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How music supervisors create iconic TV moments

The job was just recognized by the Emmys for the first time ever. Here’s how it works.

Reese Witherspoon on Big Little Lies
Reese Witherspoon on HBO’s Big Little Lies, whose music supervisor Susan Jacobs recently won the first-ever Emmy for Music Supervision.

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. And while a flawless pairing of scene and soundtrack can feel perfectly serendipitous, these moments are almost always the result of someone poring through thousands of tracks and spending hours working with the show’s creative team to find exactly the right tune, to say nothing of securing permission to use it. That’s the job of the music supervisor, in a nutshell.

But while other aspects of TV production that are just as important to storytelling — including costume design, makeup, and music composition — have been recognized by the Emmys and other awards bodies for years, this essential component of television is only now starting to receive accolades on the same level.

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, I spoke to many of the most distinguished names in the industry — including some of this year’s inaugural Emmy nominees — 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 the soundtrack of a TV show or movie. In addition to actually choosing the music, supervisors are responsible for “clearing” each song with its publishers and copyright holders, by obtaining permission to license it so that it can be used legally.

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.

“You have to be very empathetic to do this, because you have to be able to put yourself in all these characters’ lives and feel what they’re feeling,” Phillips told me. “You’re listening for a bunch of different people, and that would probably be challenging be if you don’t have a lot of empathy. That’s why I know I’m good at my job — I used to be empathetic to a fault.”

What are some common misconceptions about the job?

The opportunity to select music for a show may sound like a dream job, but while many music supervisors are grateful to be in their specific line of work, they stressed that there is a lot more to the job than just browsing Spotify or thumbing through record store racks all day.

“I think the largest misconception is just that music supervision is about having good taste in music,” Rob Lowry, who currently works on Freeform’s The Bold Type and was previously involved with FXX’s Man Seeking Woman, told me. “Sure, that's a part of it, but it encompasses many things. You're dealing with budgets, you're negotiating fees, researching copyrights ... it's all one big puzzle.”

Thomas Golubić, who was nominated for the inaugural Music Supervision Emmy for his work on Better Call Saul and who previously worked on Breaking Bad, highlighted the differences between the work of a music supervisor and that of a composer.

“In many ways, the composer’s role — not always, but very much in Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad — is to be in the chair of the audience,” he told me, explaining that composers are often writing music that heightens or reacts to the emotion of the moment and doesn’t necessarily factor into a longer-term character and plot arcs the way a music supervisor’s selections might. “[Viewers] don’t have any more information [about an episode or a plot] than what they have in front of them. Whereas the supervisors are very much crafting and arcing out ideas that we are changing and revising as we go.”

It’s also important to understand that music supervisors are but one part of a larger storytelling organism. Kerry Drootin, who was Emmy-nominated for Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None alongside her co-supervisor Zach Cowie, noted that the job necessitates working toward achieving the vision of a show’s producers, which can clash with a supervisor’s personal taste.

“There’s a case like Master of None and these rare unicorns of shows where you can actually [choose music that appeals to you personally], but they’re pretty few and far between for the most part. A lot of people think you just get to put in your favorite songs and it’s super cool and ‘I have great taste, so I’m going to show it off,’” Drootin told me. “In reality, you’re working for the producers, and you have to help make the show that they want. A lot of times you’re dealing with music that might not be your favorite, and you really have to get your ego out of the way a lot more than a lot of people expect.”

While music supervision bears some passing similarities to the record industry job of A&R — a.k.a. “artists and repertoire” — in terms of discovering new artists and music, being a TV music supervisor doesn’t provide nearly as much of an opportunity to create a platform for rising artists as many might believe. The field is actually rather technical, requiring knowledge of how to track down the owners of a song’s publishing rights and the way to properly clear a track for use on a show.

“A lot of it is creative and listening to music and finding that perfect spot. But that takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of time, and then there’s a lot of production and paperwork and a lot of negotiations of dealing with budgets and dealing with the rights and clearance,” said Phillips. “There is some discovery of artists, but it’s much more about discovery of what tools work to tell the story and add to the story and the characters.”

Sometimes the clearance process is a breeze. Often, it’s not.

Since music supervisors frequently pull from all over the music world and all different time periods (as opposed to what’s currently on the radio in the US), there’s rarely a standard way a placement happens. This can sometimes require kissing up to a song’s publisher or the artist themselves — and sometimes there’s plenty of difficulty in just figuring out how to make a clearance request in the first place.

