How Music Is Pitched, Chosen, and Licensed
With Shannon Quisenberry and Frank Palazzolo
TAXI’s Michael Laskow (left) with music licensing expert Shannon Quisenberry and music supervisor Frank Palazzolo shortly after their panel during TAXI’s 22nd Road Rally convention.
Interviewed by Michael Laskow at the TAXI Road Rally, 2018
Shannon Quisenberry is the Director of Creative Licensing and Artist Relations; THINK Music Inc. She previously worked on Austin City Limits for two seasons with artists like Wilco, Etta James, Pixies, Elvis Costello, The Shins, and The Flaming Lips, to name a few. Shannon worked in New York City at Brick Wall Management for six years, working with artists and producers that included Citizen Cope, Marc Broussard, The Clarks, and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ari Hest. After moving to LA and working on Ingrid Michelson’s management team, Shannon was quickly drawn to the licensing side of the industry and started working with Platform Music Group in 2015. Now at THINK, Shannon has been an integral part of helping artists land placements, from hit TV shows (The Leftovers, Shameless, Claws, Queen Sugar, Suits, Lucifer) to nationwide advertisements (Fitbit, Toyota, Comcast) and everything in between.
Frank Palazzolo is a Music Supervisor at Mad Doll Music. Frank began his music supervision career in the Universal Pictures Film Music department. After leaving Universal, he went on to work with KCRW DJ and Music Supervisor Liza Richardson at Mad Doll Music, where he has worked on over 1,000 TV show episodes and 5 films, including a win for "Best Music in Film" at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival. Some of his most notable projects include The Path (Hulu), The Leftovers (HBO), Hemlock Grove (Netflix), Scorpion (CBS), Graceland (Fox), and Rise (NBC). Frank is also a successful songwriter and producer with placements in various television shows, two major motion picture film trailers, the Orange Is the New Black Season 4 announcement promo, and a Toyota commercial that aired during the 2018 Super Bowl.
Frank, let’s talk about spotting and talking to your Executive Producer on a weekly episodic drama. How do you decide what kind of music you need as a supervisor?
Frank: I’ll just take you to the very beginning. We start by having a director’s cut that comes our way. When the cut comes to us, it’s usually still got the green screen in it. There are parts that are going to be cut out that are not going to be in there, and then they put in what we call temp music. Sometimes, the temp music comes from the editor, sometimes it comes from the assistant editor, sometimes it comes from suggestions made by the producers.
The temp music is sort of the placeholder that can be anything from library cues, you know, from piano/lounge music to a Nine Inch Nails song, to scripted music. And it comes to us and they say, “Here’s where we are right now. What are you guys suggesting on our budget, and based on conversations we’ve had with the producers?” Then we’ll say, “We’re gonna keep the Nine Inch Nails song, but the other six songs will have to go.” That’s where you guys [TAXI members in the audience and music licensing companies] come in, because the other six songs all have to be taken out because they’re all going to cost us $40,000 a song and we can’t afford that with the budget we’ve got to work with.
So the general job of a music supervisor is to find ways to find music they like for far less money than was required to keep the temp music in there. Then we go to your guys [TAXI members and music licensing companies] and say, “We need a song that sounds like the Goo Goo Dolls, or we need a song that sounds like Carly Rae Jepson.” And then you sort of fill in the gaps. At which point I contact people like Shannon, and I go, “Here’s the deal: scene one, scene eight, scene 10 and 12; these are the songs that I need for those scenes. Do you have anything that I can use in those scenes for this price to this price range?
So you’re not going to write a full brief?
I don’t do a full brief unless the brief is necessary. For the most part, I’ll give them a couple of sentences: Scene 1, we’re at a club; they put in a Britney Spears song just trying to match the vibe. Others trying to match identical, others try to match BPM, and that’s it. There are different specifications based on how much the producers loved it, or how much the producers didn’t give a damn about it. So if they are like, “We have to have it. We have to have it,” now I’m going to her going, “Please tell me you have an artist that reminds you of Britney Spears!”
And obviously it’s not just one person like Shannon you’d reach out to. You’d reach out to three, four, five, 10, depending on what?
Sometimes on how broad. It depends on... It’s pretty much like we just need any band that sounds like the Black Keys, I don’t need to go to 50 people to find it. But if we need something that sounds like this specific song at this specific BPM of the Black Keys, I might go to 40 people, because chances are I’m gonna get 500 songs that I have to go through in an hour, and only five of those are gonna be close to what I actually need.
So you have to understand that when your music comes to me, it’s coming to me in a giant pile of music that the licensing companies are providing, and it has to be as close as possible to what was already envisioned for that scene.
