Expert Testimony

Advice from a pro about song placements in TV productions.

  Wendy Levy

The January 2011 issue of Berklee today profiled Wendy Levy and her work as a music supervisor who finds and licenses songs for shows on the CW Network and other TV channels. Here she offers practical advice for those hoping to get their songs heard by TV viewers.

How can songwriters find music supervisors for TV shows?


It takes doing a little homework by checking IMDB [the Internet Movie Database] and reading a show's credits to identify a show's music supervisor. Sometimes the music department at a major studio will give out the supervisor's contact info. Some productions don't have a music supervisor, so you might call the postproduction office directly and talk to an associate producer or a postproduction supervisor. If you get them on a good day, you can pitch your material.


Some registries list supervisor contact info. Writers can also go through third-party publishers, publishing administrators, libraries, and song placement services. The good ones will take only the music they think they can place. Many are listed on my iChat, and they supply me with music every day. If your music is part of a larger catalog, you have a better chance of getting placements.

Is it advisable to just cold call a music supervisor?


A cold call can be effective. If I have the time and the caller is respectful, I will speak with them. If it's the wrong time and I say that I'm really busy, they should follow up at a better time. Understanding how we work is important. Speed is everything. There are days when I am putting out fires and trying to find replacements for six songs.


Perseverance without being pushy is a key to getting my attention. I've had songwriters pitch me music that I thought was strong. They followed up once and either I was too busy to talk to them at that time or the show I was working on wasn't right for their music, and I never heard from them again. If I think someone's music is good, I tell them to call or e-mail me again to remind me about their material. E-mail is an effective and noninvasive way to follow up. So many times someone will send me something I like, but then I never hear from the person again. When you get a chance, build on it, that's your door. I always tell people whose music I think is good to stay in touch and remind me about their music.

How should a writer prepare before calling a music supervisor?


You should watch the shows and know the sound of those shows the supervisor works on so that you know what they are looking for. Every once in a while something outside the palette of a show gets in, but usually it's easy to tell what style of music they are looking for.


I have heard from small publishers that say they have watched a show and know what I need. If they do, they are golden to me. As a songwriter, you won't have a catalog as deep as a publisher's, so you have to target. I know some songwriters with very small catalogs, but they are very good at pitching them. Know what you have and where it will work rather than just calling everybody and hoping something works out.

Are there any general criteria by which you judge whether someone's music will work for the shows you work on?


First, the sound and production quality have to be at the level of stuff you might hear on the radio. If it isn't, the producers will reject it. Beyond that, I listen for [musical] craft, emotional quality, and whether the style fits the palette of the shows I'm working on.


Can you give some practical tips for those making submissions to you?


I opened a package the other day that had a handwritten note and two CDs with a rubber band around them. That note will get separated from the CDs, and there was nothing on the CDs to indicate where they came from. That's a mistake. Label your material and have your contact info in the metadata. My assistant and I are diligent about noting contact info, but sometimes something gets put into my iTunes library without proper info. If you aren't established, we can't find you, and that means we can't license your song.


Are there certain musical styles that you work with most frequently?


That varies with different shows and networks. The show Make It or Break It is about gymnasts and is stylistically agnostic. Any kind of music that's up-tempo, driving, and competitive will work for scenes in the gym. We use indie singer-songwriter material for the family drama and big emotional moments. For shows on the CW Network, we primarily use contemporary pop, rock, urban, r&b, and, on very rare occasions, country.


What makes a song easy for you to license?


It's best if there is only one stop for me to clear it and if the writer can easily verify ownership of the song. Never lie or exaggerate. The last thing a music supervisor wants is someone saying they own a song when they don't. That's why a lot of supervisors will go through a third party, like a publisher or label. That puts the liability on the third party who is screening the songs and taking responsibility for knowing who owns them.

We are always looking for good music that's easy to license and for people who have it together and will sign the paper and return it. I've been in situations with people who don't understand how we work. They thought that by not signing the paper they were negotiating a standoff with a studio that really wanted to use their music. You can't do that because we move on quickly. There's so much music out there. If you don't sign the paperwork, I look for something else. Even for historically significant songs and artists, there are limits to what a studio will do and what a production will pay. They won't agree to special terms for one song when all the other music in the show was done one way. It's too much to keep track of if one song in one episode requires special terms.


It sounds like these contracts don't have much room for negotiation.


They are the studio's contracts, not mine, I'm just the conduit. I'd tell songwriters to have a lawyer look over [the contract] to tell you what you are getting into, but these are just nonexclusive licenses for in-show use. If the terms are not OK with you, then we can't use the song. I always give artists as much as I can for their songs. There's no harm in them asking for more money. If something has changed since I did the budget and I have money left over, I might be able to offer more. For most artists who aren't established, though, the deals are "Take it or leave it."


What is the average fee range for a song placement?


Sometimes the fees are low and sometimes they are really nice. They range between a few hundred dollars up to $25,000 per side [for the writer and the publisher]. Reality TV shows typically pay low fees. On the networks, the back end-performance royalties from BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC-can be pretty good. Aside from the fee, a writer gets something into a show, which is an entrée to that audience and a résumé builder.


What are the different types of song placements for songs in a TV show?


A lot of my shows have between five and 15 songs per episode with placements throughout. Some are short, but the opening and the end songs are the more prominent placements. There are other places in some shows for big emotional songs as well.

For the shows that I've worked on recently, there are Web pages that list the songs that are in the episode. So any placement is really a window providing access for the artist to the audience watching that show. It's a good promotional opportunity.


So a placement is worth more than the initial fee.


When someone gets a good placement, the song can go to the top 20 on iTunes. One artist got some major-label heat because of placements. It gets the attention of the labels if you start to chart with your placements.

Some artists I know have been in and out of record deals and are now independent and have incredibly high-quality material. I may use a strong song over and over for several years. A successful placement should lead to more placements. When you get in with a supervisor and get a placement, build on that relationship. If you were useful to them once, you'll probably be useful again.