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Picking and Placing Instrumental Cues in Reality TV
Dave McIntosh (left) and Jonathan Weiss on stage during their interview at TAXI’s 2016 Road Rally.

Panelists: Jonathan Weiss, David McIntosh

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Jonathan Weiss is a Los Angeles-based music supervisor and music producer for film and television. He was Music Supervisor for over 130 episodes of the MTV series, The Real World/Road Rules, as well as for two seasons of the E! Entertainment series, I Am Cait. Jonathan also supervised music for over 60 episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians on E! Entertainment, the debut season, Motor City Masters on Tru TV, and Love Games for the Oxygen Channel. Other music supervision credits include The Weinstein Company feature film documentary and PBS’s American Masters Salinger, Interscope Presents The Next Episode for Showtime Entertainment, The Education of Max Bickford for CBS, U.C. Undercover for NBC, Celebrity Undercover for MTV, and the Warner Bros. Pictures theatrical release, The Big Tease. Jonathan has also worked in A&R for Capitol Records and Universal Music Publishing, as well as TAXI.

David McIntosh is a Reality TV Editor with Bunim-Murray Productions. Some of his credits include, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, E! Entertainment, Born This Way, A&E Networks, Rivals III, The Challenge Bloodlines, I Am Cait, Total Divas, Million Dollar Maze Runner, and MTV, just to name a few.

How important are descriptive cue titles that telegraph what the music is going to sound like to some extent? Something like Spooky Night in the Pumpkin Patch. Is that helpful in speeding up your workflow?
Jon: Yeah, it is. I think it’s important. It’s an important part of marketing your music. When I’m working on production music library stuff [for a catalog I own], 80% of the time, I’m coming up with the titles because I get a lot of cues with titles like, “Hip-hop cue #1,” or “Electro-tension #2.” So, I try to rename them whatever I think is going to get the most attention from an editor… something that’s going to match the intensity of the cue, or match the feel of the cue. It’s important to take the time and get it right.

Taking off your MTV or music supe hat, and putting on your TAXI A&R team hat for a moment, is it a fair statement to say that probably 10 or 15% of the cues that come in from our members will have a title like, “Halloween cue #1”?
Jon: Yeah. Sometimes it would be specific to the listing, like if the listing asks for Electro Tension and I’ll see submissions titled, “Electro-tension #1.” If it gets forwarded, then it will end up inevitably in a music supervisor’s hands, and it’s better to just come up with a title that’s more evocative of the cue and more exciting.

OK, getting back to the video of the show now. So we’re cutting the show. You want to show us some more stuff?
Dave: Kardashians. This one just aired about four weeks ago. This is gonna go through an act-in [the first thing coming back from commercial is action and dialogue]. You’ll see that there’s a little bit less music. We play it, the dialogue has to get it, but then the music will highlight the scene. [He plays the scene for the audience.]

"If the cue gets forwarded, then it will end up inevitably in a music supervisor’s hands, and it’s better to just come up with a title that’s more evocative of the cue and more exciting."-Jonathan Weiss

All right, so you’re watching this. How many people learned something about peaches and nectarines [the topic of the dialogue]? How many people could tell me what the genre of the music was under that scene? The best education you can give yourself as a musician who is pitching cues, is to learn to not pay attention to the dialogue! Watch scenes like that and make a note on a legal pad at night: What was going on there? There was a little tension between them, and there was a tension cue in there to support that mood.

Yesterday, we were talking with [music supervisor] Frank Palazzolo in this ballroom, and he pointed out that in a scene we were watching, “All you could hear really was the bass and a little rhythm.” So, in the end, it’s not about being a brilliant composer in the traditional sense. It’s more about being brilliant at creating music that evokes or supports an emotion or mood, even when it’s buried under dialogue – which it will be – frequently!

Jon: So, in that scene you can see for the transitions that show shots of Los Angeles, we amp up the music with sort of high energy electro, then we get into the scene and there was that sort of bouncy comedy cue… Did you edit that scene, Dave?

Dave: Yeah, there’s an interesting note on that one. That was originally an act-out and it got changed in the note process [notes from the show’s producer, most likely], and that’s why that cue was used. That was actually supposed to go a little longer to the end…

Jon: But they did let it breathe for a while. There was probably 20 seconds where there was no music, and I think that’s great. And then at the end—like you said, Michael—there was a little bit of a tension cue, sort of a hip-hop thing, and then the act-out, with no music.

