The Union Forever | SXSW Edition: On Set with Music Supervisors

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I got off the plane in Austin, Texas and headed directly to meet up with LMB’s Justin and Sam, as well Dave from Earvolution.com at a taco place on 2nd street. They had just finished their 11am breakfast and we were headed to the best bar in downtown Austin, the Mohawk on Red River and 7th. That’s about all the definite facts I remember, the rest was muddied in a fog of Sparks, heat stroke, foot failure and Lone Star tallboys. But, I did stay focused for one morning to attend the panel discussion of music supervision in film and television.


SXSW.com described the panel like this:

Music placement in TV and film promotes artists in unique and powerful ways. The process of pitching and placing music relies on the taste of the people involved, rather than market research. Learn how music supervisors look to indie artists to distinguish their projects.

Even though the panelists claimed licensing music for television truly began with the shows The Wonder Years and Miami Vice, the boom for indie labels didn’t begin until around 2000. At this time, executives began looking to the Sub Pop’s and the Matador’s because they had unique artists that could be had for less. Their catalogues hadn’t been overplayed on the FM radio and independent artists were looking to generate more income.

Well, this model of cool by association worked pretty well for Jennifer Czeisler, VP of Licensing for Sub Pop. According to her, their licensing income has risen steadily since 2000 and she claims that television “is a whole new world” for independent artists. Just an FYI, given that Band of Horses is on Sub Pop, Jennifer is the woman responsible for the Wal-Mart debacle and the Ford commercials. She is also partly responsible for Band of Horses netting a number one spot on the Billboard Top Independent Albums and a number 35 spot on the Billboard 200, an impressive position for an independent artist.


Band of Horse Ford Commercial – You Tube

I guess the ironic, or unfortunate, part about creative executives capitalizing on an independent artist’s uniqueness is that one of the main reasons fans become fans is the allure of the “pure artist”. Once an audience feels that an artist has become somewhat commercial they cool off and, rather than taking the highroad/passive form of walking away from fandom, the hurt hipster yells obscenities as he or she runs away telling all his or her friends that Band of Horses sucks. Now, Band of Horses didn’t change as a band overnight, but their persona, or image, definitely changed dramatically in the minds of these pure seekers. For a detailed description of the troubles of being in possession of a persona, see Grant Gee’s 1998 documentary on Radiohead, Meeting People is Easy. (As an aside, I am using Band of Horses as my example, but I could have easily demonstrated this same point with Of Montreal, Feist, or Wilco.)

So in order to understand exactly why artists, labels, or the corporations paying for the television show or commercial would enter into such a controversial form of product association, the panelists relayed the process of creating the background music. First, of all they made it clear that no two shows approach the issue of licensing the same way and therefore there is no automated process. The soundtrack to Heroes is added in post-production to fit the mood, Lipstick Jungle’s songs are written into the script (a no-no for aspiring teleplay writers, though) while other shows’ creative teams simply pick songs from a mixtape made by one of the four people that sat in front of me. I guess this is the part where SXSW alluded to them as the tastemakers. So, sometimes the music is developed along with the production and sometimes these music supervisors are called in to consult, but they always approach the decision financially and with respect to the availability of material.

For instance, Lyle Hysen represents Arcade Fire, who are known to detest the idea of music licensing. Aside from creating an original song for the Six Feet Under OST, Arcade Fire have never and will never license. Hysen said that he repeatedly takes calls from high ranking industry people and sometime celebrities wanting to use the Fire’s music in their next project. He has to explain that they don’t license and inevitably, the person will say something like, “Well, can I talk to the band?” at which point Hysen offers to pass on an email but promises nothing, which is always what happens.

But the Arcade Fire way is not the dominant model. Most labels incorporate licensing efforts into the marketing campaign as a way to both get exposure for a new release and generate additional income for a band in an era of shrinking record sales. Czeisler remarked that when Sub Pop sits down to discuss the marketing strategy with the band, (gasp! A label that considers the opinion of its clients!) she asks two main questions: 1. How do you feel about licensing? 2. What do you not want to do? Most bands are open to some forms of licensing, but most also initially object to the idea of associating their music with a motor company. Still, once they learn that they can earn a good chunk of the $20K-plus fee companies are willing to pay for a license, they quickly agree to it. The flexibility the extra cash gives a band should be a positive sign to fans, not a death sentence. But, when you confuse persona and person, these missteps are bound to happen and cannot be cured without an overhaul of the way we see and interpret popular culture. In other words, we will see more product associations in the future, so get used to it and try to like a band for their music and ignore the static.

Obviously, the people whose job it is to be in favor of licensing are in favor of it, and I am kind of on the fence, but what do you all think? Would you be mad if your favorite band became a passive spokesperson for Apple, Dodge, or Wal-Mart? I mean, Apple is cooler than Wal-mart, but it is still a company benefiting from capitalist ideals, right? How cool does a company’s products have to be for it to be ok for your favorite band to be associated with it? Or is it more absolute? Such as all companies or no companies are fair game? What about political campaigns? I’m very interested to know what you think, so leave a comment and we can extend this discussion into next week’s column.

Also, some interesting info I learned at the panel:
• A way for TV shows to save money on licensing is to include a song on its broadcast but cut it from the DVD.
• The CSS song “Music is My Hot Hot Sex” that appears in an iPod commercial came from a fan that made the commercial and posted it online where an Apple marketer saw it and co-opted it. The fan made no money on the deal.
• VP of Music Creative Services at NBC Universal Television Alicen Schneider often uses the line, “This song will make you cool because no one has heard it before,” when pitching a song to a producer.
• The one time use of Arcade Fire during the Super Bowl was perfectly legal and actually expected given that there are apparently Arcade Fire fans working at Fox.
• The broadcast of the summer Olympics in Beijing will use similar loopholes to legally use tons of indie rock songs for montages, backgrounds and the like, so watch out for interesting juxtapositions. I predict Vampire Weekend, The Whigs and Yeasayer will bear most of the burden.
• There is around 200 people responsible for 90% of the music supervisor jobs in television and film with 5-6 main players in each of the disciplines.
• Even though the Heroes OST is plagued with indie rock hits, Rogue Wave was left off despite Sub Pop and the show’s music supervisor being in favor of it. (read: higher-ups still hold grudges, people)
• The one show that all bands say yes to: Weeds.

  • doubleagame

    Thanks for posting this panel wrap-up. I tried making it over between 3 different shows but never broke away.

  • doubleagame

    Thanks for posting this panel wrap-up. I tried making it over between 3 different shows but never broke away.