Garrett McElver is a music supervisor living in Los Angeles working for SuperMusicVision. In addition to supervising and coordinating the placement of music in shows like AMC’s Better Call Saul, Netflix’s Love and Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, McElver also teaches music industry classes at the Los Angeles College of Music.
McElver talked to Behind the Setlist for a three-part series about the ins and outs of music supervision. Part one, about breaking into the industry and placing music on shows, can be found here.
In this edition, McElver dives deeper into the music discovery process, how his job has affected his personal consumption of media, and how the music supervision community operates. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do bands pitch music to you guys? I wonder about a show like Grey’s Anatomy, which almost seems to act as a marketing partner with artists in bringing them exposure. Or maybe that’s just how it seems to the viewer.
I view all of our projects as being their own projects and any song we license for them is for the goal of making that project better. Any after-effects that help the band’s career or that lead to iTunes sales are a bonus. And I love the bonus. I’m always very excited when we use a band and then suddenly they’re getting more attention. Or when we use an older band that people now are re-visiting albums for. But that’s never the goal on our end. We do it because that song made the most sense for that scene. So the idea of television becoming a source of discovery is really just an awesome side effect to music supervisors doing the best job they can in helping tell that story.
I totally understand the side of the music publishers and record labels and bands who desperately want to be in that position where they have that opportunity. But we never set out to say, “I saw this band at the Hotel Café. I’m going to put them on this show and hopefully they’ll get famous off of it.” We’re not looking at it from a music promotion standpoint. So when I mentioned earlier that I think of myself more in the film and TV industry than in the music industry, that’s kind of where that line is. I’m not thinking about the music industry effects of the use. I’m thinking about the film and TV effects of the use.
That said, we are pitched and sent an overwhelming amount of music for that exact purpose. And not to sound like I’m complaining about it, because it’s a wealth of riches of the best music and the most creative people. We’re getting advances of albums and we’re discovering bands before they’ve broken, so it’s a really exciting part of the job where you get to discover and have music sent to you. But it is an overwhelming amount, where everyone—from the biggest record label you can think of to your friend’s record label that operates out of a garage—are all sending us emails and trying to get our attention.
It gets to the point where everyone’s clamoring for the same opportunities, so major record labels are competing with bands that I saw at a local venue. Aside from things like budget, they’re viewed equally in terms of which song is helping tell the story. It could be Arcade Fire or it could be this band that just played their first show the other night. If the storytelling element of the show I’m working on calls for the smaller band, that’s not to say that they’re better or to make any less of Arcade Fire, it’s just thinking about what song helps tell the story.
That makes sense. So I guess it’s not just me that has the misconception that TV is a reliable vehicle for new bands to get discovered. I mean it is, but not in the way a lot of people might think. Story first, music second.
Right. I think one of the other misconceptions about music supervisors is that we’re always ahead of the game and that we get to go through new music all the time. It’s actually really difficult to keep up at times. So much of my day, especially in television where we’re working on a couple of shows at once, fills up very quickly with communication amongst the projects, researching ideas for those projects, reading scripts, watching cuts for discussing what could be used in certain places and a whole variety of production-related things, that I’m not actually getting to sit there and just listen and enjoy music the way one might think we do. In a lot of ways it’s my own self-discipline to go home and be like, “What albums came out this week?” and to listen and enjoy the same way that everyone in the world enjoys music. The only difference is that my job is dependent on keeping up.
I do have the luxury of music being delivered to my doorstep or being emailed to me directly, so the discovery part of searching for new music is shortened. We work with so many different companies and have so many different music licensing colleagues that make educated pitches for us saying, “You work on Love and I know that Love uses ‘x’ type of music. Here’s some music that might work for the show.” Now I have a shortcut because this person already thought ahead about what I might need for my project. It’s a way for me to discover bands that I might not ever have heard of, because the labels and publishers and individual bands do your research for you sometimes.
So it’s overwhelming, but it also sounds pretty great.
That part of it can be fun. It’s just a very competitive and saturated market of people seeking music licensing opportunities. With how many bands are making less money off of album sales, and trying to figure out how to properly monetize streaming services, and struggling with touring money and trying to sell merchandise, a lot of people view music licensing as this big opportunity for income and for success. Because of that awesome side effect, where a band might get a huge amount of attention off of a placement on Grey’s Anatomy, there’s a lot of healthy desperation of trying to get to that opportunity. A big part of my job is navigating all of those people.
What’s nice is that many of those people are my closest friends, so it’s going to cafés and shows, hanging out, meeting new people, and learning about new bands. A lot of my job is, outside of reading the script and music spotting sessions and all of the production elements, having a whole secondary life of meeting and working with music licensing companies and trying to keep myself up to date. They’re trying to find opportunities where they can find placements for the artists and it becomes a very busy lifestyle. It is what you make of it.
Just like I hardly ever have time to read for fun, because I’m reading for work all the time, I’m sure that just like me you probably listen to music very differently, even when it’s on your downtime.
Yeah, I have two ways of listening to music. One way is saying, “The new Radiohead album’s out? That’s amazing. I’m going to listen to the whole thing and really get into it.” Or, “I’m going to go to the show early to check out the opening act and absorb their songs.” The other part of my listening is very focused and to quickly evaluate if it’s correct for the project. You get very good at being able to skim through songs to decide if it’s the right tone or the right approach.
If you’re working on Grace and Frankie, for example, and you need a certain type of ending where it’s more melancholic than it is sad, you’re going to be able to quickly go through and be like, “This is sounding too sad. This one’s sounding too happy.” It’s not even about the artist you’re looking at. It’s really just song to song. So much of the new music I go through is done in that focused way.
There are times when weeks will go by and I haven’t listened to music for me in a while. I’ll get in my car and listen to hardcore and pop-punk, because that’s what I like as a fan. It has nothing to do with my television shows. I just drive around and get into it. That’s my palate cleanser. Going to live shows can be similar, when you’re going to shows of artists that you really respond to and love. Sometimes you’re also going to shows where you’re just trying to check out new bands to see if they’re right for your project or because one of your colleagues recommended them.
And I bet that you also watch TV differently.
I’ve always loved television and films, and probably even more so in the last five to 10 years. I’ve loved the way television storytelling has evolved. With any job you do, you tend to appreciate or critique similar fields. I really appreciate when a story on television is told beautifully, and when a song comes in and you’re like, “That song totally works for this scene and I’m really getting involved.”
Also, now as I watch the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards, I appreciate the Best Writing category more than I did when I was a teenager because I understand. I’m not a screenwriter, but from reading so many scripts and watching so many projects, where all I’m doing is thinking about storytelling, I start to really appreciate the work that goes into it, especially with any music that’s used in projects. I love paying attention.
We’ll go see a movie and I’ll be like, “That movie was great but I didn’t really love that one song in the middle. It just kind of stuck out. Why were they playing that?” And my friend will be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I thought it was great.” That’s my own curse of paying attention to those types of things. That’s not a negative to someone who does or does not. It’s just that you start to pay attention. It becomes your own worst enemy, thinking about how you would have approached it differently.
But the flip side of it is when something’s so good that it exceeds your expectations. I love the show Fargo. I don’t work on it, but any time there’s a music moment on there I wonder if it was the director’s idea or the supervisor. I get invested and it makes me giddy and excited.
“There are times when weeks will go by and I haven’t listened to music for me in a while. I’ll listen to hardcore and pop-punk, because that’s what I like as a fan. It has nothing to do with my television shows. I just drive around and get into it. That’s my palate cleanser.”
Who’s really killing it? Who do you look up to that’s doing your job?
The music supervision community isn’t huge. They stem from film, television, advertising, trailers, video games, television promos and all kinds of different worlds, but it’s still relatively small. I know many of them and it’s more about appreciating the hard work that all of us do and celebrating each of our successes. In February we had our 7th Annual Guild of Music Supervisors Awards, where we all vote and nominate to select the best music supervision in different categories the same way the Emmys does. There are supervisors that I just love and always get excited about what kinds of music they’re using.
The team I work with is wonderful and I really look up to each of them. Thomas Golubić is the founder of SuperMusicVision. My co-workers, Michelle Johnson and Yvette Metoyer, have become co-music supervisors on many of our recent projects. And I am the music coordinator on most of the television show projects I’ve mentioned. It’s a very collaborative experience, where the four of us delegate scenes and tasks and support each other. While titles can vary in our office, the expectation of work and involvement in each show is treated equally amongst us.
Who I’m looking up to outside of that, I tend to lean more towards filmmakers. I love Quentin Tarantino. His storytelling is so amazing, his dialogue is perfect, and he works with a woman named Mary Ramos who’s his music supervisor. They’re always doing these crazy music ideas, like Rick Ross in a western, and you’re like, “Never would I have thought to do that, but it’s perfect and why would you do it any differently?” Other filmmakers like the Coen brothers, James Gunn and Wes Anderson are always fantastic.
I love Mr. Robot and Fargo as shows that I am always impressed with the music choices in. Another one is Master of None on Netflix. There’s a whole sequence about the perspective of men and women and their daily life. Aziz [Ansari] and his friend are walking home, and then it cuts to a girl walking home. When it’s Aziz and his friend, the music is all happy-go-lucky. They’re like, “Let’s cut through the park. It’ll be faster.” It cuts to the girl and it’s a horror score—creepy, scary. What an effective and fun way to highlight the different experiences for men and women. It’s just a simple thing with their composer. I don’t know if any of it was licensed or not, but the music all around that show is great. There’s another sequence that uses Aphex Twin, an artist I love and would have never predicted would show up in a comedy series.
And then a really flattering thing—I love the show Love. We didn’t work on the first season, but the previous music supervisors decided to step away and put our name in the ring. That’s really cool. This whole second season has been like, “Yes! How can I help it be as good as the first season? What can we do to not let them down?” Because we’re trying to tell the same story that the last supervisors were telling. They did such an amazing job and I want to be as good as they were.
That’s really cool that you’re already a fan and then you got called up to the plate. That probably doesn’t happen very often.
No. I think what’s important, and why I mentioned the small community, is that sometimes supervisors will leave a project, or sometimes they’re not invited back for one reason or another. We’ve certainly been let go off projects. I think keeping good relationships with your colleagues in the supervision world is only beneficial, because as much as it could be viewed as a competition, there’s so much interesting storytelling out there that there’s going to be natural gravity of the right supervisor to the right types of projects. People are going to recommend each other for different things. The more we can keep each other all at a high level of work, the better for the overall industry of storytelling.
In most creative industries you do find those small pockets of community, and the general mantra is exactly what you said. Do good work. Keep good relationships. People will love working with you, as long as you’re good to work with.
Garrett McElver will return for the conclusion to our three-part series “Show Tunes.” Part one, about breaking into the industry and placing music on shows, can be found here.
Find McElver’s latest music playlist on Spotify.