What does a Music Supervisor (Film, TV, Video Games) do?

A recently popularized field, music supervision is the art of selecting and licensing preexisting songs or recordings for use in visual media like film, television, video games, and advertising. A skilled music supervisor might choose the perfect song to enhance a dramatic television moment, help an advertising producer make smart, inspired music choices, or find a cost-effective workaround when a film's plot requires a particularly expensive, hard-to-license recording. Music might be selected based around a central guiding aesthetic, a sense of how the music would complement a specific scene, or knowledge that a certain new track is well positioned to succeed.

Music supervisors must possess a natural sense of the emotional and narrative nuance of music, lots of experience with music synchronization and licensing, and strong verbal communication skills.

In order to use a piece of pre-existing music—a song or recording—music supervisors must negotiate the rights and costs with licensing representatives employed by record labels, music publishers, and the original artists or songwriters themselves. Sometimes these negotiations are purely about cost, whereas others it's about convincing the artist—who may not like the project or the music's context within it—to license the song at all. When music placements are successful, the results typically benefit both camps: the songwriters, artists, and record label receive exposure and royalties, while the movie, television, or video game producers piggyback on the value of the artist's brand, or simply use the emotional depth and poignancy of the music to tell their stories.

In addition to selecting and licensing music, music supervisors might also draw up a production's list of musical credits, maintain cue sheets, and take part in spotting sessions—meetings with the project's director, composer, and music editor during which the details of the music's placement, style, tone, and duration are discussed. If the project necessitates recording a cover version of a song—often the case for famous songs with expensive or unattainable licenses—the music supervisor oversees the entire process, including recruiting and contracting musical talent, booking the studio, and attending the recording sessions. In rare cases, a music supervisor may act as the music director for the project, hiring the composer and overseeing the direction of the score in addition to the soundtrack.

At a Glance

Career Path

As a professional field, music supervision has only come into the spotlight relatively recently, making it difficult to define a typical career path for a music supervisor. Music supervisors tend to be musically trained, extremely well connected, and knowledgeable about music licensing practices. However, the only real job requirement is to be an avid music listener with connections in the music industry (and failing that, persistence and dedication). The most successful music supervisors can be paid large sums for a single project and rarely lack for work.

There is some crossover between music supervision and music coordination, a similar, but more administratively-oriented, field.

Finding Work

Aspiring music supervisors should do whatever they can to get their first credits—performing music supervision for student films, for example. Keep in mind that music supervision isn't just about picking the right song for the job; it's also about negotiating the rights to the song, a task that requires strong professional connections and a reputation in the music licensing world. Aspiring music supervisors might consider doing an internship at a music publisher, possibly in the licensing department.

Professional Skills
  • Encyclopedic music knowledge (different genres, periods, etc.)
  • Film knowledge
  • Music licensing laws
  • Connections in the music recording and publishing industries
  • Negotiation
  • Deadlines
  • Research
Interpersonal Skills

Music supervisors possess an unusually far-reaching and diverse knowledge of music history and recording artists, an intuitive sense of the emotional nuance of music, and a developed relationship with visual media. Generally, they are people who seek out, listen to, and remember as much music as they possibly can, and can organize and recall this information at will. In addition, music supervisors should be excellent communicators with strong networking skills. Finally, it's helpful to be tapped into the cultural and musical zeitgeist, with natural instincts about musical and visual trends. 

Work Life

Most high-profile music supervisors are freelancers who work on a project-by-project basis. However, music supervisors can also be employed by production companies; film, television, and video game studios; advertising companies; or even small music-supervision companies. The majority are based in either Los Angeles or New York City.

Unsurprisingly, work hours for music supervisors vary considerably. As they don't necessarily need an office for their work, many work from home or do the majority of their job on the go, moving from meeting to meeting. On the other hand, music supervisors who are acting as full-time music directors for a show or movie tend to be much more involved in the filming process and almost always spend some time on location.

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