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. Part two, about the music discovery process and the supervision community, can be found here.
In this edition, we wrap up our conversation as McElver recalls some of the highlights of his career. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know this is an impossible question, but do you have any favorite scenes? Any favorite projects?
Let’s see. Picking children. What’s been really fortunate with SuperMusicVision is that I’m genuinely a fan of everything we’ve worked on. We’re working on Better Call Saul, which is a show I would watch regardless of whether or not I worked on it. And then like I mentioned with Love [and being pulled in to work on Season 2, even though we didn’t work on the first season]—I try not to take that lightly. So I could easily give you an example from all of them.
When I first started working with this company, they were doing the final season of Breaking Bad. My creative contribution and involvement was limited in that I was an intern, but one of my favorite scenes from that show that I got to witness from start to finish still stays with me as one of my favorite examples of music supervision and storytelling. It’s in Season 5, part B. Walter White is in the middle of the desert, and he’s just witnessed a very heinous crime against someone he knows. His car has a bullet hole in the gas tank, he’s run out of gas, and he has this large barrel full of money. He has to push this barrel of money through the desert to get back home, because he’s not just going to leave it there. He’d be leaving behind everything he’s been working for.
That show is so great about having really eclectic music taste. The music really helps shape the tone of certain scenes. For that scene, we tried everything—really moody music, then an experimental electronic song, then a folk song and then an instrumental classical piece. They were all very different approaches. The one that was selected was by an artist called the Limelighters, a ‘60s folk band, and the song is called, “Take My True Love by the Hand.” It’s this silly counterpoint idea, and after all of the heaviness, a breath of fresh air. That’s what that show does. It gets really dark and then it does something really funny. In my classes I teach, I always share that scene as an example.
It’s funny because now that you’ve mentioned it, I remember that scene. I don’t specifically remember the music, but I remember thinking, “What a great scene.” And that’s cool that you saw it as such a success, too.
There are scenes like that in every show I’ve worked on. I could spend another half an hour just giving you examples from each project, and truly they’re all enjoyable to work on. For Better Call Saul, it’s all the same people [from Breaking Bad], and I’ve been a lot more involved. So for that show there have been a lot more personally rewarding examples of certain ideas I had making it to picture. Or like I said on Love, where I’m just a fan, and then licensing songs from bands that I’m also a big fan of and being the middleman in that scenario.
That’s probably the best position to be in. As music fans we all have personal taste, but this is about telling the best story. It doesn’t really matter what your personal music taste is.
Right. It’s your ability to find the show’s personal taste. I love Blink-182, but I don’t get to put Blink-182 in Better Call Saul because there’s no world where that makes any sense. You start to realize where the separation of “what I’m a fan of” and “what is needed for the show” breaks apart.
Part of it is just knowledge. If we’re doing a show that’s set in the ‘40s, I need to make sure I’m using ‘40s appropriate music. The more familiar you are with that genre and that time period, the better you’ll be able to make recommendations. So a lot of it is just listening or exploring, or sometimes reaching out to publishers and saying, “I need music from the ‘80s. Can you send me some of your favorites from your catalogue?” Then I’m discovering new music from the ‘80s I didn’t listen to growing up or that my co-workers didn’t listen to growing up.
You have to be able to find whatever’s needed. In a way, to the film and television industry the music supervisor is the expert on the music industry, and then to the music industry the music supervisor is the expert on the film and television industry. You’re in a position where you go back and forth in trying to use your knowledge in one side to help the other.
I’m going to watch TV differently now.
I teach a class on this here in Los Angeles. It’s always fun with some of the students because they’ll be like, “Ahhh! You ruined TV for me!” But then a few weeks later, they’re like, “I noticed this thing and now it’s un-ruined,” because they know what they’re listening and looking for.
Some people might not want to know about all the nitty-gritty details of how things are selected. Some people might view television or film as a means of escape, the same way they don’t want to know how visual effects are done. They want to just enjoy it for the final result. I think many people are like that with music.
But a lot of music fans find appreciation in thinking, “Why this song?” any time a song comes on. Because they could have picked any song. So what is it about this one that works?
Are you teaching at the same school that you went to?
No, this is a school called the Los Angeles College of Music. Ron Sobel, one of the people I met at my school, was brought on to help build out their music business program. They asked him if he knew anyone that taught or could teach music supervision or music licensing. Because of the years I worked with him, he recommended me. So it’s another example of what we were talking about earlier. You never know how you’ll navigate through career paths or who’s going to help you get certain jobs.
I never would have predicted that I would be teaching in addition to everything, but because of a good relationship I had with one of my first music industry jobs, they recommended me for it. I do a night class once a week. It’s a little bit of extra time in my week to plan, but I love talking about what I do and informing young songwriters, musicians or music industry majors about the realities of what supervision is, how licensing works, and all of the semi-complicated contract agreement portions of it.
Many up-and-coming music industry performers and songwriters are going to at some point realize it is a very large goal of having their songs used. So the more they understand earlier on, the more realistic their expectations can be, and the more effective they’ll be at seeking out those opportunities.
Do you still have time to play your own music?
I have said I’m starting a new band for about a year and a half now. When I moved to Los Angeles, I stopped performing as much, and that was another moment of, “I think someone will be better at this.” I went on a tour and played lots of shows, and I realized how hard you really need to work to be a successful performer. I realized I should probably focus my efforts in an industry job that I would be more suited for.
I put all my focus into school, and then into my first job, and then into the music supervision job, and now teaching. I’m also very involved with the Guild of Music Supervisors and helping plan our education conference. So I haven’t been keeping up with playing music. But I do still enjoy it, and I’m confident that I will attempt to perform more this year. I enjoy it as a creative outlet and an emotional outlet.
Well, I have learned a ton from this conversation. Seriously.
Oh, cool. There’s a lot to discuss. I do an 11-week course on just what a music supervisor does, so there’s a lot to cover!
What I’ve learned more and more every year is that there’s such a thirst to understand, to learn and to become familiar with the process. One, it’s a fan, and two, for personal goals of licensing catalogues you work with, or your own band or to get that job yourself. People have written books about licensing and there are now more classes at schools. There are entire conferences around licensing and placement opportunities.
Our Guild of Music Supervisors has put on two education conferences and we’re in the process of planning the third, where each panel is about one of these subjects—budget, storytelling or the licensing process—or focusing on a specific show or specific moments of that project.
We wish Garrett McElver the best and thank him for donating his time for our three-part series “Show Tunes.” Part one, about breaking into the industry and placing music on shows, can be found here. Part two, about the music discovery process and the supervision community, can be found here.
Find McElver’s latest music playlist on Spotify or stream below.