If you've noticed a jump in the amount of original music in television and movies in recent years, you're not only hearing the work of the respective artists, but also the work of the music supervisor — a role that has emerged as a new A&R force in the evolving music industry.
"Our job is to find the right [musical] fit for the narrative, for the scene," says John Houlihan, who has supervised music for films including all three Austin Powers films and Training Day, as well as the CBS series "The Defenders." "The challenge is finding the right music out of so much music out there."
Music placed in television series, movies and commercials has helped propel the careers of many indie artists — Apple commercials alone have featured music from indie bands such as the Blue Van, the Boy Least Likely To and the Fratellis, among others.
But making the right musical connection can sometimes be like finding a needle in a haystack. While music has come at music supervisor Gary Calamar from every direction, he usually relies on music libraries and performing rights organizations to seek out new music, but it also comes in serendipitous ways. For example, Calamar had never heard indie singer/songwriter Cary Ann Hearst's song "Hell's Bells," but the title alone was enticing enough for Calamar to give it a listen. The next stop for her song was the end credit crawl on an episode of the HBO series "True Blood."
"It's rare when it happens that way," says Calamar, who hosts a radio program on KCRW in Los Angeles and has also placed music for other TV shows such as "Dexter" and "House."
Ralph Sall has been a music supervisor for film and television for more than 20 years, placing key songs in movies including Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charlotte's Web, and television series such as the Nickelodeon teen drama "Degrassi."
Sall says that TV series are where the biggest opportunities for music placement lie for independent artists. "Television is a beast that requires constant feeding," he says.
However, it's not necessarily where the biggest paydays are. Sall says it's not uncommon for artists to agree to synch licenses for as little as $1,500 to $3,000, compared with the five- and six-figure licenses that chart-toppers by major artists command in major motion pictures.
But Sall believes the trade-off for exposure is usually worth more than a smaller synch advance, especially if the artists develop a sense of which shows best suit their music. He notes that artists such as the Academy Is…, All Time Low, Natasha Bedingfield, and Paramore all agreed to relatively low synch license buyouts early on for "Degrassi," and all benefited when the series became a teen tastemaker. Furthermore, Sall says artists can make step deals: one amount for the initial broadcast but additional payments for reruns and DVD sales.
Tess Taylor, president of the National Association of Record Industry Professionals, thinks placement of music in television shows, movies and commercials offers more opportunities for indie artists than radio.
"Radio is concentrated and getting added to playlists generally requires promotion campaigns and big budgets that are beyond the reach of the average artist," says Taylor.
But while radio may be challenging, the number of opportunities for indie musicians in TV and film has increased in recent years with cuts in production budgets. However, with film studios being open to the idea of lower-cost indie music, there's also no shortage of aspiring artists wishing to, literally, score those opportunities. Sall says his email inbox is "choked" with submissions from music libraries, record labels and other sources.
"I have to be careful because it could easily get overwhelming," says Sall, who uses online sources such as Mojo and Pitchfork to stay current with the indie scene. "It has to come from a trusted source."
But how does one become a music supervisor?
"Get let go from a major record label," jokes Houlihan.
The punch line is a bit of a dark humor commentary on the industry landscape that's seen many former record label employees try their hands at music supervision. But while Houlihan quickly points out that music supervisors have to be intimately familiar with the workflow of films and television, he also acknowledges the newfound power of the position.
"A lot of what we do is what record labels had done for years," he says. "Find new music and find a place for it."
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)