Blood, Shame, and Sonic Identity 1569 words · 8 minute read

Music supervision in television entails more than simply plucking tracks from a library of music.

Part of that role is about crafting the sonic identity of the show. Truly knowing the show’s character, choosing music that heightens that dynamic, and figuring out how to best place that music into the scene – that’s sonic identity. Ann Kline of Shameless and Gary Calamar of True Blood are both experts in this field.

In our first eBook, The Marketing Power Of Music: Music + Television, we had the privilege of speaking with these seasoned music supervisors to unearth the details of their supervision process.

Continuing in the spirit of music knowledge established by the success of our first book, Hit Brands: How Music Builds Value For the World’s Smartest Brands, co-authored by Music Dealers founder/president Eric Sheinkop, The Marketing Power of Music: Music and Television explores the number of ways that a television show can leverage music as a marketing tool to increase the engagement level of its viewers.  

This excerpt represents but a fraction of the incredible information designed to illuminate the integral role of music in the world of television and audience engagement.

Links to download the full eBook can be found below.

with Ann Kline on Showtime’s original series, Shameless

Frequently lauded for its soundtrack, which includes everything from the surf-rock band Rusty Maples to the indie-rock duo The Peach Kings, Shameless has a sonic identity that is heavily rooted in up-and-coming music.

The main characters of Shameless – the Gallagher family – are mostly young adults and adolescents growing up a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Accordingly, the music had to reflect the real tastes of urban youth in order to create a real experience for viewers.

Music Dealers: Each episode of Shameless features tens, sometimes even thirty songs. Could you walk us through a little bit on the decision-making process for Shameless, touching on why music is used so much in a lot of the episodes?

Ann Kline: With Shameless, when we started five years ago, we were trying to put together a sound for the show. We initially were anticipating hiring a composer to do a lot of the music and thinking that the sourced, licensed music would mostly be the stuff that the kids would listen to as they’re hanging out. Practical source pieces, like things playing in a bar or in their rooms or stuff like that. AK: I spent a lot of time sitting with John Wells and Mark Mylod, the executive producers, trying all different things to figure what kind of score we wanted. We were thinking that we would hire a rock band to score the show, because it’s such a messy, kind of rebellious, young-feeling show. And so we started playing around with scoring it with these indie rock bands’ music, and it worked out so well that we ended up just licensing the music and doing it episode to episode.

And still along the way we thought eventually we’re going to hire a composer, but it just kept working out and it’s so much fun to do it. Because there’s no sort of themes to the show, – there’s no, “Fiona’s Love Theme” or anything like that, – it keeps the show feeling fresh and not like we’re trying to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way. It helps that the show itself is so good, because you don’t need to manipulate the audience in that way. You’re not trying to explain to them what’s happening in the scene through music. It’s more like this is kind of the chaotic vibe that goes through these characters’ heads, or the sort of dark, depressing feelings that they get from their upbringing. They’re not banging the audience’s head with it. It’s a little more unique. MD: Yeah, you could say it’s subtle in a loud way. So, scoring the show with indie rock bands’ music was working so well that you decided not to hire a composer. What about licensing independent music was working well?

At first, a lot of the bands we used were more like indie-rock vibe, but not actually independent artists. Some of the bands that we used in the first episode, which we loved so much, were bands like Spoon. Their music worked so well, but with our budget we could only afford a few spots like that. So we started really finding lots of unsigned bands that were more affordable to license, and then we found a balance between using some of the bigger artists and these truly independent artists. And luckily, bands like Spoon that don’t always license their music liked the show and were very cool about letting us use their music. So it all kind of worked out, but it’s definitely a balance every episode between how many kind of bigger, signed artists and how many truly independent artists we use.

with Gary Calamar on HBO’s original series, True Blood

Of the many shows Gary Calamar has had the responsibility of shaping with sound, his work with HBO’s famed vampire soap opera, True Blood, is among his most distinguished. The strong sonic identity that Calamar created for the show had some viewers tuning in just to hear the song he would pick for the closing credits. It gave DJs, tastemakers, and music-lovers something new to share and a weekly topic to discuss.

Music Dealers: So Gary, you’ve become famous for people anticipating and waiting for the last song of each episode, especially in True Blood. You’ve been able to be a curator that people can trust. Can you walk us through your process for finding and choosing the music for those notable syncs?

Gary Calamar: Well, I would love to take complete credit for all of those final songs [laughs], but it’s definitely a collaboration. In a way, it first starts with the writer of the episode, because each episode title is the name of the song that’s going to play somewhere in the episode. But if we’ve got some time, I’ll say, “Maybe we can do a new version of that.”

We had an episode called, “Season of the Witch,” and they wanted to use the original version from Donovan, and I said, “It’d be nice to go into the studio and do a fresh version.” So we ended up doing a duet with Donovan and Karen Elson, and that turned out beautifully. And we did a duet with Neko Case and Nick Cave for one of the episodes. So sometimes it will start with the writer picking the title, and sometimes we just eliminate that title altogether, or will do a cover, or it may go through some changes at that point.

For me, I have a good idea of what the sound of the show is. And just judging from the last scene, and what we’re trying to say, if we’re trying to be real serious or if we kind of want to have a little wink to it, I’ll come up with some ideas and present them to the producers.

MD: Going back to the sound of the show. Could you talk to us a little bit about what that means and how you came to understand it or True Blood?

Yeah, it was kind of a process. When Alan Ball brought me in, kind of the first mission of mine was to find the theme song of the show. Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” was the placeholder and it was nice, but we thought maybe it was a little too humorous or something. None of us were sold (yet) that “Bad Things” was the one. But as time went on, we realized that nothing is working better and “Bad Things” is kind of perfect.

I kind of used “Bad Things” as a template for the sound of the show. It had just the right mixture of kind of danger and menace and humor and sexiness. A couple of times I would bring in some fairly serious songs for Alan to try out, and he was like, “this is a song about vampires, let’s have some fun with this.”

That sort of helped me develop the sound of the show. And certainly the region, the Louisiana sound, was certainly a big part of the sound of the show, and the darkness and the humor and the sexiness. To me, it all stemmed from “Bad Things.”

Concluding Thought

When a TV show has a memorable sound, viewers begin to know the show through its use of music and sound, which helps distinguish it from the myriad other programs that are vying for their attention. TV viewers are choosier beings nowadays. They want more than to simply watch a TV show: they want their lives to be enriched beyond the lifespan of that original viewing. They want a relationship with the shows whose episodes they watch, and they want something that they can take with them after the episode ends. Music is one of the easiest and most engaging ways to do that. Step one is to build a strong sonic identity that provides viewers with the interactive experience that they demand.

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By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers