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Keeping Your Film's Soundtrack on Track: Why You May Need a Music Supervisor

By David G. Powell

Documentary filmmaking continues to enjoy a surge in popularity, visibility and exhibition, in styles and formats ranging from short to feature-length, fiction/nonfiction hybrids to music documentaries. As this trend continues, so follows increasingly sophisticated musical soundtracks to the films—and more complex creative, financial, legal and technical music challenges.

The more the documentary filmmaker understands the role of a music supervisor and the services that individual provides, the smoother the musical ride can be for the project. From that understanding, the filmmaker can then ascertain the areas where having a music supervisor on board might be beneficial before considering whom to hire and whether it would be money well spent. In this article we will try to cover some of the basics of what a music supervisor does, and whether you want—or need—to hire one.

What Are the Benefits of a Music Supervisor?

There are many perceptions and ideas about what music supervision is. Asking different filmmakers, let alone music supervisors themselves, will get you many different answers. The truth is, music supervisors come in all different shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of experience, background and expertise. They may have a record label and an artists and repertoire (A&R) background with strong artist management contacts; they may specialize in record production and soundtrack negotiations; they may have a composer/artist background and be able to handle the creative aspects of your score-only doc; they may have a strong music clearance and licensing background; or, they may be able to manage all of the legal, creative and technical aspects pertaining to music in your project, from beginning to end. Here are some of the benefits of hiring a music supervisor:

Ÿ1) Hiring an experienced, multi-faceted music supervisor can greatly assist in your musical vision for your project coming to creative, financial, legal and technical fruition, saving time, money and costly headaches.  

Ÿ2) Working with an expert music rights specialist with ongoing relationships with the major and indie labels and publishers helps to ensure getting the maximum out of your music budget through skillful negotiation of the most favorable licensing fees, terms and conditions for the music you want, as well as an accurate, "no-holes" delivery of your music rights package to distributors.   

Ÿ3) Having a skilled, imaginative music supervisor to flesh out the director/producer's conceptual musical vision through the research, discovery and selection of songs and tracks—and act as a liaison in coordination with the composer in achieving a unique original score—creates a cohesiveness to the project and a higher level of success in distribution and marketing. 

Ÿ4) Having the benefit of an experienced music production and technical professional assures proper live music performance recording, expert track production, accurate music spotting and editing, proper synchronization to visual and smooth transfers to the audio post house for final mix. 

Ÿ5) A music supervisor can contribute to a successful, professional and relaxed atmosphere where music is concerned, assuring a smoother, enjoyable ride for all involved.

What Services Does a Music Supervisor Provide?

Conceptualization, Planning and Budget—Hiring a music supervisor at the beginning of your project allows you the opportunity to discuss from a creative, legal, financial and technical standpoint the potential scenarios for music within your documentary script, storyboard or concept. 

For instance, a music supervisor can help you pinpoint in advance the areas where you may have challenges and possible pitfalls in the way of music licensing, such as live or source background music leakage during interviews, references made by interviewees to specific music, music embodied within audio-visual clips, pre-planning of live music scenes, preparation of consent and release forms, etc.  

Also, for independently funded docs with little or no music budgets, helping you to reconcile the musical vision for your film with the realities of what it may cost can be an invaluable contribution of an experienced music supervisor. This can include researching potential songs and recordings under consideration for licensing by the filmmaker, a discussion of composer and score production costs, an assessment of music rights embodied within audio-visual clips, the music editing and delivery process, the costs of shooting music live, producing music, etc. A music supervisor can then steer you away from expensive music beyond your budget, point you towards creative alternatives, discuss technical solutions and fashion a sensible financial game plan.

Music Clearance—This is one of the most important areas in which a small-budget documentary consistently needs help. A music supervisor with expertise and experience in music clearance can design the most cost-effective licensing strategy, saving you time and money in licensing fees. He/she will have existing relationships in place with the personnel of the major and independent record labels and music publishing licensing departments, and can avail you of their latest licensing guidelines, trends and fee structures and alert you to possible legal issues up front. A music supervisor can provide realistic strategies to obtain the rights for the music you wish to license.

Composer Selection and Hiring—A music supervisor can help you articulate the type of music score that most fits the vision for your project. He/she can help you identify the creative strengths and qualities you would want in a composer, plus the type of  "palette" to be used, such as string orchestral, live jazz combo, acoustic guitar, etc. He/she will also be aware of typical composer fees and deal parameters possible within the context of your budget. For example, what is happening more frequently is the trading off of the typical "work-for-hire" composer deal in return for an "all media, perpetuity, world" non-exclusive licensing deal on the score.  This arrangement may allow you to work with more established and experienced composers at lower initial creative fees, in return for the composer creating and owning the score, while licensing it back to you for all the rights you would normally need to exhibit, distribute, assign and sell your film. A music supervisor can coordinate the composer search and subsequent demo submissions, doing the first round of reviews and saving you time and effort. A supervisor can also provide the legal deal memos and handle the negotiations, possibly saving you other more expensive legal fees. Additionally, he/she can also oversee the score's production and on-time delivery for music editing and audio mix.

