Excelling at the job of music supervisor takes more than just the ability to curate a killer playlist. As music supervisor MIKE TURNER could attest, it takes research, bargaining, and liaising between directors, producers, and editors, as well as record labels, artists, agents, and managers. Before establishing himself as a music supervisor in Los Angeles, Seattle native Turner worked in numerous creative capacities in the music industry as well as radio stations, TV networks, and production companies.
As a music supervisor, his résumé lists notable films including David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, and Jamie Travis’s For a Good Time, Call… Turner’s television credits including supervising for the series American Vandal for Netflix, Jungletown for Viceland, and No Activity for CBS All Access, as well as TV spots for Asics, Petco, and more. He was kind enough to help shine a light on what it means to be a music supervisor.
What are your earliest music memories/influences?
MIKE TURNER: I started playing music when I was in eighth grade so probably 13 years old? I grew up in Seattle in the ’90s but just a little too young to really participate in the music explosion of the time. However, I went to middle school on Capitol Hill (kind of the epicenter of the grunge scene in Seattle) and I had a bunch of friends who had cool older brothers (I was an only child) who were into music that would trickle down to me and my little friends. One of those little friends was a kid whose uncle was Pearl Jam’s manager Kelly Curtis and we started a band with a few other kids playing in his basement. We called ourselves Stick Figures, which was a good name for a bunch of 13-year-olds who couldn’t draw a very complex band logo. I borrowed an electric guitar from somebody that I think was basically homemade and, of course, I had no idea how to tune it so I made up my own tuning and learned to play it that way. It was a few years later that I learned that is not how to tune a guitar and essentially had to re-learn how to play the thing after that. It also meant I couldn’t figure out how to play the songs we had written as Stick Figures, but by that time we were broken up anyway. Growing up in Seattle at that time surrounded by that music scene was pretty cool and it definitely made more of an impact on me than I realized at the time. It was one of those things where once I had a few years of distance from it I realized the significance more.
What brought you to the music-related side of the film industry?
MT: After many years of writing songs and performing in various cities around the country, I decided at a certain point that maybe professional rock star wasn’t going be in the cards for me. I still wanted to work in music, though, so I spent years trying to find a niche within that doing just about anything I could latch onto, from working in recording studios to live sound to booking shows, music journalism, radio station stuff… anything. At a certain point, I was living in Chicago and landed a job with a big indie music publisher based in L.A. who needed someone to interface with their ad agency clients in Chicago. That’s when I learned what music supervision was and my eyes were opened to a whole side of the industry that I had never considered. At the time, the music industry was really in free fall (the early 2000s) so aspirations that I had for being an A&R guy, for example, were bleak and pretty much everything else in music seemed doomed as well. But the licensing business was booming. That’s when I realized that even if the music industry is in the gutter, the film/TV and advertising industries certainly aren’t and they have a lot of money to spend on music. That seemed like a good bet for a career so I set my sights on that. Honestly though, I’m not sure it’s been much of an easier road than the rock star one.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about music supervising?
MT: I think the biggest misconception about it is the same one that I had when I first heard about it so many years ago. This idea that the whole gig is just sitting around listening to cool songs and then saying, “Hey, we should put this in our movie!” and then dusting off your shoulders and calling it a day. That sounded easy and fun and awesome! Who wouldn’t want to do that job!? As it turns out that’s only about 30% of the gig and the rest is contracts/paperwork, arguing, begging, pacing, and panic attacks. Like everything in entertainment, the job is very relationship-driven, both to do the job and to get hired for the job. And then it’s very much a minefield of navigating personalities and egos (and budgets) to keep people happy both creatively and financially, all while being a super chill dude that people want to work with again. The music supervisor doesn’t have the final say on anything, so you’re there to provide options and help fix problems with your specialized knowledge of the industry and to protect the production from themselves, given that a huge amount of lawsuits in media arise from issues involving music. The role exists with one foot in the music business and one foot in the film/TV business and being able to translate for both.
Could you explain what your research process is like? Are there any memorable or unusual discoveries you’ve made while researching potential music for a film?
