If you have seen The Hunger Games, Beasts of No Nation, Selma or the television show Outsiders – which was just renewed for a second season on WGN America – then you have experienced the work of Tracy McKnight.
The prolific Music Supervisor and Executive Music Producer’s work includes documentaries, television and features (blockbuster tentpole fare and independents alike). She has worked in the music business in various capacities, from stints at record companies to co-founding and running her own label. She’s operated in the predominantly male milieu with a simple mantra: do excellent work.
While acknowledging the hill women have to climb toward parity in music supervision, McKnight is clear that the fact she is a woman does not influence how she is perceived nor how effective she is when delivering on task. “My job is to ensure that the vision of the filmmakers comes together while matching our financial resources and putting the most magical music to the visuals. The goal is to be part of the story telling process. To support the story emotionally, the funny bone, the montage, or whatever is required. On Outsiderswe use both song or score which involves overseeing work of our composers and musicians.” And while women may not swell the numbers of Executive Music Producers, Tracy notes that many seats in the orchestra are filled by women, who also make pop music contributions.
“Your art is your biggest calling card.” She asserts. So, “if you move into the room gender focused, you're doing yourself a disservice. Everyone can see what your gender is; it's self-evident. Gender is irrelevant in completing the task at hand. “What you have to do is be prepared to work. To be creative, inventive and relentless in creating the best for the project within budget. Work breeds work.” And that philosophy is what keeps her getting picked for prime projects. She repeats, “Gender is irrelevant to doing the job,” and then adds, “yet of the 250 movies scored last year, only 1% were scored by women, so it has to be said that gender could be relevant to ‘getting the job.’”
How has Tracy beaten those gigantic odds? Focused creative drive might be the reply. Illustrative of her willingness to go outside of the box is a story she shares of her early days in the industry. “It was one of my first jobs and my calls weren’t being returned by a musician whose music I thought was perfect for a scene. I heard that he was doing a charity gig at a local high school and that there would be an opportunity for autographs. She said to her director, “Let’s go.” They stood in the autograph line with the contract tucked beneath her arm. When she reached the musician she convinced him to come on board. “The contract was signed – with a Sharpie – but the deal was made,” she laughs proudly. “I think it goes a long way when people see you care.” She’s also baked cookies and sent flowers to get people’s attention.
Something else she’s unafraid to do is ask – a behavior research shows some women shy away from. “You have to be savvy within the job description,” she notes. “Most people are willing to make a deal. Some are harder than others, but the negotiation is made of how you present it and who you are dealing with.” “Music Supervision isn’t for the faint hearted, “ Tracy notes. “You have to love what you do. You have to give 150% but you also have to move to what’s going to challenge you. I wanted to be diverse so I am challenged. I like to keep things moving and I like to give back.”
“I’m constantly and happily doing things to help emerging film makers,” she says. The younger of three siblings and a former Head of Film Music for Lionsgate, Tracy is on the board of Women in Film and has plenty of practical advice for those who want to enter the field. “Producers have a lot of money on the line. Being prepared when a door opens and being excellent is vital. You never know when the opportunity happens. There are no rules. There's no playbook. It can happen at the most unexpected time. Going after a goal, pursuing it and being prepared for it while making sure you are ready to do whatever by whatever means necessary. This is your passion and this is a path in your life.”
She also advises being inventive in getting through the door and gaining experience. “The great thing about our industry is you can create your own work, you can shoot something on your iPhone and put your favorite a song to it.
You can go to college student filmmakers and get your experience. It takes work and you have to network. You have to go to festivals – maybe the smaller ones. You have to find your way. It’s very important to have a point of view. That really is the best piece of advice. It's a big wide world out there and you might be great at everything, but it’s unlikely. You have to have a vision to work toward. I knew I wanted to be in independent film when I started. I targeted filmmakers I was fond of. I knew those were the kinds of films I wanted to work on. Anyone that you speak to at the top starts with the path that they're passionate about: stories about women, with villains, or protagonists, or action movies. There's a place to start whatever your vision is, but you have to start somewhere.”
As for interpersonal skills Tracy’s wealth of experience has taught her valuable lessons. “I have learned a lot about being a leader, managing other people, but the lesson that continues to repeat itself is when you have an opinion and for whatever reason, you are not owning that opinion, maybe due to the dynamics – because things arise – you’ve got to realize that it does not empower you to do your job well if you don’t express it. You have to figure out ways to make sure that you are addressing what needs to be addressed regardless. If you have a seat at the table, if personality dynamics become challenging – as they do for anyone – saying things that are unpopular may make you unpopular sometimes. However, you do it because you know it's the right thing. It takes time to learn how to exercise that muscle.”
Pushed for a last piece of advice, she smiles/ “Especially for those starting out – don’t leave early, don’t be late and do as much as you can,” she offers. “Anything that teaches you something is a good thing.” It’s advice that has stood her in good stead and made her one of the most sought after Music Supervisors in the industry. Tracy McKnight has used the various positions throughout her career to garner a wealth of knowledge that she brings to each venture, holding a hand out to those who would follow, and delivering for and inspiring those with whom she collaborates.