the director; ask what they want to achieve with the scene/project (their area of expertise), then find the right composer (your area of expertise).
Why would you compose opposed to using a pre-existing track? Well it usually comes down to a couple of reasons: either no track can be found that fits the budget or creative need, or the media creator wants something unique to their project. When sourcing a score rather than a soundtrack you might be more likely to use a composer instead of a pre-existing track.
Either way, it’s vital to make sure that the right composer is chosen, so building up a roster of composers is important, including understanding their strengths, experience etc. There’s a big difference between a highly tonal, sweeping-scores, orchestral composer and one that specialised in electronically altered atonal compositions.
Who Hires You
Broadcaster vs Independent
The main difference between working for broadcasters and working on independent projects is the general size and scale. The budget will tend to be bigger for a project with a broadcaster. This may impact what you get paid and what music you’re able to use. However, working on an independent project can be very rewarding as you’re working alongside very passionate people who are really enthusiastic about their own project. There are positives and negatives to both so it really is a matter of personal preference. It’s best to give both a go and see which environment you prefer working in.
When working for advertising agencies, you’ll have to consider the client as much as you would a producer. What’s the message with this advert? Do they want something big and catchy saying ‘buy our product, it’s cool and modern’ or do they want something more emotive? The advertising agency has hired you because you’re the expert on music, if their product is really cutting edge, give them a track from an upcoming artist or genre.
The video game industry has continued to grow over the past few years; in 2017, 64% of the general population of the US were gamers. This opens up a huge opportunity for musicians looking to gain exposure and for freelance music supervisors looking for work. Games designers will be looking for music supervisors who can supply them with music that their players want to listen to. Think about the genre, the gamers who play it, the narrative and the budget.
Budgets, Fees and Getting Paid
These elements are all going to tie in together. Like with many careers in the music industry and in the arts, you’ve got to start small and work your way up. Start by offering your services to low budget films and take any and all jobs you can get, even if they’re poles apart as it will broaden your portfolio. A connection made early on in your career with an unknown director could defy all expectations and project you both into the limelight.
Budgets on small productions will be small or maybe non-existent; the music budget will likely be proportionate to the music supervisor’s salary. As you get more experience under your belt you can reasonably start charging more for your services. Film budgets have rocketed in recent years, for big motion pictures the music usually only makes up 2% of the total budget. Of course, if you successfully make you way up the ranks in a director’s phonebook and the budget for their latest film is $100 million, the music budget may then be around $2 million, which includes your salary. These will of course be offered to the top music supervisors, you will have to work to get to this level.
The television industry is once again on the rise after the success of SVoD services like Netflix and consumer demand for drama. The TV industry is mainly run by big production companies, while independents make films they don’t usually make TV shows. The nature of TV and long-running series may suggest more stable employment and with decent budgets, more pay.
E & O Insurance
This stands for ‘Errors and Omissions Insurance’ and is a form of professional liability insurance. It protects professionals from claims made against them by clients for negligence and saves them facing lawsuit costs. These potential threats to your business won’t be covered in by general liability insurance and so it’s a good idea to take out E&O insurance as well. If you’re working in a service-providing role, such as this could be the most important thing you can do to protect your company.
Tips: Music Supervisor Skills
A key trait to have as a music supervisor is to be organised. You will be in charge of a lot of paperwork and music scores which are likely to go missing. Under the pressure, it is so easy to misplace important paperwork so make sure you are able to stay organised and keep everything where it is meant to be so it can be easily found if you suddenly need it.
It is also a good idea to practise your social skills. Just like any other job, networking is going to be a big part of furthering your career. It is really important that you are able to talk comfortably and build relationships with rights holders, artist managers and the clearance people at major labels. Make sure you do some research into their job roles so that you can engage with them and you will come across as being far more interested and clued up.
The best piece of advice we can give is just to start. Being a freelance music supervisor allows you to network, find the projects that interest you and will push you forward. A seemingly unrelated conversation could take you somewhere you never expected. Some recommend seeking a music supervisor internship or starting as an assistant. The next step would be to rise to coordinator and then to the role of supervisor. If you’d rather work for yourself, set up your own company. As we said before, many fall into it as your career progresses, in this kind of role you have freedom.
If you’re a music supervisor looking for tracks for a current project, or a music hoping to submit music for upcoming projects, check out our Global Creative Marketplace to view potential projects and make connections.