Live Music Scenes and Original Music Production—A music supervisor can coordinate and produce live music performances or re-enactments, including the hiring of musicians, singers and other performers. Also, he/she can coordinate and produce specifically written songs and tracks for the production, including hiring of talent and booking of studio sessions.

Music Spotting Sessions—One of the most important moments of the music process for any film is the music spotting session, where the director and/or producer, in conjunction with the music supervisor, composer and possibly editor, review the film scene by scene and come up with a map and set of instructions for the composer to follow in the creation of the score. The supervisor's role is to act as a liaison between the director and composer and to provide feedback, recommendations and solutions. The supervisor ensures that the director's vision is communicated to the composer in terms of the type of musical palette the composer will use, start and end times of cues, "hits" within each cue, etc. The supervisor can then create the spotting map along with time code, listing each musical cue or potential song, its start and ending times, and any other notes about the cue itself, such as certain hits or mood changes. All parties then have the same time-coded "map" to work from, right through to the final audio mix.

Music Editing—These days, most music supervisors have computerized digital DAWs (digital audio workstations), if not full-blown studios, as a necessary part of the tools of their trade. This equipment allows the supervisor to digitize the director's cut and host the spotting sessions, using the same time code as the director, editor or eventual audio mix facility. In addition the supervisor can be laying in potential songs/tracks against picture, as well as loading and placing score cues as they are delivered by the composer. All of this activity can then be digitally transferred into the final audio mix session at the audio post house, or to the filmmaker's own Avid or Final Cut Pro workstation, to be mixed in conjunction with dialogue and other audio background and effects tracks.

Audio Mix—If needed, a music supervisor can advise the filmmaker and participate in the final audio mix, making sure that all music cues are cleared and accounted for, edited, transferred and placed properly within the film. 

End Credits for Music—A music supervisor can properly prepare this for you. The song/track credits are dictated by each individual music license, composer memo and its specific legal requirements. A song title or track credit usually contains title, writers, publishers and their affiliations, performers and record label courtesy credit.

Music Cue Sheets—Your distributors will request, and the music licensors will require, an accurate cue sheet to be generated containing a complete listing of all song and score cues, timings, authors and publishers and performance rights affiliations. This cue sheet must also be submitted to ASCAP, BMI and/or SESAC. It can be prepared by the music supervisor after the final audio mix is complete, and before commercial exhibition of the film.

Music Licensing—Once the film has completed its final audio mix, the music supervisor will issue, or arrange for the major licensing departments to issue, appropriate sync and master use licenses for all songs and tracks, based upon the terms, fees and conditions previously granted in writing. Between the generation and delivery, review, executions and counter-executions with final, fully executed copies back to all parties, this process can take anywhere from one to four months.

Distributor's Rights Package—Once all licenses are complete and counter-executed, the music supervisor can compile all music licenses, agreements, memos and cue sheets along with final music budget information for delivery to the filmmaker in a "music rights" binder, for easy reference and future hand-off to distributors and insurers.

Motion Picture CD Soundtrack—When appropriate to the project, the music supervisor can potentially shop, negotiate and secure a soundtrack CD release for the production, which can sometimes result in lower master-use fees and have other cross-promotional benefits for the project. The music supervisor can also coordinate all music re-mixing and mastering, and all artist, label and publisher agreements and licenses.

You may consider hiring a music supervisor because you have a need for any combination of the above services. For instance, if you only have song/track licensing issues, you may want to just hire a music rights specialist who can ultimately save you money in licensing fees. If you and your documentary need help in many of the above categories, it may make sense to have someone skilled in all areas of supervision, someone who is with you all the way. Once you have determined your needs, get references and referrals from other filmmakers and industry sources, check out several candidates, conduct some interviews, see some reels and review a list of credits. Fees are usually negotiable, depending upon the specific services to be rendered and the time involved. Usually they are flat fees, with the exception being percentage points on CD soundtrack releases, if the supervisor has procured that for you.

Finally, you will be working with your music supervisor for a substantial period of time, on something very dear to your heart and of great importance to you. As with any business relationship, take your time and choose wisely. Consider whether or not the potential candidate connects and resonates with the heart space of your project. After all, to you, it is your passion, your life's work and a true labor of love. Ask yourself whether the music supervisors under consideration can align with you on that level. Can they bring not only their skills and expertise, but their own passion for the project? If so, then aim for a mutually beneficial, collaborative experience as you go about the process of giving birth to this wonderfully inspiring, informing art form called the documentary film.


©2004 David G. Powell

David G. Powell is owner and president of The Music Bridge LLC, a music clearance, licensing, supervision and consultation company specializing in all aspects of film, television, documentary, video and soundtrack music rights. He can be reached at