One of the most instantly recognizable songs to appear in last year’s surprise hit Stranger Things was the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which plays at several important moments in the story and symbolizes not only the supernatural struggles of the missing Will Byers but also his relationship with his older brother, Jonathan. Stranger Things music supervisor and Emmy nominee Nora Felder recalls that getting permission to use such a well-known song was no small feat.

“With Stranger Things being a first-season show, [“Should I Stay or Should I Go”] needed to be cleared purely based on the synopsis and scene descriptions provided, which proved to be tricky, because we were selling a new show no one had seen yet and it was about kids and monsters from an alternate world,” Felder told me. “Also, as the uses of this song evolved with every new chapter of Stranger Things, we needed to be even more cautious about each revised clearance request. We wanted to make sure that the Clash and their representatives did not think we were trivializing the use of their song.”

But at least in the case of “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” there was a straightforward path to getting Stranger Things’ proposal in front of the right people. Occasionally, the question of whom to talk to about clearance is more muddled than you might think.

For Drootin, Master of None’s penultimate season two episode, “Amarsi Un Po’,” hinged on the titular Lucio Battisti song, and tracking down the rights holder — Battisti’s widow, Grazia Letizia Veronese — was a herculean effort. Though the majority of rights to Battisti’s music is controlled by major labels and publishers, “Amarsi Un Po’” is controlled by Veronese, and in Drootin’s preliminary research, she found that Veronese seemingly had never allowed for any of her late husband’s music that she controlled to be used for TV shows.

“I spent months on it,” Drootin recounted. “Zach [Cowie] is the sweetest guy in the world, and he’d send me these [messages] like, ‘Hey, just checking in. Aziz really needs this song.’ Of course it’s like the one song [Ansari] was dead set on. There were so many times where I was like, ‘I’m done; I can’t spend my life on this song. It’s crazy — I have other shows, I’m doing other things, I have to move on. Pick a backup.’ And they wouldn’t.”

The break finally came when someone at Universal Publishing, which controls some of Battisti’s music, connected Drootin with the company’s Italian office, which managed to get her proposal in front of Veronese.

“I got this email from her that was like, ‘Yeah, we’d love to do this. Next time just reach out to me directly; this could have gone a lot smoother. You could have had an answer months ago!’” Drootin said. “It all worked out literally two days before the mix. I had [spent] five or six months on it, and I really didn’t think it was going to happen. We’d just picked a backup, and then this one came through really at the last minute.”

And Cowie says he couldn’t be more impressed with his colleague’s work on the season. “Kerri blew all of our minds with [her] continued creative input as well as her skillful navigation of the extremely tricky Italian repertoire we chose to lean on,” he told me.

Yet even when making contact is easy, sometimes the process of convincing an artist to allow a show to use their song can be an incredibly time-consuming endeavor.

“There was a song I cleared for Fargo season two that I kept talking to one of the songwriters once a week [for an hour], just shooting the shit, chatting, hand holding, so they would agree to give it to me,” said Phillips. “That’s the part people don’t understand is clearing songs — there’s no rhyme or reason to it, and it’s not the same for each song [or] even each part of the song. You have to manage tons of relationships and know how to work with many different personalities.”

What is the typical dynamic between supervisors and other people working on a show?

For many shows, the process of sourcing music starts with a conversation between the show’s writers and producers as work begins on a season.

“Our practice generally for Better Call Saul is that we’ll meet in the beginning of a season with the writers’ room before they’ve written any scripts yet,” Golubić told me. “All they have are outlines and a general sense of the arc of the characters. We start to calibrate almost a seasonal arc that is going to be touching upon some of those themes, developing some of those textures, carrying those characters into new areas of music, potentially, or new fascinations, or introducing new characters that have new palettes.”

Manish Raval, a 2017 Emmy nominee alongside Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Leahy for the trio’s work on Girls, said that throughout the show’s six-season run, he and his co-supervisors were constantly gathering music that elicited a strong reaction in them and that they felt could potentially be right for the show.

“Anytime we’re supplied a scene where we have to find music for it, the first thing we like to go to is this bag of tricks we’ve set aside — these are things that we’ve had emotional responses to, [so] let’s see if any of these work in the scene,” Raval told me. “Now, if we can’t find anything there, then we do the scouring of trying to find something similar, or maybe they have an idea that they’d given us direction for, if it’s something so wildly different than what our initial response is.”

