Music supervisors never get the love they deserve. There’s an romantic belief about music and films that gives all the credit to directors or screenwriters or someone else that probably hasn’t weighed in. Music supervisors get the ideas, get the clearances to use songs and package not only one obvious choice in song but a whole panel of options for the creative team to choose between. That’s why it is a weird delight to be able to interview Liz Lawson, who started her career on shows like Dexter and House and True Blood: shows that I consider outstanding more for their licensed tracks than for their original soundtracks.
I got Liz on the phone back in December to talk about the upward mobility of supervision and how you hone your craft when the general audience has such a poor understanding of the craft.
The first question, as must come in a position like hers, is how do you survive the questions headed your way? A job like music supervisor distills down to being a full-time mix CD organizer and, much like anyone that hears about an opening in videogame testing, this is blood in the water. I ask how she deals with a job that most people don’t know exists but, in the moment they learn about it, believe they can do it on a professional level.
“You find out there’s a person behind that job, and that job was recommended to me,” Lawson tells me. “You don’t really think of it, but I was coming up and industry friends called it a fit. So I wrote an email to the guy behind the music on Six Feet Under because of course that’s the best music I could think of in a show.” It turned out he was looking for an assistant. Lawson hit the mother-lode of timing for getting into this line of work.
“You pitch your ideas, but that’s only 40% of the job,” Lawson says. “There’s all this creativity but you have to balance it against 60% of a job built in paperwork. You have a budget and the costs of licensing, clearances and rights. The creativity of the job is about balancing this.” Lawson knows that everyone who thinks this job is just a Spotify playlist is missing out on the entire “job” part of the gig. “This is about balancing columns in an Excel spreadsheet,” says Lawson in her most rock star voice.
We do a bit of back and forth about nightmare situations regarding music licensing fuck-ups. I mention that the 2006 horror film The Signal used Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” for a single festival screening without permission, and wound up paying up a fee higher than the cost of selling the film into distribution. Lawson and I commiserate over the number of times we almost fucked up on similar scales. “I was working on an indie film,” Lawson says. “I found this band that we wanted to use. The artist was interested but the manager got involved. We were so far along we were dealing with the mix. The band was in the UK and it was a disaster. But that manager made it so difficult that it actually made me feel bad for the band because I could never possibly use them again.”
We talk at length about how the show House cared about music maybe a little too much; refusing to use any songs that had been used anywhere else that year. But that also leads into the question of how often that you get the nudge as a music supervisor. Moreover, how does someone get a music supervisors’ attention without being a nightmare?
“You have to understand how many emails a day a supervisor gets from bands and labels,” Lawson says about pushing your music. “Put yourself in a supervisor’s shoes. Be okay and polite with nothing happening. But also send your music in a listenable way. I keep all the music I get, and if I need something of a certain sound and go to click on a link and its expired, then I don’t care about your band anymore. Go to conferences and events. Don’t just send blind invites for things. Not everyone can just meet for coffee. You might not be that kind of band. But also look into licensing companies. Having them pitch your music for you is a really good thing.”
I ask Lawson what her dream gig is. “A Fargo where a scripted show has an insane budget. That’s pretty straight-forward for me.”