The term “music supervisor” may conjure the image of a foreman on a worksite, a bundle of keys jangling on his belt as he oversees musical laborers of some kind. But for the women and men who claim the title, it is a term of creative artistry — and this year, the Television Academy agrees.
In September, the inaugural Emmy Award will be granted for outstanding music supervision. It’s an acknowledgment that the folks who select, license and place songs and other preexisting music are key contributors to small-screen storytelling. The honor was lobbied for by the Guild of Music Supervisors, particularly board member Thomas Golubic, whose television credits include “Breaking Bad,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Better Call Saul.”
“It’s definitely evolved,” Golubic said of his profession. “Like all crafts, the excellence in the craft is largely representative of the ambitions of the medium. Television, in particular, has had such a resurgence in the last few years.”
He singled out “The Sopranos,” as many have, as the dawn of the new TV renaissance.
“[It] was like a one-hour movie that you got in installments,” he said. “And the fact that they did not use score, and that they used songs exclusively, I think was a real innovation, and I think that it opened up the door for a lot of other shows.”
Golubicć is one of this year’s first class of nominees for his work on “Better Call Saul.” The others are Zach Cowie and Kerri Drootin for “Master of None,” Nora Felder for “Stranger Things,” Susan Jacobs for “Big Little Lies,” and Manish Raval, Jonathan Leahy and Tom Wolfe for “Girls.”
Each show represents a recent explosion in the creative opportunities for music supervisors, series where songs play integral roles, oftentimes roles that instrumental scoring has traditionally filled. It’s a new aesthetic, using the unique power of songs — with their lyrics and cultural currency — to provide subtext or subversion or nostalgic emotion.
“I think what [Golubic] does often is to peel back what’s going on on the surface, and evoke things that are going on deeper into the story,” said Peter Gould, executive producer on “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” “In both shows, we have a lot of characters who usually don’t say what they mean, or in some cases, don’t even understand what’s going on with themselves all that well. The music that Thomas brings to it often hits a note that nothing else really could.”
Gould cited two recent examples from “Better Call Saul.” For a montage of Nacho (Michael Mando) making dummy pills to eliminate his boss, Golubicć suggested the Fink song “Cold Feet,” which sings the line “Always walking a vicious circle” over a fuzzy guitar riff. In another, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) takes his frustration out on his car’s cupholder — set to the surprising strains of a Bollywood love duet.
“It’s amazing how much flexibility the show is capable of,” Golubicć said. “Maybe part of it is the fact that it takes wild aesthetic choices and risks that still speak really closely to the characters.”
In the nominated episode of “Girls,” Hannah (Lena Dunham) walks through a quaint college town accompanied by Bert Jansch’s folksy “Running From Home.”
“Here’s a very amazing, classic song playing that maybe tells you that Hannah’s grown up,” Raval said. “She’s moved on from Manhattan, and she’s in this new place, and she’s a new person. And then we instantly go to her on the bus with headphones, jamming to Miley Cyrus and Mike Will Made It [on the song “23”] and just bopping her head. It’s like, ‘Oh wait, no — Hannah’s still Hannah.’”
The series, which ended in April, often used songs to reveal something about its characters.
“We’re constantly trading with Lena just tons and tons of bins of music,” Raval said. “Not just that we like for specific scenes, but just that we like in life. Like, these are songs that move us emotionally, that we love, these make us want to dance, these make us want to cry, these are just heartfelt or celebratory songs. It’s almost like the olden days of trading mix tapes.”
Drootin and Cowie worked similarly with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the creators and showrunners of “Master of None.” The music supervision duo knew the second season would begin in Italy, and before scripts were even written, they began compiling Italian-flavored playlists. That expanded to disco and synth-pop to underscore their version of New York City.
“A conversation that we all had, even in the beginning of Season One, is this idea of permanence,” said Cowie. “We kind of took some cues from movies like ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ where Woody Allen was taking contemporary subject matter and putting Gershwin behind it. . . . You get into a dangerous situation when you match contemporary subject matter with brand new music, because both of those things might lose their relevance in a few years.”
Cowie used to work for various record labels developing bands. Golubicć is a former radio DJ. Nora Felder was the vice president of Phil Ramone’s music production company. Such backgrounds are common in the field and have equipped music supervisors with a deep well of musical knowledge — as well as a business savvy that is essential to their job.
“A lot of the interviews [I’ve done] are revolved around the creative — the creative, the creative,” said Felder. “It’s part of the misconception. I know that’s the flashy part of the job, so to speak, but all those other parts are equally so important. There’s a fine art to negotiation, especially when you’re dealing with very large copyrights. There’s a fine art to balancing your budget.”
Felder has been music supervising for 20 years and called it “a very left brain/right brain job.” Much of her time is spent researching and tracking down copyright holders, negotiating deals and discerning how to license — and afford — everything her producers want to use.
The Duffer Brothers, creators of “Stranger Things,” fell in love with Peter Gabriel’s haunting cover of the David Bowie song, “Heroes,” used over an emotional moment connected to the fate of the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). Felder was working to clear the rights just when Bowie died, which threw the song’s use in jeopardy.
“We tried many, many, many [other] songs,” she said. “And many worked well, but nothing told that moment, at the time when you thought that Will was gone and they were pulling him out of the water, and you were feeling the emotions of the town thinking they had this discovery. The way [‘Heroes’] told it from the musical standpoint wasn’t the obvious, but it was perfect.”
At the last minute, to everyone’s relief, the song cleared.
Music supervision was born in film, where in the early days songs were often more about “needle-drop” set dressing and less about subtly enhancing story. Golubicć noted “2001: A Space Odyssey” — in which Stanley Kubrick cleverly used preexisting classical pieces instead of original score — and “The Graduate’s” Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack as early examples of supervision as an art form.
“I think, in a way, the irreplaceability of music to the storytelling process is a key part of it,” he said. “When you started getting into the nuances of pop music and counterpoint and irony, and all the different layers of sophistication that happened, that was a switch-up.”
Quentin Tarantino and music supervisor Karyn Rachtman’s use of songs in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction” was a milestone in creative music supervision, but it spawned a decade of much less creative, more commercially driven work.
“Suddenly there was this boom of soundtracks,” said Raval. “The record industry actually realized how valuable soundtracks were, and movie studios realized how huge they could be for marketing their movies. … We would have labels ponying up over a million dollars for an advance just to make a soundtrack to a random John Travolta movie.”
Soundtrack sales plummeted in the age of Napster (and now Spotify), which hollowed out music budgets. But with the proliferation of auteur-driven series on cable and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, freedom to use music in new and surprising ways has abounded.
In all of the shows nominated — and countless others, from “Transparent” to “Fargo” to “The Leftovers” — supervisors are no longer pressured to sell records or satisfy committees. Instead, they collaborate with writers and producers, in many cases young creatives who themselves have an eclectic taste in songs, and become a vital part of the story.
“It’s building a palette of sounds and ideas that are intellectually connected to each other, emotionally connected to each other, and resonant with the story that’s being told,” said Golubic. “If all of those elements are there, that to me is worthy of an Emmy.”