Wisdom: Working with a Music Supervisor

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While I am all for learning the art of filmmaking on the job, there are instances where prior formal education and training would save some big hassles in seeing the film out to market. One big oversight that I see within in the DIY filmmaking movement is in music licensing. Without the proper music clearances, a film can go from poised to explode on the market to a wasted effort only your kids will see. If you don’t have the knowledge and experience to ensure proper licensing, it is best to bring in a professional.

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“Sometimes music is a little bit forgotten,” says music supervisor Liz Gallacher of Velvet Ears, a music supervision company and music library. “Treat the music as respectfully as other parts that make up the production value of your film. It isn’t a cheap prospect to license music. I think people are misinformed on that because music is affordable to buy and it is plentiful for personal use, so they think they can do what they want with it. They can’t if they are planning to use it commercially.”

Gallacher has been working as a music supervisor for 16 years and often works on independent films. She has sourced music and shepherded the rights clearance process for documentaries like Marley, Buck, The Tillman Story and The Cove and indie narratives The Guard, Super and Fish Tank.

So what exactly does a music supervisor do?

Liz Headshot“A music supervisor works with the director to find the musical vision for the movie. Music makes a huge contribution to a film. Certain songs can put the viewer right back in the decade of the story. A good score or source cue can evoke so much emotion that propels the story forward. Often, the best soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice, they assist with the journey of the film. I am not a huge fan of sticking music in a film just for the sake of it. There needs to be a purpose for the music to be there.

“Music supervisors often help to find a composer and get one on board for a score. We also identify and clear tracks for source music that isn’t being composed. Clearances can be a minefield and expensive. Music supervisors know the kind of songs to avoid for indie films, the songs you’ll never be able to afford, and can suggest alternatives that will fit within your production budget.  We can save a lot of time as we’ve been around the block on the clearance process. We have the connections with the publishers and labels that will work within an indie film’s music budget and we know the companies that will make deals.”

On lower budget productions, the money is tight and often entirely spent on set. While there is no longer a percentage guideline for how much should be budgeted for music, Gallacher says $100K is a considered a good budget to work within. “Unfortunately, the music department budget is often raided during the production process. It is better to come to me with a firm budget in mind and know what the director’s vision is for the film. Know how you want that money for music to work; so much for score, so much for source music. If you can set aside $100K for music on an indie film, that is fantastic,” says Gallacher.

I personally have encountered filmmakers who only cleared their film’s music tracks for festival play, thinking that a distributor would agree to pick up the clearance costs later or the advance will be big enough to pay for the clearances. But unless the film is stellar, gets significant attention from A-list fests and is considered a hot property, this is not going to happen.  You are most likely going to cost yourself a lot of time and money in order to get your film legally compliant for distribution.

“You have to be prepared down the road that if a distributor won’t pick up those costs and you can’t pay to clear the tracks, you have to take those tracks out. You’ll have to re-edit the film, especially if the music is cut to picture. Or you could take the music out and replace it, but it is never as good when you do that. There is usually a reason that song in particular is in the film, so it is hard to find a replacement track and have it do the same job,” Gallacher advises.

Liz Gallacher started her career as a Music Researcher and Associate Producer for a number of UK based TV companies. She then created Liz Gallacher Music Supervision in 1996 and quickly established herself as one of the most experienced and creatively diverse music supervisors in film and television today. Recently Liz has worked on Marley, a documentary that followed the life of music legend Bob Marley, Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9, and Showtime’s upcoming TV series Masters of Sex starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. She can be reached via the Velvet Ears website.

This article, currently abbreviated, will appear in full in MovieMaker’s Fall issue, hitting stands early November. Look out for it in those pages to learn more about music supervision and licensing, such as how to draw up a schedule for getting clearances, and the broad spectrum of oft-overlooked rights required for the different uses of a track.

Sheri-Candler-2011Follow Sheri on Twitter @shericandler, Facebook/Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity, and on her G+ community dedicated to independent film marketing and distribution.

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