Tell us what an act-out is, please.
Dave: That’s when we go to commercial break. So originally that was supposed to be like an Oh no, what is Scott going to do? So you’ve got to leave the question mark most of the time at the act-out. Like, what is he going to do? What are they going to do? What is the story going to do?

With Kardashians, actually, we would go into a coming-up-on. We’d do a tease for the next three or four acts remaining in the episode. It’s weird; now that I’m watching that again after about six weeks, I probably would’ve changed that cue at the end, because it’s not an act-out anymore. It actually continues into another scene.

Jon: Oh really. That wasn’t the act-out? But in any case, that’s sort of the flow, especially in this show. It’s like the emotions change every 20 seconds and Dave has to have these sub-genres in his edit sequence so he can just grab something.

Dave: Yeah, and the reason I chose that theme was because the transition into the scene is a high energy EDM cue and then you let it play. And on Kardashians you have a moment of levity, fun, and they’re just talking about stuff, and Scott goes off on the fruit and the nectarine. And then that’s when I go ahead and add kind of a quirky comedy cue just to enhance it a little bit. I even think there were times where I didn’t play a cue under that, and then the post-producer and I would get together and go, “Oh, no, let’s go over the top of that a little bit. And then they get into the serious part of the story. Khloe gives her opinion of what Scott should or should not do, and that’s when it’s a little more serious and I switch back to an EDM cue to create the tension.

When you are looking for music for a scene, are you thinking that that could use EDM, or are you thinking of the mood that you need to fill? How does your brain pick…
Dave: I’m really scatterbrained. I will constantly re-listen to songs in the music bin that Jonathan or the music supe has put in there. There are other editors who actually go, “Oh no, I want this for that,” or, “I want a hip-hop cue,” or “I want an EDM cue,” or “I want more orchestral for a certain tension scene.” Kardashians, they want to be more hip-hop or EDM. They want more of the hip-hop cues throughout the whole episode, the whole series. With tension, you can go EDM. So that’s kind of what they’ve given us in a way.

Then let me ask Jonathan the same thing. Do you think in terms ofgenre or mood when you’re choosing something?
Jon: I think a couple a couple ways. Each show is different. This show is a formula, and it became that way after several seasons after they found their footing, where they have those transitions, the music comes up that’s typically EDM. So, yeah, I would try to pick a specific genre, and that’s the one we usually go with. For the tension scenes, it doesn’t have to be any particular genre. If it’s a serious subject, it would just be a minimally arranged, pulsing tension cue. And for something like The Challenge, that would be different. I think in the earlier seasons we would have more of a harder rock sound, and we’ve sort of lessened that a bit and made it more electronic as EDM became more popular. Then it became dubstep and trap.

Most often-used genres. If you guys had to just blurt out genres that get used in reality TV over and over—so that these guys [in the audience] know what they might want to produce more of—what would those genres be?
Both: Definitely EDM!

Dave: Back in the day with Challenge,it was always rock. But now it’s EDM. I mean, on the shows I’ve been working on, it’s been EDM and hip-hop.

All right, do you want to do another scene?
Dave: This is I Am Cait. I believe she’s about ready to come out for the first time in a bathing suit. Do you remember that scene? [He plays the scene.]

So how many people in the room can honestly say 100% that you paid attention to all the music cues and know what they were. [Strong show of hands] Great. Excellent job! Because that’s what you’ve got to do. The road map is there; it’s staring you in the face every night on TV. If you want to know what kind of music they need and how it’s used, it’s there staring you in the face. You just have to train yourself to not give a darn about the dialogue or the plot. If you train yourself to do that, you’re gonna make Jonathan Weiss a really happy camper when he hears your music. And then he’s gonna make Dave a really happy camper when he hands it off to him.

Is there anything else that we need to demonstrate, or should I open this up to audience Q&A?
Jon: No, I think that sort of explains it. You know, each scene is different. You can see that we didn’t rely on a lot of heavy EDM there. It’s probably an older demographic show, but there’s still upbeat stuff.

Dave: And that was discussed. Like you said, you had the composer, and that was discussed with the post-producers and the EP. And they had an idea beforehand, which is great that they have an idea before the show even airs. That sometimes doesn’t happen. They might switch it totally, four episodes in.

And I noticed, I think it was the last piece of EDM, when they were out at the motocross place, it had a sense of freedom—emotionally uplifting. So how would you designate…? There are all kinds of EDM. There could be dark EDM; there could be clubby EDM. In this case, it was—there’s a word I’m not coming up with—emotionally uplifting.
Jon: I think that’s true. In fact, for this show I was more specific with the emotions. When I created those sub-genres, it might be EDM, and then it would be “positive” and “uplifting.” Literally, Michael, I think that’s probably what the music folders said. And, you know, all you creators out there, there are gonna be scenes in any show that you need music for uplifting, positive moments. Because it’s not all drama, it’s not all comedy; there’s gotta be some uplifting, positive. And especially with this one where that’s what this show is all about—to uplift and support her through her transition. So we were more specific with the emotions as far as the music designation.

"Most used genres? EDM and Hip Hop."-Dave McIntosh

Do you guys have some questions? Come on out to the center aisle. Let’s do it.

Audience Member: In that last scene you did, where the first cue you used was an EDM cue that actually started out kind of quiet with the piano and everything, we’re always admonished by Michael to have an arc in our cues that sort of builds into a larger crescendo at the end of the cue. But I noticed there at the very end, you went back to a very tender piano. Was the cue built that way, or did you lift something from a different place to create it that way?

Dave: I probably lifted it from… I like it when it builds long as well in a cue in the beginning to give that kind of tender emotion. A lot of times you can’t use those long builds in the beginning—you just don’t have time. But in this particular series we were able to do that with stuff like that, because the EPs, the network, they wanted it that way. And to create the out, yeah, I’d probably found another spot that did that, where it went back to the tender moment.

That was a great question.

Audience Member: I’ve got a question for Jonathan. We get these requests really quickly. How do you pass the ball quickly enough to TAXI and then get them to us to respond to that quick enough for you to fall into a two-week deadline?

Jon: Well, I think doing these listings, most of them are done when you know it’s in preproduction. When the show is in preproduction, you’ve got several weeks to amass all this music, and within two weeks you’ll have a lot more cues to go through from some of the members that will get forwarded. And then some of these seasons, like The Challenge, would be 13 episodes long and I’d be on it for four months. So we’re still working on three episodes all at once, because it takes, like Dave said, six to seven just to completely finish and mix one episode, so there’s a huge timeline even for something like this. This was, I think, eight episodes per season, and that would be three months of work. So there’s quite a bit of time. We do have to finish shows in about a week to 10 days, but we’re always looking for fresh material to keep building the library up.

Just so you know, we could be running a listing for an in-house library; we could be running a listing for five different libraries that Jonathan’s working with. Or it could be that Jonathan and I have spoken, or he has spoken to our A&R department, and we’ve reached out to him, “Do you need anything right now?” And he’ll say, “Well, I am getting ready to start a new season of XYZshow, and I could use a bunch of light acoustic stuff that’s emotionally upbeat.” And we’ll build a stash, because he doesn’t have an immediate need, but he knows that in nine weeks he’s going to. So it’s a whole range of timelines for stuff like that.

Audience Member: Hi guys. Love your stuff. I’m with a library right now that I’ve given 50 or 60 tracks specifically for the shows you just filmed. Two questions, real quick. How many libraries do you receive content from, and what sort of specific information do you give those libraries when requesting music? I’m kind of having trouble getting exactly what you’re looking for, and sometimes I submit to the library and then I’m told, “That’s not quite what we’re looking for.” Give me more info and more specifics, saving everyone some time. So how many libraries feed you, and how much detail do you give them to get what you’re looking for?

Jon: Quite a few. We had 12 to 20 libraries at any time that were funneling music through to us. Like I said, a lot of these networks have blanket [all they can use for a fixed price] licenses, like E! has probably six or seven libraries. And we do get specific. Like we were both saying, Kardashians relies a lot on EDM and hip-hop, so if you’re asking a music supervisor, they should be able to tell you, “This is what I’m looking for. This is what the show requires.” I don’t know why they wouldn’t be able to tell what they’re looking for.

It’s ironic and, I guess, instructive in that we could wait for Jonathan—who’s very articulate and very musical—to describe what he needs to a library, and then the library reaches out to us [TAXI], or maybe directly to their own composers. But, if you know that the library is working on I Am Cait, I wouldn’t even wait for any instructions from the library, because the show is your roadmap. Just watch the show!

Don’t miss Part 3 in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!