Taming the Wild West of Music Supervision 1498 words · 8 minute read

Music supervision has roots dating back to silent films, when composers provided background music in the theaters during the showing. Now, the craft has evolved into a multifaceted profession with responsibilities that range from licensing, curation, and even producing. As such, music executives have found themselves pioneering through a Wild West of music supervision these past several years.

Finally, a new sheriff has sallied forth into the Wild: The Guild of Music Supervisors.

For our new eBook, The Marketing Power of Music: Music + Television, we spoke with two senior members of the Guild, John Houlihan and Jonathan McHugh, as well as renowned music executive Russell Ziecker, EVP of Television Music at Lionsgate Entertainment.

Here’s a portion of our conversation, which explores the wide range of responsibilities of the modern music supervisor in today’s evolving Wild West of Music + Television.

with John Houlihan, President of the Guild, and Jonathan McHugh, Secretary of the Guild


Music Dealers: So, can you walk us through the function of the Guild of Music Supervisors?

John Houlihan: The purpose of the guild is to uplift and uphold the quality of the craft, and we make sure that all of our members are experienced, ethical, and would be members that will help us all form an experienced collective to help uplift the true craft of music supervision.

Jonathan McHugh: A lot of times, if you look at the budget of a film, the only thing lower on line item budget than music and music supervisor is the contingency. And you can’t mess with the contingency. So music and music supervisors’ line items are the ones that get hit first.


It’s like our craft is in danger, and we need to support it. 



MD: The more advanced the supervisor is, the bigger role that they play in the production. At what stage are you starting to get involved? When does the process start for a music supervisor, and when does it end? And what are the steps taken from beginning to end?

JH: That’s a great question, because ideally it starts in pre-production with the script. You have to plan how all of the on-camera music issues are going to be handled during the shoot, so often we start in pre-production with the script phase and then we go all the way through the final mix of the film. We’re one of the first ones in and one of the last ones to go, because the music issues are still vast and complicated. It’s really a journey from beginning to end. Having said that, sometimes people get in trouble with their music because they haven’t hired a Music Supervisor at the beginning, so we get brought in at post-production, and a lot of those jobs are cleaning up a mess and getting the project out of problems that they can’t get themselves out of before they hired a Music Supervisor.

JM: It’s always best to start at the beginning. I also have a record company and I’ve produced probably fifty soundtracks in my life, so I’ll sometimes also put the music together into a compilation and put it out. So then I’m attached to it forever, in a way, because you’re obviously trying to help the marketing of that movie all down the road.

MD: What is some of the rhetoric you each use to promote music supervision, because it is as much of an art as a profession, and I was wondering how you attach objective value to a craft that isn’t so easily monetized?

JM: Relationships are our stock and trade. Knowing all of the licensing people, all of the managers, is super important. It’s having someone on the team that can a) get to artists, b) find brand new stuff that’s going to blow up, and c) get the best possible prices on songs. We’re one of the few pieces of the business that touches everything, from publishing to labels to marketing to A&R. We deal with everybody, and our job is to know as many people as possible to help make the music in the film great.

JH: Our typical challenge is to deliver a million-and-a-half dollars’ worth of market value music licenses to a film for $500,000 film music licensing budget, so how do we do that? We do that with skilled negotiation, with using our powerful contacts, with creative solutions, and we use it with our experience of working with a set of filmmakers and the studio.

with Russell Ziecker, EVP of Television Music, Lionsgate Entertainment


Music Dealers: Can you briefly talk to us about your role at Lionsgate?

Russell Ziecker: So I’m Executive Vice President of Television Music at Lionsgate, which just really means I oversee the music department and all of the facets of it, including licensing, the staffing up for individual shows, and all of our television productions, documentaries, and mini-series.

MD: Could you walk us through step-by-step a really successful single from one of Nashville’s episodes, from how it was written to the decision to use it in that manner?

RZ: One is a song called “Black Roses”, which was one of the first songs written for our show. It was written by Lucy Schwartz who, if you haven’t heard of her, is out here in LA. I instigated the phone call with her, had Frankie Pine on, our music supervisor, and we talked about the upcoming storyline and where some of the characters were headed.

Lucy delivered three songs. She thought the first one was definitely the one to use, - she had a character in mind. And same with the second one. For the third one, she said, ‘You know, this reminded me of Nashville, and you can have it; but, if you don’t use it, I’m just going to use it on my record.’ And it was a song called “Black Roses”, which worked really well for our character Scarlett, whose mother had come back into the picture or was introduced to the television audience for the first time. Very dysfunctional relationship. Her mom was kind of a fallen star and she was trying to live out her unrequited dreams through her daughter’s eyes and through her character, Scarlett. So there was a lot of tension between the two characters, and this was the perfect song lyrically and just told that storyline better than anything else we’d found.

Lucy later came out and was part of the ‘On the Record’ show we did, where the whole cast performed at the Ryman Theatre. I think the night the episode aired, we downloaded 80,000 singles for free. The song, and the way it was used in the episode, really had an emotional impact I think on the viewers, because the people instantly downloaded it. It was great.

MD: Can you talk with us a bit about your other responsibilities as EVP of Television Music, such as working with the networks?

RZ: We had this show Weeds for example, an original to Showtime. It helped to brand their network as they relaunched it as a place for original material. And we put ourselves in the same position when we did the show Mad Men for AMC. And we produced the second originally-produced show for Netflix for example, the second show for WGN when they rebranded as a place for original content. So we’ve had a lot of experience where we’re branding a new show content with an existing brand, but they’re redeveloping themselves and relaunching or rebranding their network.

MD: And how does music into play in that rebranding process?

RZ: My responsibilities lie in the flavoring of the show, more than mnemonics. There was a specific sound in the show Weeds that we developed in the pilot, and we were able to carry that through its multiple variations of evolution and change. We help brand the shows and kind of find their initial voice, before they go to air.

MD: What is the primary objective of a network focusing on music or thinking about music?

RZ: Well, the number one thing, from a production studio perspective, is to support the content that you’re creating. Number two is, I would say, having all your licenses addressed in such a way that you don’t have to go back and swap out all the music you’ve licensed. Since I’ve been here, I have developed a policy where we obtain TV broad rights in which we don’t have to go back for options outside of soundtracks. Everything is worldwide, in perpetuity, - all of our licensing is done that way. So it’s a pretty tight ship. And I’d say number three is not getting sued for anything falling through the cracks. That’s what makes a functional studio music department.

Get your copy now!


The Marketing Power Of Music: Music + Television is now available:

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or download a free version directly from Music Dealers: mobi / epub

By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers