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How Music Makes It Into TV and Film With Music Supervisor Mason Cooper Part 2

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

There are so many people that don’t really have an in-depth knowledge of how selecting music for sync placements works, and that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to you about this today. So many people think that it’s the best song that wins, and they think they’ve got a great new song that’s just so amazing. But it’s unrealistic to think, “Well, the song doesn’t fit in the scene. But you know what? [They’re hoping you’ll say] Let me talk to the writer and see if they can rewrite the scene so my song works better. Let me talk to the writer; let me talk to the director.” [Laughs]

Yes, it’s hard for me to do this. And for anybody out there that has seen me [speak at the Road Rally] in the last couple of years, I always do that. I ask them to “raise your hand if you agree that I picked the best song,” and everybody says, “Of course you picked the best song.” I do not pick the best song; I pick the right song.

There are some times where there’s a song that I want on my playlist; I love that song. I could go work out, hike or hang out in my backyard, and listen to that song, but it’s distracting when I put it up against a picture. I have to pick the right song, because we’re not making a music video.

If people have read my bio and know anything about me, they know that I come from the music business. I have written TV themes; I have produced artists and actors and produced music. I’m a music publisher by trade; I’ve worked with brand-new writers and big writers. I am no longer in the music business.

“We need to find that chemistry, the chemistry between the music and the scene is what matters.”

And what business are you in, Mason?

I’m in the film business and the TV business. We’re telling a story via visual, be it film or be it TV. Other supervisors are doing it with a video game or a commercial. If you’re in a commercial, you’re selling proverbial soap. It’s not about the song, it’s about what you’re selling. Then, with film and TV, it’s about the story you’re telling. Now, the song is supposed to help propel that scene or support the story or the emotion. A lot of it is about the emotion, that that’s where your song fits in as part of the storytelling. It’s not about your song.

That’s the other thing that I love to do. It’s easier in person, so I will say that this is meant to be with a sense of humor. I will sit in front of a room full of TAXI members and say, “I don’t care about your music.” And everybody goes, “Uhhh.” For those that haven’t walked out, what I mean by that is that I love your music, and your music should be of utmost importance to yourself. But I’m about telling the story, so just like you don’t cast an actor because you love that person; they have to be right for the character or else it’s distracting. Have you ever watched a movie or a TV show and you’re like, “I just don’t believe the relationship; there’s no chemistry there”? Sometimes the actors are hired for the wrong reason; maybe it’s because of the budget they were hired. But we need to find that chemistry, the chemistry between the music and the scene is what matters.

You know, if you asked a room full of a thousand musicians—which is typically what we have sitting in the ballroom at the TAXI Road Rally when it’s live—imagine you are a casting director and the director gives you the mandate of finding a burly lumberjack-looking guy for the lead in this movie, but you know an actor who is just an amazing actor… We’re talking like Joaquin Phoenix-level acting, who I think is probably the best actor of his generation out there right now. But the guy is five-five, weighs about 125 pounds, looks like he hasn’t seen a ray of sunlight in about 10 years, has big old nerdy glasses on, and that’s what you bring to the director and say, “I found you the perfect guy.” The same thing is absolutely applicable to music, and I don’t know why it’s so hard for musicians to understand that it’s not about the best actor, it’s about the right actor.

I do understand why, and it’s desperation. And this year it might be even harder on people, because of the craziness of this year. We’re all feeling a little bit desperate. But that goes for any year. You have to believe that what you have is great. So, I understand it. I do take the weight of what I do also, that I feel like I can affect someone’s life by saying yes. Yeah, I understand that.

And you can crush them by saying, “no.”

Well, what I would hope that people would know is that if you’re in this for the long game, not for the quick hit, don’t be crushed by no. Yes is gonna change your life; no doesn’t, because you’re in the same place that you were the day before, right?

So, the yes can change your mind and change your life. It may not be a big change, it might be a tiny change, but it’s a step. Don’t let a no change your life, because you’re in the same place as you were the day before.”

Great perspective.

We’ve all heard the clichés of, if you don’t get up to bat, you can’t get a hit. You might strike out, but if you don’t get up to bat, you’re guaranteed not to get the hit. So, take your time; don’t get frustrated. It’s about building relationships and building an understanding about things. Everybody that’s watching this right now, is one tiny step ahead of the people who aren’t watching this. Because I might say one thing that just makes them have insight, which makes them go, “Okay, it’s okay that I’m doing this.”

So, the yes can change your mind and change your life. It may not be a big change, it might be a tiny change, but it’s a step. Don’t let a no change your life, because you’re in the same place as you were the day before. Keep writing another song. Always write another song. I’ve heard this about screenwriters and all of that: If you write a song, you’re not a songwriter, you wrote a song. If you write two songs, you’re becoming a songwriter. And as you start to write more songs… Because if you write one, you’ve written a song; you are not a songwriter. The more you do it, now you can say you’re a songwriter. I do this; this is what I do. You are also adding numbers in your favor. Ralph Murphy used to say, “I’ve got to write a hundred songs to make sure I have 10

good ones, so hopefully one is a hit.”

Let’s go back to the process. So now you’ve [the music supervisor] got your basket of music; you’ve gotten the mandate from the Executive Producer; you’ve selected stuff that you think is going to work based on what you know about the upcoming episode for next week. What day of the week is it when you turn it in? Let’s say the show airs every Monday, so now you are working late into the night on this Sunday night preparing music for the following Monday, not the one that is the day after today, but like a week down the road or two weeks down the road. What’s the timeline on your prep window?

This is a little bit different than it used to be. If you talk to people like Kevin Edelman, or some others that do network traditional television, and right now with all the binge-watching, we’re doing 10-episode arcs very often, almost like a film. They will shoot all 10 episodes; then they’ll have one or two editors editing teams do every other episode. And I work with them, but we’re not broadcasting any of them until they’re going to post at some point later. So, it’s a little bit different from the traditional…

And it could be that all 10 go up at the same time and they don’t drip-feed them, right?

Correct. So, we have time to just go through them. Now, on my side, it will lock, because the process of television is that you have a studio involved, more so even than on film, where you have the studio brass and the suits that want to check and see the editor’s cut, the director’s cut, and then the director goes away. Then, the showrunner(executive producer) comes in and says, “Whatever you directed, this is what the story is, and I’ll correct it. Then the cut goes to the studio, the studio gives notes and then they argue back and forth. “It’s my show; I’m the showrunner.” “Yes, but we’re not going to broadcast it unless you listen to our notes.” And that goes on.

What I try to do is avoid putting too much music in beyond 10 episodes. I won’t clear songs fully on until I know it’s gone at least to the broadcast studio side for notes just in case they say they want to cut that scene, or that they want a diametrically different sound, or else we just wasted time. But once it gets pretty close, then we have about a week or two that we’ll just work it to just find it and lock it.

I tend to be a music supervisor that also oversees composers, and I’ll work with the composer, because I love when score songs work seamlessly together. Now, musically, I mean, it’s storylines; the storyline will work accomplishing the same thing.

So, the schedule isn’t as hectic as if you were doing it for traditional TV. That does happen when you’re doing episodic TV for ABC, CBS, NBC… the broadcast networks. There was, however, a series I did for AT&T. They moved up the broadcast [date], and it was the first season of the show, and it just… All of a sudden, we were chasing our tail because we were broadcasting Monday, whether it was finished or not!

So yes, I would have the week. I would get it on a Monday or Tuesday… And now, with television again—other than the unique scene—you just put its source music in. For those who don’t know what source music is; it’s what comes from a source [in the scene], like a stereo or a car radio, or if they’re at a nightclub or a diner with a little overhead speaker—whatever the source is. I’ll know [what those scenes and locations and settings are] pretty much ahead of time, so that’s what I’ll work up first, and just put the settings in—the car, the house, whatever it is.

