In July, the Emmys will announce the nominees for the first-ever award for best music supervision. Most people probably haven't thought about the fact that there are basically no music supervision awards at mainstream media awards shows, but this could be the start of more of them embracing the category. There finally seems to be some momentum for music supervisors — the people who select and then clear the rights to music so it can be used in movies, TV shows, etc. — to get the recognition and compensation they deserve.
Music is a crucial part of most forms of modern media. We all generally seem to agree that music can be really good and that TV, films, video games, VR and other forms of art are often made better by music. It's not exactly a controversial stance.
So why are music supervisors still being undervalued for the countless hours they spend toiling to find and clear the rights to music? The answer is late capitalism — as is often the case — and also that most people still don't understand what they do.
I spoke with Maggie Phillips, a music supervisor whose work can be found in Fargo, Legion and Moonlight, in addition to tons of other lauded shows and films, to get an idea of the demands of her craft. She could potentially be up for the music supervision Emmy because of all the acclaim her recent projects have been showered with, but she spent years grinding it out on the indie circuit. Even now, as she has her fingerprints all over beloved film and TV projects, there still is the lingering sense that music supervisors, in addition to the creators and rights holders, are being undervalued.
“Everyone considers themselves a music expert in L.A. So because people think if they have good taste in music, they can do it. And that’s why there’s lots of kids trying to be music supervisors. I think I get an email every day from someone saying, ‘It's my dream to be a music supervisor.’ And I tell them, ‘If you sat with me for one week, your dream would probably die,'” Phillips says, half kidding, over coffee in Highland Park, not far from her home office where coordinators and other team members were no doubt hustling against deadlines.
But despite the snark, she still loves her job, a lot of which is not just putting together cool mixtapes. It’s mostly administrative research, negotiations, spotting sessions and dealing with the nitty-gritty details.
The sometimes grueling schedule still has not put a damper on her love of discovering music, and she even still keeps a file for super special songs for very important moments. “I call it my back-pocket playlist,” she says with a laugh. “You know, stuff that I love and haven't used yet. And I try them on a lot of shows, but it takes a lot for something to really work. So I have, yeah, my hidden jams or secret weapons.”
Phillips is one of many supervisors who have joined the Guild of Music Supervisors, a relatively young body that is looking to change the messaging and perception of what music supervisors do and the amount of labor that is involved in the dark art of clearance and supervision.
Thomas Golubic, music supervisor for Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Halt and Catch Fire (to name a few), tells me, “Seven years ago, a group of working music supervisors, myself included, recognized the need for an organization that would support our profession. We formed the guild to help foster a community of professionals that could openly discuss the challenges we face and work together to forge viable solutions.“
While much of Hollywood is unionized, music supervisors have had an uphill battle. They often compete with other departments that are backed by long-standing organizations that protect their interests. “Essentially,” Golubic says, “we are among the newer kids on the block, and don’t have anybody in our corner looking out for us.”
Generally, supervisors have to operate as independent businesses and are hired on a freelance basis with no union to help secure appropriate fees, insurance or pension. “With studios frequently hiring in-house music supervisors, and a continually expanding population of professionals competing for projects, studios and networks have been in a position to keep offering fees low, with no benefits,” Golubic laments.
“We are paid by episode, and where once there were 22 episode in a network series,” he says, “now there are often half that, or less, and the time commitment has actually expanded.”
So what can be done? Education is key. Golubic says it's a matter of “working hard to clarify our contribution, and to overcome the growing pains of an evolving industry. Our hope is that with this Emmy Award, and with the continued efforts of the Guild of Music Supervisors, and the many volunteers who add the wind to our sails, we will make a case for paying music supervisors a commensurate fee for our contribution." He adds, "I feel confident that we are on the right path.”