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How Music Makes It Into TV and Film With Music Supervisor Mason Cooper

Interviewed during TAXI’s Virtual Road Rally, November 2020 by Michael Laskow

Michael Laskow: Let’s start with a basic premise right off the bat, which is that a lot of people work under the misconception—a lot of musicians, songwriters, artists, composers—work under the misconception that you guys as music supervisors are like A&R people. Yes, you listen to music, and you choose music. And sometimes you make the ultimate decision as to what goes in, and oftentimes you are the person who gathers it all and makes sure that it will clear, meaning that it’s available to license, and all that stuff. But then, ultimately, you have to present it to your boss, which in the case of television would be the executive producer; in the case of a movie, it would most likely be the director, and maybe to some extent the producer. Is that all a fair statement?

OK. So, let’s start with television. Let’s say you’re working on episodic television. Let’s assume that you’ve gotten the call and you have auditioned, as it were, for the part, and you are now hired as the music supervisor. What’s the first thing that happens in the entire chain?
Mason Cooper: As music supervisors, we all approach things a little bit differently. Some of us have music backgrounds, legal backgrounds, A&R backgrounds, business backgrounds, so we bring what we have in our background to our job, just like anybody else would. So, there are some projects that are very creative, where they are gonna need somebody, a director or a producer. They may love music, because everyone loves music, but they may not know how the music works, where to find music; they don’t even have an idea of what music they want, so they want a creative partner. There are other times where certain directors or producers that have a very definitive opinion, idea, concept of what they want, and therefore, my job would be with more business. So, I will assess what their needs are; they will assess maybe what I bring to the table. There are other music supervisors; we all deal with it differently.

I want to go back to what you were talking about and answer what you might have posed as a question, which is to define the music supervisor job. There are some music supervisors that are what I would call musicologists. They know music; they know a Cambodian Bodhi Tree song; a punk this or that, they know East Coast rap versus Chicago rap… They know all styles from 1920 to present day. They’re not quite sure where to find it or how to license it—maybe they do—but their specialty is that they really know their music. Other people are pure businesspeople, they’re just paper-pushers. They make sure from the legal standpoint that everything’s cleared; they really don’t get involved creatively. Some music supervisors will compile songs, say for a TV show: “Oh, I’ve read the script…” So now getting into your question, they’ll read the script and they’ll say, “Oh, it looks like there should be music in this scene and that scene. The script says so. Oh, it says it wants a country song. I’m gonna put 10 country songs together, send them to the director or executive producer, and when they tell me what they want, I’ll go see if I can clear that song.” They’re really just passing things through.

“The showrunner of a television show is the executive producer. Oftentimes, they’re the creator and the head writer. They’re overseeing the [entire] production…”

I tend to work a little more hands-on, which is that I want communication with the director or the showrunner. The showrunners are more about television. The directors in television usually have been hired to facilitate capturing on camera what was scripted. They capture it—“Lights, camera, action, boom, cut, got it, good”—the director goes away, usually. The showrunner of a television show is the executive producer. Oftentimes, they’re the creator and the head writer. They’re overseeing the [entire] production…

So when I get hired, I’ll lurk and have conversations with the showrunner and find out what they want to do. Is this a music show? Do they have what I call “a voice” of the show? So, for You, Me, Her [a TV show Mason music supervised], I looked and they said the setting is in Portland. Are we wanting a Portland-style soundtrack voicing the TV show? And this correlates to film as well. We have the broad conversations to say, “What is the overall style that we are aiming for? And are we using music to drive the story, or just sit in the background and be supportive of the ambience and the setting of the story.” We look at how music is going to be used. That’s the first conversation.

Later on, we get into the very specifics. We need this for this scene, or we need a score or a song for that scene. But we start out with this broad conversation of how are we using music to affect the show, to the series or the film? That would be the first thing. That’s the conversation I would have.