So Shannon, how many emails or briefs requesting music do you get in a typical day?
Shannon: It all depends on the day. When TV season has started up, I could get 10 to 20. If it’s a slower day, there are three that I’m working on. They also all have different deadlines, so I kind of push them on the less busy days sometimes. It just kind of all depends. But I’ll get briefs with like “sounds like” or “this is the vibe.” And then I’ll also get briefed with like, “We’re in a club, and we need it to feel expensive.” So now I’m going through all my catalogs and just figuring out... I already have an idea of which artists in my catalog have that, so I’ll go through some of their songs, and give them their songs first and figure out what happened. And I compile a list of songs for him and send them all over in a big batch and say these’ll work for the price that you want.
Frank Palazzolo spends a few minutes chatting with TAXI member Scott Free.
So you get all these briefs in, and how frantic is your day trying to...?
Shannon: It depends. Some things are easy. If it’s a “female empowerment” song search that I’m looking for, I already know which songs I’m sending. It’s the same batch of our newest ones. We’ll have a couple more come in and I’ll add them to it, and I’ll take out some of the ones that are old now and I’ll send it in. Easy, that takes me 10 minutes to do.
There are others that are more like, “OK, this is the scene we’re really trying to nail. It’s a very emotional montage.” They need your biggest tearjerker songs that aren’t about love. So now I’m going through and like, okay, I really have to think of the scene that they’re setting up. This is a funeral scene—a mother/daughter scene. So I’m actually listening to our songs again and cueing it to see lyrics for the supervisor, anything to make my songs stick out of all the 50, 100, or 200 songs that he gets for that piece.
And Frank might have a personal world record. He once told me a year or two ago, that you search through a thousand songs in an hour.
Frank: Yeah, but I just turned into the top 50. I had to turn a thousand songs into my favorite 50. That was one of the shittiest things I’ve ever had to do. That was this job, because you actually had to listen to them. So I’d be like, “OK, this is good,” and I’d drag it from #400 up to #3, and I’d grab it. You have to keep doing it and keep doing it. And then they start shuffling down, and you’re like, “Shit, there was one I liked that got buried. It’s back at #120. Now I gotta keep bringing that to the top again.” It was a terrible job, but it goes that fast, which is leading me to a point that I had in my mind while Shannon was just talking. If you’re going to play that game where it’s like, “Oh, I want my song to be able to replace the Black Keys, or be able to replace Jack White, or be able to replace Barry Manilow.” You should listen to their music and think about elements that they’re using in their songs that you can incorporate into yours, so that it gives an instant familiarity. Not to copy what they are doing, but to go, “OK, Jack White was using this Gibson guitar in this track, I’m gonna use that same guitar for mine.” Or use the same filters, or the same piano setting, or whatever it is, try to emulate the production quality and things that they did in their songs, so that when I do hear it, it immediately reminds me of that song, and then hopefully the song is good enough to also carry the weight.
Shannon, sometimes at TAXI, quite frequently, we sit there scratching our heads going, “What the hell are they asking for?” Especially a lot of ad agency stuff, it’s like it’s gotta be this, but not that—that but not this. So at the end, you go, “What the hell are you asking for?” I see that less with episodic TV. Do you have any tricks of the trade that you use to distill it down what they’re looking for?
Shannon: I get to know my supervisors, so the more I work with a certain supervisor, the more I know their taste. So I know that they’re not going to want the Black Keys rip-off. I know that they’re gonna want that feel, but if it sounds anything like they are trying to be the Black Keys...
Frank: No, no, no, there is a fine line.
Shannon: There is a fine line. I know some supervisors, and there are some ad agencies that want the rip-off. They don’t care; they’ll try their hand in court if they get sued by the Black Keys. They don’t care, they want it as close as possible. But there are other supervisors that are like, “Nope, my name is going on this—I want to find the next big thing. I want to find something new. My client”—BMW or whatever—“wants the Black Keys, but I want to find something new that I can say, ‘Hey, I helped launch this band.’” So you just know the supervisors; you know which ones don’t care; you know which ones are hipsters and are too good for anything. So you might only send them two of your coolest songs, and that’s it! My job is all about the relationship and knowing what they want before having to ask.
How do you develop that relationship, Shannon?
Just constantly trying to email and keep in touch to get feedback if you can, without being annoying. But, it’s important to note that if they don’t present the feedback to you, you don’t usually ask. But if you’re out with them at a dinner or an event, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, you’re working on that.” You want to know what they end up using, so you either ask them or you go look it up. I’ve worked on a couple of ads that I picked music for three or four different rounds of submissions. They kept wanting... “OK, we want this, but now a little less of that.” And then I’ll end up seeing the ad that I pitched for on TV, and it’s like, “That’s what they went with?” But then you learn. That’s OK, I know now what they were going for so I can now translate [their needs more effectively] for their next search.
