How music supervisors create iconic TV moments
When Susan Jacobs took home the first-ever Outstanding Music Supervision Emmy Award at the Creative Arts Emmys on September 10 for her work on the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, her win represented not only a triumph for the veteran TV music supervisor but a major milestone for an industry that has been instrumental in shaping some of television’s most memorable scenes.
Whether it was Sia’s “Breathe Me” on Six Feet Under, or “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men, or that infamous OC scene with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a well-placed song can amplify the emotional intensity and resonance of a moment, elevating it to fame. While a flawless pairing of scene and soundtrack can feel perfectly serendipitous, these moments are the result of hard work. The results of someone poring through thousands of tracks, working with the show’s creatives to find the right track. That’s to say nothing of securing permission to use it – this is a music supervisor job, in a nutshell.
It’s important to note that other aspects of TV production have been recognized by the Emmys for years. Surprisingly, this essential component of television is only now starting to receive accolades on the same level.
Music supervision at The Emmy’s
This year marks the first time the Emmys have had an Outstanding Music Supervision category, and while there could only be one victor (in addition to Jacobs, the inaugural Emmy class for Outstanding Music Supervision included Kerri Drootin and Zach Cowie for Master of None; Thomas Golubić for Better Call Saul; Manish Raval, Jonathan Leahy, and Tom Wolfe for Girls; and Nora Felder for Stranger Things).
The moment is being celebrated all across the tight-knit music supervision industry as a major step in finally receiving attention for the crucial role music supervisors play in crafting the mood of a TV show’s most pivotal moments. (Also notable: Unlike the other music-related Emmy categories, like Outstanding Music Composition or Outstanding Music Direction — where the 2017 nominees were nearly all male — the Outstanding Music Supervision category boasted a much more gender-diverse slate, with several women nominees and a woman winner.)
Still, even as the rise of peak TV has spurred an interest in and recognition for the job, and even though there are more websites than ever devoted to exploring the use of music on TV, there’s a lot that people don’t know about how it works. So to get a better sense of what music supervision entails, we spoke to some of the most distinguished names in the industry. about how their work has evolved, the ins and outs of what they do, and why they think their field is finally starting to be seen as the vital creative endeavor that it is.
What is music supervision?
Put simply, music supervision is the job of sourcing the songs that make up a TV show or movie soundtrack. Supervisors are responsible for “clearing” each song with publishers and copyright holders, obtaining permission to license for legal usage.
While TV writers themselves will occasionally build a scene around a specific song, like The Office’s cringeworthy “Life Is a Highway” road trip montage in season five, for the most part, a music supervisor works with a show’s producers and writers to come up with song choices that fit scenes, illustrate the emotions of characters, and help create the desired atmosphere.
Maggie Phillips, who works on three different FX series — Fargo, Legion, and Snowfall — says one of the most important aspects of the job is the ability to occupy a character’s state of mind, and to craft an appropriate musical palette by relying on a heightened sense of empathy.
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