MT: My process is that I read the script with a pen and mark the crap out of it to the point where the pages look like a wall in a daycare center. I indicate any instance where a song is not only written into the script specifically but also places where a song might be playing naturally in anticipation of what the editor and director will be doing when they cut. With knowledge of the music budget, you then have to prioritize the money by indicating where the “big song moments” are (or most likely will be) and then tiers of descending importance to the plot or emotion of the scene. I keep track of all that stuff on the page with weird little symbols and tick marks and arrows. Then at the end, I add it all up on a back page and count the number of potential needle drop slots in the film and their degrees of importance to the script and then try and back that into the budget that I’ve been given. Then in advance of post-production (hopefully), I start reaching out to record labels and music publishers and sync agents and asking them to send me certain kinds of music (based on the script) at varying fee tiers as well as researching the rights and potential costs of any songs specifically called for in the script. Often these need to get replaced due to the budget. All of that should get me pretty well prepared for when they start to cut the movie, but things always change at that point as well, which is why it’s so important to have as much of a head-start as possible with all of that prep.
One interesting discovery I made a few years ago was when I was trying to track down the rights to a song for a movie I did for Ice-T (Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp). The production really liked a specific soul/funk song from the ’70s that they’d found on the internet and it took me months to find out who owned it. But the trail eventually led me to the actual Cook County Commissioner of Chicago, who in a former lifetime in the ’60s used to work as a record producer and owned a little record label that he later sold to Universal. This guy literally wrote and produced the song and retained all the rights to it. He also used to go by a different name and did not own a cell phone or use a computer, even though there was technically one in his office. So reaching him was nearly as difficult as finding out who he was. Also on occasion, you’ll follow a trail of music publishing that leads you to someone in jail. That’s always interesting.
For you, what makes for the best collaborative environment with a director? What about an editor?
MT: I just really appreciate it when directors and showrunners are open to different ideas and directions. If they have specific songs in mind and there is nothing else that will do, that can be pretty difficult if the budget doesn’t support their vision or if those songs just aren’t clearable. When they’re open to new ideas, though, I find that often we come up with stuff that works even better. Some people are more flexible than others in this way and there’s usually a little tug-of-war, but sometimes it can be a real slog if they’re particularly rigid.
I also tend to like projects that have more “on camera” music, which is any situation where music is performed on camera with musicians or actors singing songs or doing choreography to a specific piece of music. Often, in situations like that there’s a need to produce original songs or unique covers of existing songs prior to the shoot and those are typically areas where I can put on my music producer hat again and help create things apart from what the composer is doing. It gets me out of the house more, which is nice.
Is there a piece of music from your career that you had to fight particularly hard for and are proud of?
MT: There are definitely placements that I’m very proud of but I don’t usually do much fighting for my own personal creative choices. I’m there to do a job in the way the director wants it done. Ultimately, I need to adapt to their taste because it’s their movie. On some projects they lean on you hard creatively and others they don’t. I’ll give my opinion when it’s appropriate on whether I think something is a good choice or if I think we can do better, but I never push it. I always most enjoy the projects where the director wants a lot of my opinion and takes my advice, but I don’t want to force songs on people if they aren’t feeling it or our personal tastes aren’t the same.
A couple placements that I’m proud of though:
- Pee-wee’s Big Holiday: I made a mashup of Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n Roll” that was the punchline of a scene as Joe Manganiello’s character “Fonzies” the jukebox in Pee-wee’s malt shop to play both songs and then smacks it again for them to both play in unison as a mashup. I had to produce that mashup myself too, which nearly drove me crazy.
- Mapplethorpe: I really loved the use of “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex in the end titles of this film.
- Under the Silver Lake: “Baby” by Donnie and Joe Emerson… it’s just source music used in the main character’s apartment but that song cracks me up and it’s so perfect there!
- Cuck: I used the classic 1983 hit “They Don’t Know” by Tracey Ullman as we smash cut to black at the end of the film and it always gives me chills because it’s such a weird, off-kilter song choice for this movie. This film doesn’t come out until October 2019 so you’ll have to go see it (in the theater) to see what I mean.
Do you have a favorite “white whale” song or artist that you’ve been unable to land in a project as of yet?
MT: I wanna use “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley at some point… somehow!
Are there songs or artists that indie filmmakers always ask for and the answer is always no?