That’s a weekly occurrence at the Laskow household! Deb and I will be sitting on the couch watching TV and I’ll see a commercial or a scene in a show and say, “TAXI ran a listing for that, and that’s what they went with?”
Shannon: And a lot of times they go with the song that they were trying to replace. That’s the worst one to get. They’re like, “We want something just like this song.” And they do four rounds of submissions and you keep doing it, and asking, “How ’bout these? We got some new ones in.” And then you see it on TV, and it’s the song that they were trying to replace!
Shannon Quisenberry seems to be giving her email address to a member at after finishing her panel. The Road Rally is well-known as a place where tons of industry networking takes place every year.
Well, let’s reveal the dirty little secret that nobody really ever talks about. Which is a lot of times, they will literally reach out to people like you, or TAXI, or whomever, and go through these rounds of pitches. But they’re gonna ultimately use it as a weapon to negotiate a better price with the act that they really want. You feel emotionally used. You feel dirty or raped or something. It’s like we put all this effort into it when there was really no hope? But there actually is a little hope.
Shannon: There is, because the supervisor usually is trying to change songs. They are trying to change the brand’s opinion, and not use a song that’s 10 years old that everybody knows. That’s usually from the [people who work for the company that owns the] brand, because they’re not in music. They’re trying to sell a product, so it’s the supervisor that’s trying to get creative and say, “Let’s not use that song.” And ultimately, it’s the people who work at brand who choose the song in the end.
Sometimes show runners get stuck on a song that their 12-year-old daughter loves. It’s called “temp love.” And sometimes, as much as the supervisor tries to talk them out of it, they still go with it.
Frank: That situation is terrible for both of us, because sometimes that ask me, “Can you do another round? Can you do another round? Can you do another round?” And you’re like, “What don’t you like, or what do you like about what we did?” “Oh, I don’t know. We just want to hear some more ideas.” By the time you get to the fifth round of pitches, I’m like, “If I didn’t get my best in my first two attempts at it, what do you think you’re getting in my fifth and sixth rounds? You know what I mean. I did my best ... five times.
I know the answer to this, but I don’t think everybody in the room knows, so I’m asking on their behalf. Do you ever send something that you know is off target? But it’s so good that you hope the supervisor will love it so much that he or she will try to shoehorn it in because they love it so much.
Shannon: I throw in curve balls, and I make sure that I say, “This is the curve ball. This isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.” And it works sometimes. Sometimes they just don’t know that they’re looking for that song, and I do.
Frank: We didn’t even know what we wanted until Shannon told us. [Laughter]
Shannon: It happens sometimes! And there are also times when I’ve sent the same song to Frank five times, and on the fifth one he’s like, “This song is so good.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a great one, right?” [Laughter]
Frank: Because it was buried inside of 250 songs the first three times.
Or maybe it’s the second-exposure rule. You know, you’ve heard it and there’s a little subliminal familiarity.
Frank: Well, I’ve had people tell me how upset they were that their song didn’t land in the scene. They’re like, “My song would’ve been perfect.” And I have to admit to them, “You know what? I found eight options that I thought were strong enough before having to go through all the 200 songs that were sent to me, so I’m gonna call this done for now.” So, yes, there was a better option, and I’m sorry for you guys who know that you should have been the song chosen for a scene. You know when I’m trying to match a song or replace a song, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just a lotto. Really, the music industry is just a lotto.
No, no, no! I told everybody in the room this morning it’s not. Because the lottery is pure chance, and this you can control by the quality of what you do and how well you do it.
Frank: Yes, you can. But what I mean is your ability for me to choose your song. Like even if it’s great, there are a lot of songs that I’m going through. Shannon had to first pick her favorite 15 out of her catalog. Then she sends them to me. Then I picked my favorite three out of the 10 or 15 that she sent to me. I put that in with seven or eight other songs. Now I take those 10 songs from all these different places where everybody put in their big bundles, and I take that bundle and I send that over to the producer. Then the producer goes, “Hey, these are my favorite three,” then sends it over to the other producer. The other producer goes, “I like #1.” And that’s how that one landed. It’s the balls that are just bouncing around and #8 pops up. You don’t know which one it’s gonna be. They are all good, and if you keep the quality you get to put your ball in that dispenser, but it doesn’t always mean that your song is gonna land, because there are eight people that are pushing the buttons.
Don’t miss Part Two of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!