This Article Originally Published April 1999
by Donald Passman
Music supervisors are a relatively new breed of individual that didn’t exist until about 1980. Now, they’re in widespread use, and are always hired for a film that has music as a major element.
The music supervisor’s job, as the title implies, is to coordinate all the music for a picture. He or she first sits down with the producer and director to work out the types of music needed, ideally before production. If the film is either a musical or relies heavily on music (such as a dance film), the music supervisor must be involved in advance. This is because songs performed on camera must be pre-recorded, meaning they’re made in a recording studio before commencement of photography of the film (and merely lip-synched or danced to on film). As you can imagine, it’s difficult to dance to a song not yet recorded.
After meeting with the director and producer, the music supervisor comes up with suggestions for artists, composers, songwriters, etc., for the film. The director and producer make the final decisions, and the supervisor then oversees the whole process of making it happen. He or she contacts the creative people, arranges for meetings with the film personnel, negotiates and structures the deals (or oversees the negotiation and structuring, depending on the supervisor and the film company), and supervises the recording sessions.
Done properly, being a music supervisor is one of the most difficult jobs on the Planet Earth. You start out with a number of strikes against you. First of all, other than pre-recorded music, most of the music can’t be finalized until the film is complete. The studio has millions of dollars riding on the fact that a film must be released on a specific date, and music is at best considered a minor element in the overall production, even if it’s a central element in the film.
The cost of a major music budget is maybe $1,500,000, while most major studio films are $30-$35 million, not to mention multi-millions for advertising and marketing. And a more typical music budget is about $500,000-$800,000. Moreover, most studio executives do not understand music nearly as well as they understand film–which is why they’re film executives instead of music executives. This can make it very difficult to conclude a deal–the executives think the prices and rights demanded by the music people are outrageous (which they often are), and they have no patience for the complexity of a bunch of little deals. Remember that each piece of music in a film can represent five deals, and because music comes in last, complicated deals have to be made under enormous time pressure, which increases the likelihood of mistakes geometrically. It is the music supervisor’s job to keep all these diverse, competing interests satisfied, and to ensure a happy ending.
Now that I’ve painted this bleak picture, let me say that good music supervisors are worth their weight in gold. They call on their relationships to get favors and smooth out difficult situations, thereby putting music into pictures that couldn’t be there any other way. Music supervisors are in a sense, “marriage brokers.” They creatively marry music and films, which is no easy process, as well as marry the two industries on a business level (which is even more difficult). For this reason, the top ones are paid handsomely.
Fees & Royalties By handsomely, I mean that the upper-level music supervisors get fees of $100,000 to $200,000 per picture (sometimes even more), and the majority fall in the range of $75,000 to $125,000. The top supervisors also have royalties on the soundtrack album, usually in the range of 1% to 2% of retail. A recent major supervisor deal I did was a $150,000 fee, with a royalty of 1% retail, escalating to 2% of retail for U.S. sales over 500,000 albums.