Mastering Music Supervision: Seven Pitfalls for the Over-Eager Indie Moviemaker

As the founder of music supervision company Supe Troop, my first recommendation—as you’ve probably already guessed—is to hire a professional supervisor to handle your film’s music for you.

I know it’s a big step for your indie film, but in so many cases, it’s worth it. Working with an experienced and creative music supervisor will help you avoid a lot of heartache and find music that adds immense value to your project. There are a lot of variables that go into the fee that a copyright holder will quote for a synchronization use, and there are no set prices.

A good music supervisor can help provide the right information and negotiate the price. On that note, start thinking about music as soon as possible. Give your music supervisor as much time as possible to both clear the songs you want and come up with creative ideas. Especially when you are trying to get lower prices, you’ll need as much time as possible to negotiate.

Dream big, but then listen to your music supervisor who can help you merge your expectation with reality. Think about how you can play with music—do you want it to add to the narrative? incite certain emotions? play against what is happening? Are the characters hearing the music or just the audience? There are so many different ways the music can change the audience’s perception.

Supe Troop music supervisor Laura Katz

Don’t…

1. Assume your friend can give you a song for free, even if he/she wants to. The thing is, even if an artist is your best friend and really loves your project and wants to gift it to you for use in your film, the label and publishers that are involved don’t necessarily care. A lot of them want to work with their artists, but they are in the business of making money–not giving away songs. So, make sure to involve the label and publishers in discussions as early as possible!

2. Think that if you’re using a lesser-known version of a song, you won’t have to pay that much. There are a few things to consider here. Straight away, you should know that there are two halves to a song – the master and the publishing. The publisher(s) stay the same no matter who the recording artist is, because the composition is the same. You also need to let the publisher(s) know if you aren’t using the original master and there’s no standard as to whether or not they will charge you more, less, or the same amount.

3. Assume that just because you just use a few lines of a song/you can’t really tell what the song is that you don’t have to pay for it. You have to clear everything. Really. Everything. Even if you’re mumbling it. If you can even slightly tell what the song is, you need to clear it! Even if a character is speaking the lyrics and not singing them. Even if no one hears the lyrics but they show up on screen (such as on a karaoke monitor).

4. Think that you only have a few songs so you don’t need to have a significant music budget. There’s so much more that goes into how you should budget for music than just the number of songs you want. Do you need the artists to be famous? Are there multiple parties involved? Do you need the licenses for all media, in perpetuity, etc.? Are there union musicians on the recording? If at all possible, consult a music supervisor to give you an idea about what is realistic as early as you can.

Alden Ehrenreich in Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds, for which Katz helmed the music supervision. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

5. Assume that a song is public domain just because it is a standard. Not so fast! Just because a song is old doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain (and it may not be as old as you think!). Also, if it’s a standard, that just means a lot of people sang it and it’s part of the cultural zeitgeist, but that has no impact on whether or not it’s in the public domain (in fact, that also probably makes it more expensive). Each country has different laws regarding copyright duration that can get quite confusing. (P.S. Don’t trust Google!)

6. Wait until after you’ve filmed a song to clear it. OK, technically you can do this, but I don’t recommend it. You lose all leverage because you’re stuck with whatever price you get quoted, unless you want to cut the scene entirely. In the least, film a few options if you are not going to clear a song beforehand.

7. Try to get away with a cultural shorthand. Is your movie set in a small country in Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa? Maybe it’s set in Brazil? When you are using music from a specific country, try really hard to make it the actual music of that country! Generalizing a whole culture or continent’s music is not only kinda racist, it’s just lazy. MM

Los Angeles native Laura Katz is the founder of L.A.-based music supervision company Supe Troop. At Supe Troop, Katz specializes in music supervision services for all types of media. Prior to launching Supe Troop, Katz led Cutting Edge Music Services’ Los Angeles music supervision team for feature films, TV shows, and other visual media projects. Katz’s notable film credits include The Grey, That Awkward Moment, Stuck in Love, Their Finest and The Yellow Birds (in competition at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival 2017).