In the case of working on a show with a very distinct authorial vision like Lena Dunham’s on Girls or Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s on Master of None, a close, collaborative relationship is practically required between the music supervisor and the creators.

“We always felt like [Dunham] was the final say [on Girls], and over the years of getting to know her more and more, we wanted to find what her personal taste was,” said Raval. “The way we operated was that we had a very fluid musical relationship. … Even when we finished working on a particular season and you go on hiatus and see each other next year, we never stopped working with each other. We just had a year-round continuous musical friendship.”

Before starting work on Master of None, Drootin had previously worked with Ansari and Yang on the NBC series Parks and Recreation, and said she felt that a lot of Parks and Rec’s music-heavy scenes were Ansari’s. In contrast to Master of None, a lot of Parks and Rec’s songs were written in as jokes (like Andy’s band Mouse Rat’s Lil Sebastian ode “5000 Candles in the Wind”), and that made working on Master of None a much more intensive experience for her as a music supervisor, since it relies so heavily on sourced music.

“I knew [Aziz] was going to definitely have ideas for what he’d want for Master of None, but this show is way more wall-to-wall music,” said Drootin.

Why do supervisors think they’re finally receiving mainstream recognition?

“The level of content has risen so much. You start with The Sopranos and The Wire, and now there are so many excellent programs you don’t even have time to watch them all,” Fargo’s Phillips told me. “As the content has risen, excellence is the norm now as opposed to the anomaly. Excellent storytelling demands excellent production design, acting, editing, lighting, and then also music.”

While the rise of Peak TV coincides with increased exposure for music supervisors, the efforts of the Guild of Music Supervisors cannot be overlooked. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2010, with the mission of both being a resource for working music supervisors across different visual mediums, including film and TV, and raising awareness of the profession among other sections of the entertainment industry.

Better Call Saul’s Golubić, who now serves as the guild’s president, has plans to continue to develop a community within the music supervision world, as well as to increase the industry’s recognition and visibility. In particular, now that the Emmys have added a music supervision category, having a similar category added to the Oscars is one of the guild’s major goals.

“From my perspective, the recognition of this new category had a lot to do with efforts by the Guild of Music Supervisors, which has only been active for less than a decade,” Stranger Things’ Felder told me. “Before the guild, we really never had a unified voice to speak out on our behalf. Due to the tireless efforts of a handful of music supervisors calling for change, the guild was formed and became our voice.”

Another reason Golubić believes music supervision is garnering more attention is that Peak TV has made it abundantly clear that television is naturally a great place to showcase music, because its fluidity allows for a show’s relationship with music to change and evolve over the course of its run.

“I think [the increased attention on music supervision] is really reflective primarily of the fact that television has become, in my mind, the best place for music supervision work, partly because you’re dealing with time constraints and you’re dealing with budget constraints and you’re dealing with serialized stories, which means that you can use music in a way that is a little more shifting over the course of time,” he said. “Some shows may use music very minimally in the beginning and then realize ‘We’re missing an opportunity here,’ and you can course-correct.”

The Bold Type’s Lowry also suspects that music supervision’s increased prominence stems in part, at least from the music industry’s perspective, from the fact that licensing and clearance fees are accounting for a larger share of a diminishing music revenue pie.

“I think that soundtracks have always been a cool thing. I remember being a kid and buying the Armageddon soundtrack or the Titanic soundtrack or Reality Bites or Almost Famous,” he told me. “But I think it’s taking a little bit more of a front-and-center approach right now because sync [licensing songs for use in visual media like TV shows or video games] is a huge way — and one of the big and only ways — for artists to make money, and there’s money to be made for them. So along with audiences focusing on it, [getting music into TV shows is] a huge priority for artists and labels.”

Even with music supervision’s increased profile, there is still work to be done

The new Emmy category is a major step toward music supervisors receiving the same level of credit and exposure as other behind-the-scenes creative players. Golubić stressed the importance of better pay, explaining that a typical salary for a music supervisor is “closer to your local Starbucks barista” than to that of a composer.

Perhaps that’s why Jacobs told Variety following her win, “We’re sort of like the bastard children” of the TV world.

As Peak TV continues to dominate the media landscape and fans keep becoming more invested in different elements of the television series they follow, music supervision will only become more important. And the goal of the music supervision industry is to leverage that interest into recognition and exposure for the people spending the long hours finding songs, tracking down their rights, and helping get them to the screen.

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