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Music supervisor to discuss business side of sound in film and TV production

The head of music at Millennium Media, Ryan Svendsen, will be a guest panelist at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s “Sounds of the Scene: The Art of Music Supervision” discussion Saturday. The panel will explore the world of music supervision, and the alumni guests will share their own experiences within the industry. (Mia Kayser/Daily Bruin staff)

By Alyssa Wheeler

Jan. 28, 2020 10:45 p.m.

Anyone who’s added music to their Instagram story has acted as a music supervisor, Ryan Svendsen said.

Svendsen, the head of music at Millennium Media, will be a guest panelist at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s “Sounds of the Scene: The Art of Music Supervision” discussion Saturday. Moderated by lecturer Hans Fjellestad, the panel will delve into the intricacies of music supervision, such as the complexities of song ownership and the process of music licensing. Alumni panelists working in the industry will provide insights from the emerging field while sharing their own personal journeys from newcomers to veterans, Fjellestad said.

All aspiring music supervisors begin as assistants and interns, Svendsen said, so it’s important for students to set out and pay their dues.

“Every time I watch a film now or I see a commercial and I hear a song in it, I can’t help but to analyze and wonder how much that costs to put there, or what went into it,” Svendsen said. “It’s a lot that goes behind it, people aren’t just behind the scenes throwing a song to it. There’s so many intricacies that have to go into it.”

[Related: Student cohesively blends genres to make fluid self-produced music]

Music supervision is the marriage of music to films and television, Svendsen said. Combining both the creative and the legal sides of the craft, music supervisors work to aid storytelling through music while simultaneously obtaining the rights to use the music in the first place.

The work all begins with a director and a script, he said. While some screenplays include very specific song references, Svendsen said others make no mention of the music at all. The music supervisor works with the director of the production to find music that will not only match the tone of the scene, but is also monetarily and practically obtainable, he said. Staying on top of trending artists, Svendsen said, is one key to acquiring songs at a better price.

“(Music supervision is) about anticipating and solving problems as well. It’s kind of like a puzzle and not every piece fits,” Svendsen said. “With music being one of the most subjective subjects in the world, it’s tough to please everyone, so it’s more about creating a common ground and managing expectations.”

Budgeting issues aside, music supervisor Satya Fuentes said another challenge of getting music cleared can be conflicts between the scene’s subject and the musician’s brand. Fuentes said artists often reject scenes depicting graphic violence or drug use, as they wish to maintain a less vulgar public image. In these situations, music supervisors must be vigilant in providing appropriate substitutes rather than becoming too attached to any one song, she said.

“People will assume (being a) music supervisor means you’re just making playlists all day, hanging out with artists and watching movies,” Fuentes said. “But a huge part of your day is clearing music and doing research on who are the rights owners and who the publishing (rights) belong to. You have to get every song down to equal 100% of ownership.”

The business side of music supervision is evident in the marketing as well, Fjellestad said.

A music supervisor’s work aids both the musician and the production, Svendsen said. Films and TV shows benefit from proactive artists who promote the projects, garnering a larger audience, he said, while artists gain both monetary compensation and additional exposure. Svendsen said the best way to hone these skills is to apply them through student films or internships.

[Related: Professor explores different cultures through traditional music in Fiat Lux seminar]

Despite the complex legal workings, Fuentes said the creative side of music supervision is her favorite part of the process, especially because of her background as a pianist. She said finding the perfect song can accentuate feelings in the audience that wouldn’t necessarily be there without the music. Whether pushing the narrative forward or simply crafting a memorable scene, Fjellestad said music plays an important role in visual storytelling.

“It’s a challenge to work with the directors and producers and composers and editors to find just the right place,” Fjellestad said. “A good music cue doesn’t necessarily save a bad scene, but it can break a good thing or it can make a good scene just soar and transcend in the story.”

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Alyssa Wheeler
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