So, through the week I have to find that other song [for a particular scene]. When I did the series Rogue, which lasted about five seasons… It’s on Direct TV’s Audience Network; now it’s on Netflix a lot around the world. It’s a great series… a big drama series. We also had a different end-credit song every single week. There were times when we were right up against the broadcast date without a song. But I came up against a studio executive that just knew exactly what he wanted—better [music] for less [money].

Of course, that was the direction. It was me working with the showrunner, and we decided on a method that whatever the last scene is, we didn’t want to break the mood. So, basically, in the end credits you want to be able to keep the mood. You don’t want to break the mood with a standard end-credit song that is the same every week. This was a cliffhanger every episode, whether it was love or a thriller or a killing or suspense, you just wanted to stick with that mood. But that would run up against deadlines sometimes, so it could be really challenging.

“One thing I had to keep in mind was the sonics of the song… where it is going to distract from the scene.”

Going back to source music, which again comes out of the ceiling speaker in a diner, in a jukebox in a bar, the dashboard speaker of your car, elevator. Cars, bars, and restaurants, I always say. So, when you turn in your initial selections of music for source, do they ever take any of that stuff out? Or because that’s pretty much wallpaper, and usually down really low in the mix, I’m assuming that they’re less likely to bounce one of those pieces out than they would be to yank something that’s more featured and intended to work with the script.

Correct. Those are gonna be less important for them to spend time on, as long as it’s within the realm. Like in You Me Her, we had a college club and a couple settings that were very consistent. What I had to do is, once we set up the style and the tone of the voicing of that setting, they left me alone. One thing I had to keep in mind was the sonics of the song, even it was sitting in the background of the nightclub, to make sure that there wasn’t some sonic element—whether it’s a guitar solo or a vocal that was just too high-frequency, or maybe the song was with a really fast lyric where it is going to distract from the scene. But I always knew the style that it could go with it, as long as it wasn’t distracting.

But once in a while, out of five seasons… I probably had about two or three songs in that setting out of all five seasons where the network would have said, “Something’s bumping me there.” They’re not going to say exactly what it is; there’s just something bothering them. So, we’d have to listen and go, “Oh, I need to check that out.” The first thing I would do is strip out the music to make sure it wasn’t sound effects or just bad dialogue. Because sometimes I would say, “It wasn’t me.”

You are a full-stack music supervisor. This is one of the things and reasons that you and I became friends. I have so much respect for you because you get the whole thing from one end to the other. And you once sat on a panel at the Road Rally when we were at the Westin and you said, “There are music supervisors who are music pickers, and then there are music supervisors who are, you know, the full stack. And you are the full stack at everything from the legal to the publishing, to the editing, all of it.

So, I would imagine that you may have a better average of things that land and stick then somebody who is just a picker, who is maybe newer at music supervision who is still kind of into, “Hey, I’m a trendsetter. I hang out on the coolest playlist on Spotify.”

You know, all of us in the music business love being early on something so we could say, “Oh yeah, I knew those guys four years ago.” Like, wow, you’re a stud.

I mean, look, the truth is that in independent films and TV, budgets have come down in every industry. And with the economy, budgets come down in everything. There is so much content now that investors are spread thin; studios are spread thin. So other than certain projects, assume budgets have come down.

For your TAXI members, if you don’t have a big track record and a quote “name”—and I use that just in the sense of name to the people that are using your music—odds are you’re going aiming for source music, music that you could be licensing for cue-sheet time. For performance royalties, maybe there is no fee, maybe just $250 or $500 or $1,000—$1,000 is the sweet spot. The job is to get a use, because when I use music from somebody, they’re now on my radar forever. So, if somebody says, “I own all the rights, if this music works for you, I’ll work within your budget whether you have zero or $1,000. Actually, I’d like $10,000, but I’ll work within your budget.”

Don’t Miss Part 3 of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!