How To Be A Music Supervisor, or Logic Puzzles For Music Nerds

Yesterday afternoon I had a conversation with someone who had missed Bits, Bytes and Music Rights in New York. He currently works at a company where I used to work, so let’s call him Andy for the purposes of this post. Andy mainly wanted to attend the seminar to find out what everyone seems to want to find out. He wanted to find out how to become a music supervisor. 

These days I deal more with the contractual end of music rights, the negotiations and paperwork that tell the story of how those songs really got into the film, iPhone game, web video or TV show.* I still get this question often, though certainly not as often as when I was working on the creative supervision side of things. All jokes aside, I’m pretty sure there has to be some kind of cynical, hilarious tweet from @FauxMusicSupe about the legions of aspiring music supervisors out there in “I’d like to work in the music business” land.

My answer to Andy was the same as it would have been several years ago when I was still buried under stacks of CDs and able to find myself guestlisted at more rock shows. It wasn’t a sexy answer, and I think most would-be aspiring music supervisors would be pretty disappointed to learn about what really matters in the profession. 

If you want to become a music supervisor, learn about music rights. You should of course know the difference between a master recording and a composition, and be able to call out an interpolation or a sample when you hear one, as well as understand the implications for your client, the director you would like to please. You should understand how the creative decision-making process unfurls over the course of a project for a particular type of media and be able to identify the little things that will become big issues later on, like the friend’s band who played for free or the song that is public domain but not really public domain because it is actually a copyrighted arrangement. (Addendum: at another point in time, I’ll try to cover these subjects at greater length because they’re nerdy and interesting to people who do what I do.)

After the phone calls, the emails, the clearance requests, the counter-offers, the administrivia and the last-hour creative replacements, it all comes down to a massive spreadsheet that could span ten pages. A few music supervisors get to a point in their careers where they can focus primarily on the creative side of things and delegate the paperwork to a clearance agent or apprentice. However, many in the profession can and do continue to handle or at least intimately comprehend the numerous tiny, but important quirks about each song, the parties involved and both past and prior terms negotiated. Anyone with an MacBook Pro and an iTunes account can call themselves a DJ these days, but to be a music supervisor, to really embrace the work and carve out opportunities in the profession, you need to have a working understanding of the business side of things. That kind of knowledge is specialized and valuable, and as you continue your career in music licensing, you will continue to learn from all of the deals you see and handle, from the trivial and easy to the nightmare crises, and will become more and more employable. 

Not long ago McSweeney’s published a delightful set of hipster logic puzzles. Recently as I stared down a ten-page spreadsheet of contingencies and dependencies in the attempt to wrap up a long-overdue film at the eleventh hour, it occurred to me that this was its own kind of logic puzzle not unlike what you might find on the LSAT. So in the spirit of learning, here is a sample rights scenario that is simple because it involves only three songs, and I don’t mention territory or what media rights might be involved. Note that if you’re dealing with more than one type of media right, and the rights are broken up, you would (ideally, unless the copyright holders don’t respond) get individual quotes from every one  of these players which you also need to sort out. 

Read the information below, and field the questions that a music supervisor might get. How much money does everyone get paid, and what can we do to save some dollars in the project budget? What would change if we only released this project in the United States versus worldwide? I’ll post my thoughts and responses in the next blog post, but in the meantime, I’m interested in hearing what your assessments are.

  • Song 1 by Artist 2 is controlled by Label A on the master side, and by one major publisher B on the publishing side (95%) and an independent publisher C (5%) whose share represents the British Reversionary Territorys — BRT for short, kids! Label A clears for $5,000/side on a most favored nations basis with all labels and publishers in the project. Major publisher B owes you a favor and agrees to clear for $2,500/side but requests most favored nations with the label. Independent publisher C is clueless and clears for $1,000/side. To make things simple, let’s assume everyone was clearing on the assumption that their quote represents 100% of the master or composition. 
  • Song 2 by Artist 2 is written by two writers, one deceased and one living, and is controlled on the master side by Label B. All signs suggest that both writers control a 50% share of the song, but the dead writer’s daughter claims that he owns all of it and you can’t find the other writer. The daughter wants as much as you are paying for the master because money is awesome. Artist 2 had a falling out with Label B and wants to know if you will use his separate recording of Song 2, to which he claims he owns the rights and which he re-recorded with the band recently years after their heyday.  Label B quotes $10,000/side  because this was a very famous recording from a very famous band.
  • Song 3 by Artist 3 is published in part by Publisher B (30% representing the rest of the world excluding Spain, and the United States and its territories), in part by the daughter of deceased songwriter of Song 2 (10% representing Spain) and in part by major publisher D (60% representing the United States and its territories). Publisher B, who owed you that favor, clears this too for $2,500/side. Publisher C Publisher D wants $6,000/side. Song 3 was performed on-screen; no master to clear.

* * *
Addendum: “Major publisher C” should actually read “major publisher D” and I have made this change above. Thanks MaryCatherine Finley for catching this.

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    This is exactly what I do, all day, every day, in case anyone was curious. I’m currently dealing with: Song 4 by Artist...
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