MT: There are a lot of songs out there that are hard to license for whatever reason. Usually, the reason is money. Big songs cost big money and productions (especially indie ones) aren’t usually very good at estimating what this stuff costs at the outset, which is why I like to get attached as early as possible to advise on this stuff. But one example would be anything by The Rolling Stones prior to 1972. That stuff would be expensive no matter what, but a lot of people don’t realize that the Stones simply don’t even own it themselves at all anymore and the company that does own it isn’t big on discounts. So even if Mick Jagger himself loved your movie and wanted to help there’s basically nothing he could do to help you get “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Another interesting example is that anything by Jimi Hendrix won’t clear if there are any references to drugs at all in the scene. So, if you’ve got a scene set in the ’60s with some hippies smoking pot and you want “Purple Haze” on in the background it doesn’t matter how much money you have… it’s not gonna happen. That seems pretty incongruous, but it’s true…
For a filmmaker with a very limited budget, do you have advice on how to best prioritize the music choices? For example, is landing a memorable song for the opening credits more important than getting one for the end credits?
MT: Assuming you haven’t written or made the film yet, then my main advice to a filmmaker with a super limited budget would just be to not try and lean on pre-existing songs in your film much at all. Hire a great composer and work out a flat rate with them and let the score do the work or maybe even have them write some original songs. I’m as much a fan of a great song placement as anyone but at the end of the day your film should be more interesting than the songs you might choose to be in it, so if you need a certain song for the film to work but the budget won’t allow it then that’s a writing failure.
As far as prioritizing choices, however, I’d probably recommend steering clear of title placements altogether if budget is an issue. Main and end title placements will be at least three times more expensive than anywhere else in the film, so maybe license three or four other songs in the movie and just use score for the titles…. more bang for your buck that way. Also, step deals can help keep upfront costs lower but not everyone will go for those.
What’s your advice for aspiring music supervisors looking to make connections in the film/music industry?
MT: There’s really no easy way to get into this or linear ladder to climb in this part of the business unless you’re one of the incredibly lucky few to get one of the handful of internships that might be available at one of the big music supervision shops (of which there are only a few) or at a studio music department, which probably means you have a trust fund and industry-connected parents in which case you’ll be fine no matter what. But if you don’t get those kinds of opportunities that allow you to then be promoted to a point where you’re spoon-fed quality projects while learning the ropes from seasoned professionals, then you’ll just have to do it yourself and make a ton of mistakes along the way — hopefully ones that won’t end your career before it really begins. So start making friends with indie filmmakers and offer to music supervise their crappy shorts and features for free and use a lot of local music from bands who will license it to you for cheap or free. Get points on the board (credits) any way you can and if you’re lucky maybe one of those filmmakers will do something cool enough to get a real budget next time and take you with them. And read some books about music publishing and licensing agreements…
Do you belong to any industry associations? (If so, how have they been a useful resource in your career?)
MT: Nah… the only one I know of for music supervisors anyway is the Guild of Music Supervisors, which only started a few years ago. It seems like they have a great mission, though, and they’ve definitely accomplished some good things in getting music supervisors more formally recognized by the film and TV Academy as a group and things like that. Since there’s no formal union for music supervisors it’s really not necessary to belong to anything in order to do the work in the way that an actor or an editor would have to be if the project were a union production. I’ve been doing this for a long time without any organization help but I’m always open to hearing how an entity like that might benefit me. I just haven’t heard from anyone on that yet.
What’s your all-time favorite movie soundtrack? (Either one you worked on or not.)
MT: That’s hard to say because I have so much music jumbled up in my head constantly, but I can tell you that I definitely wore out the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack in college and that still has a special place in my heart. (By the way, it also works just as well with The Wizard of Oz as Dark Side of The Moon does… try it!)
The other one that I would add to that is that I’m super proud of the Under the Silver Lake soundtrack! So, as far as my own work goes it’s that one for me right now. You can get it on Milan Records and it’s a beautiful double vinyl LP with an additional 7” single for the original song. The physical album is largely score, but the full playlist of songs is on Spotify.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about that you can share?
MT: Yeah! I’m working on a really fun Christmas/holiday rom-com film for Netflix right now called Holidate, starring Emma Roberts, and there is a ton of music in that one! Also, just beginning season three of my CBS All Access show No Activity, starring Tim Meadows and produced by Will Ferrell.
To learn more about Mike Turner’s work, visit miketurnermedia.com.
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