Might you also consider the age of the characters? You Me Her, the people were like in their late 20s to early 30s, if I remember correctly, and they were kind of young-ish and hip. So, do you take that into consideration for music choices as well?
Yes and no. There might be a scene that needs music that the character would listen to. It might be that they’re walking into a store that’s a juxtaposition. You Me Her was a great example, where there were times when we got very demographic-specific, because the couple in their 30s were now going to go hang out with the single girl in her 20s, and they had to be like fish out of water. So, I very much then targeted the younger character in her environment. And even that 10-year difference, [could be used to exemplify that the older characters might be feeling or thinking] “Wow, we feel old.”

So, the answer to your question is yes, when it’s applicable to the story. Sometimes it’s more of a setting, you know? If there’s a diner, age doesn’t matter; it’s more about the setting. What is the diner? Is it a country diner? Is it folk music? Is it just a little classical Muzak-kind of music? So that’s more about the setting and not about the character… it’s more about the setting, very much on purpose.

“Very often I’ll prepare ahead of time, and then chuck it all because it’s not applicable anymore.”

OK, so now you’ve got your marching orders. You’ve been hired, you’ve met with the E.P. (the Executive Producer) or the showrunner—same person—and you know what the general lay of the land is. Is it a true statement to say that you’re hustling every week to turn stuff in and get it approved and get it slotted in, and tested against picture and all that stuff? You’re not doing it all in advance of the series being shot that you may do some of it…

I’m gonna let you tell the story, but you start gathering stuff knowing that you need a big basket of eggs as choices. So you know that, OK, this is the type of music my characters would listen to based on their demographic, maybe based on their locale, based on where they are going to be—whether it’s a bar or a breakfast place or wherever. And you gather music in a general way. Now what’s the process for this coming week’s episode?
That gets into a broader scheduling element. The very first season of a show, it’s a little bit different. Until I see it, I can guess what’s going on. It’s all conceptual. There is a script, but even the showrunner, we don’t know script-to-screen what changes. The actors and the way it’s directed might put in a lot more energy than what’s been scripted, or vice versa. It might be shot in a brighter location than was scripted, so that changes.

With film, we have a longer time to develop [ideas for music] because they’re shooting for a longer time. I tend to get involved in pre-production so I can see in the script if there’s anything that they might need… If it’s a restaurant, they’re going to want music, so I start to prepare early. Again, we may not know what style, [so I prepare what I think they might need] ahead of time, and then chuck it all because it’s not applicable anymore.

So, if I send a brief out (a description of what is needed – very similar to a TAXI Listing) that says I need this style of music ahead of time, by the time we’re in post-production, this may not be right. I collected all those songs, and it has nothing to do with it, now. So part of me is just being prepared just in case anything can still stick, so that I’m a little ahead of the curve.

By the time we’re in the second, third, fourth, especially the fifth season, I basically had a library of music already prepared that would be the style for that show. Other than very unique scenes, I knew the settings, I knew overall what the characters would listen to, what they would want. So yes, I was able to prepare better for the later seasons.

That helps to explain to our members why their music is sometimes forwarded by TAXI, but they don’t get contacted about it being licensed until months, sometimes even years later!
When first starting a project, it really is testing, figuring out what it is. So I’ll work with the editors once we get into post-production, and I tend to get involved as a music editor, because I also do music editing. I would help them with temp tracks. I saw somebody in the chat room [during TAXI’s livestream broadcast] asking if he could produce temp tracks. And the answer is no. A temp is a temporary template—where the word “temp” comes from—and that’s just to help us edit. Now, if we are going to use that song, yes, now it’s no longer going to be a temp. You’d have to go license it and pay for it and process it.

So what I will do is, I will help with the editors. The editors tend to talk to me, the music supervisor, and say, “Hey, I’m working on a scene…” And editors get creative, so they will have an idea that sometimes means nothing, and sometimes they pick up on a good idea. “Hey, we’re in this car scene that we need this big driving rock element for. Do you have anything?” And they will describe it a little bit more for me and I will help them find some music, even if it’s just for temp. “Oh, do you mean AC/DC rock, or do you mean Maroon 5 rock, or do you mean Miley Cyrus rock?” Because rock means different tastes for different people, as crazy as that is.

“When any supervisor, producer or TAXI says, ‘I want a song like Beyoncé or Adam Levine or…,’ we don’t even need it to sound like that artist or be a copy of that song… Imagine that it’s a Spotify playlist. What song of yours fits in with those artists? Better than Spotify, I would say a Pandora list with their algorithm that tries to get things that fit within a style.”

I’m so glad you are addressing this, because one of the hardest things that all of us in the chain have to do is communicate what’s needed. And if the first person who communicates that goes, “I just need something with energy,” well, that could be EDM, it could be rock, it could be punk, it could be a lot of things. So your job as the supervisor is to narrow the funnel, or the filter, as it were, and then you need to let us know, let publishers know, let all of your regular sources know what you need.
That’s exactly right. That’s one of the hardest things that I do, and one of the most interesting things. Because how do you describe music with words? Right? You know, the old joke is a record producer will tell the singer, “That was perfect. Now it needs to be a little bit more purple. Sing with a little more fuchsia in your voice.” We’re crazy—what does that mean?

So that communication is… Really, what I have to do is burrow down and try to use the right words and descriptors in order to… Because I want someone… I want all TAXI members to be able to pitch the [right music] to me.

What I need to do is communicate to you, Michael, in order to put a TAXI listing together that enables your members to target exactly what I need, because that makes my life easier. So my work is to find the right descriptor so that people can target better, and that’s the hard part. And then I’ll have discussions with some directors and producers and they say, “Just get me music. You know what I want.” And I’m like, “No, I don’t.”

You read my mind!
And they’ll say that we need energy here, and then I do the old Wheel of Fortune thing and say, “Can I buy a vowel? Give me something more.” So, I tend to try to give examples of artists—and this is something for your listeners out there. When any supervisor, producer or TAXI says, “I want a song like Beyoncé or Adam Levine or…,” we don’t even need it to sound like that artist or be a copy of that song. I’ll try to give more than one example, so I’ll try to say a few songs like these types of artists, or in the same genre. Then I’d say, “Imagine that it’s a Spotify playlist. What song of yours fits in with those artists?” Better than Spotify, I would say a Pandora list with their algorithm that tries to get things that fit within a style.

So that’s what music supervisors have to do, to be effective with TAXI and with anybody else. The creators [musicians] are what we need. That part is the hard part, but it’s the interesting part. It’s finding… And sometimes we change. We started out with X, yeah, but I ended up with G.

Right. We are always appreciative that when you run listings with us that you will give us two or three references. Sometimes we get people that give us no references, and they just expect us to figure it out because they’re too busy. There are other people that will give us one reference because there is something in that reference that they like, but they don’t tell us that. [They don’t mention that it’s just one aspect that they like.] They just say, “Yeah, find me something like this.” Well, it might be the vocal, the stylized vocal that’s in it, but maybe they don’t really like the backing track. But they don’t tell us that! “Find me something with a vocal that’s got a similar vibe.” Then we have to go find a couple more things that we think match their reference. We could be going down a wrong path, so we have to work really hard to dig out of them the reference and what it is about the reference before we go looking for other references.
That’s hard. I will say for your listeners out there that that’s going to be part of the frustration—that you are creating a piece of music that I would tell everybody… I would say this, create the piece of music for yourself; don’t create for me or for anybody else. If you’re writing for a specific project, that’s different, but you’re creating music for yourself. Create the music, then the work starts, which is the same as casting an actor—we have all heard about those stories where you cast actors. We are casting music, so your job on that side is to have your song and say, “Does that match what the character is?” The character [in this case] being the description of what the song need is. And you have to be honest, right?

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview next month!