How To Become a Music Supervisor
Zach Cowie is a Music Supervisor who has chosen music for indie films The Little Hours and Celeste and Jesse Forever, as well as the hit Netflix series Master of None. “It’s very different depending on the project,” he says when asked about what a typical day on the job looks like.
“Some stuff is pretty hands-off and some is very hands-on. Your kind of day really depends on where the various projects are at. I’ll have slow days, then I’ll have a day where two movies I’m on are about to mix and I have to do spotting on a show, which is watching an episode with everybody and identifying places that need music and coming up with ideas. There are slow days, then there are eighteen-hour days.
Managing the workload and knowing when you can’t take something else on, that’s a big lesson I’ve learned. Master of None is so involved musically that I only did a couple other things the whole year we were working on that show because I really did work on it every day. On the other side, I’m working on two movies and a runway show right now.”
So what does it mean to work as a Music Supervisor? Cowie explains, “You are hired to give your input on the musical choices made in score — in which Composer you hire to do original music for a show or movie — and you have some input in working with the Director and Producers in guiding Composers to what sound you want.
“But your biggest job is to source, which is to find and license preexisting music for film and TV. On a show like Master of None, we’re almost entirely sourced and have very few composed cues so I just come up with tons of ideas for these scenes. Then I work with my Co-Supervisor on the show — her name’s Kerri Drootin — and the two of us (mainly her) work to license the music so we can use it.”
He emphasizes, “That’s sort of the biggest thing for younger people to put on their radar: it’s not the dream job people think it is. Thinking of the music is amazing and so fun but there’s a lot of compromise involved and a lot of people who need to sign off on this stuff. The actual licensing of the music is very difficult and that’s the stuff I suggest to younger people to start getting their head around soon.
“A recording is broken down into the master side and the publishing side and you have to do deals with the record labels for the master side and the publishing side for the publishing rights. It’s not easy.” Through this process, Music Supervisors work with Licensing Representatives, Music Publishers, and Music Editors, as well as the various decision-makers on the filmmaking side, including Producers and Directors.
On average, a Music Supervisor can expect to earn $54,100 annually. The salary range for Music Supervisors runs from $44,000 to $65,000.
Music Supervisors are paid per project. Like many jobs in the film music industry, the amount paid can vary widely. Fees for a TV episode can range from $2,000 to $5,000; for a low-budget indie film the range can be from $0 to $15,000; for a studio feature the range can be anywhere from $10,000 (low-budget) to $500,000 (blockbuster level).
The work lifestyle of a Music Supervisor can vary greatly from project-to-project.
Cowie explains, “There are some movies that I’m on where it’s just me but I’m talking to other people every day. Some stuff I do in front of my computer and some I have to be in an editing room. It’s really case-by-case and I think that comes from being in a career that’s so new; there’s no real defined way of doing things. I think my flexibility helps with that. I’m prepared to give as much as needed.
“A big event for me is on Sunday when I’m putting the schedule together for my week; since it is so new it is very self-managed. I think those are skills that are both really important: being self-motivated and managed. It’s worth mentioning there a lot of people trying to do this job right now so if you start to slip they can replace you really quickly, so you have to be self-motivated and self-managed.”
People come to music supervision through many different routes. Some begin as Music Consultants, some come from the Licensing Rep side, and others just happen to be well-known tastemakers in their communities, such as Club DJs or musicians. Some internships with Music Supervisors are available, however, these are few and far between and highly competitive.
Once someone has landed one of these roles, advancement means working on higher-profile projects. An example of this would be someone who served as a Music Supervisor on student films in college later moving into indie films and eventually getting hired to work on a TV show or film associated with a major network or a famous Actor, Director, or Producer.
The process of landing a job as a Music Supervisor can be mysterious, as it’s not exactly the type of career where people frequently post openings online. However, every once in a while, it is possible to find job postings from indie and low-budget filmmakers looking for music supervision.
Working on these films is a good way to show what you’re capable of, grow your industry network, and have a finished product that shows off your work. Student films also can benefit from having a Music Supervisor on board; working with college-aged Directors on their films is another great way to expand one’s music supervision portfolio and meet people coming up in the world of film and TV.
In short, this is a career where being entrepreneurial and making your own opportunities matters more than in other roles where one can just search for positions and apply online.
“Study music,” Cowie says. “I’m thirty-six so when I was learning about music in high school it was impossible. I’d go to the library and check out Mojo magazines and read as much as I could find. As a kid, I really struggled to find other people who were into the same stuff as me so I didn’t have a community. It’s so easy now to find a community and find out what you’re interested in.
“The history of how things sound right now is traceable and learnable and that should be your number one thing: to learn the greats. I think it’s great that kids are listening to really weird records but you should also have every Beatles record memorized. You can’t let go of the roots of this stuff.
“If something has been determined to be great, even if you don’t love it you should know about it because it’ll inform everything after it. The danger of not knowing your history is being redundant and when I’m talking to a younger person who’s trying to get into music, the first thing I’ll look for is the depth [of their knowledge].
“On that same note, [have] an appreciation for film and tv. Again, I’m not a big TV person but the way people are making TV right now, you might as well just study movies.
“It’s important to have your mind blown a bunch by other people who have done this job and I’m always looking at that and reviewing scenes that have inspired me to make sure the stuff I’m trying to do can sit next to them but that it’s adding something else — so I can make sure I’m not ripping something off. I’m a freak about history.
“If you want to work anywhere in music, go through the Time magazine Top 100 Films and watch them all. Those are some of the best ways to use your time until you end up in the place you want to be.”
Experience & Skills
Obviously, a Music Supervisor must possess an extensive knowledge of music and have a love for film/TV. Music industry experience is also essential.
When asked about the skills and experience required to do the job, Cowie says, “It’s worth noting that I got kind of super lucky and just fell into this. I worked at record labels for about ten years straight. Out of high school, I was working at record stores and I started at labels by the time I was nineteen. So, in doing that, I was able to learn a lot about music and also the business side.
“Since I was a teenager I’ve been a DJ, so that added to the amount of music I was exposed to. I’ve always been a huge film freak and weirdly not a TV person so I just got a really lucky break.”
He adds, “I always wanted to do this job but never knew how to get into it. And it was [through] DJing a lot and being in front of a lot of people who made this stuff that I slowly started getting asked to work on these things. So I really don’t know the straight-ahead way to get the job and if I had to do it all again the first thing I would do is get a job in publishing and learn that.”
“I think what has helped me a lot is I can be pretty flexible,” Cowie says. “Something you need to recognize when you do this job is it’s not about your favorite music. That’s the thing to learn; your mixtape is not going to show up on the show you work on. It’s a compromise of so many factors and opinions and on a show like this, you’re speaking to a really big audience so you have to bend.
“I DJ a lot and every once in awhile I get stuck doing something I don’t want to DJ, like a premiere party instead of the clubs I’m used to, that’s a ton of random people and if I were to do songs I liked, no one would have fun because they wouldn’t know a song I’m playing. You get into a groove and you have to do one for them, two for you, and you keep the door open.
“That’s a real key to the cues of this show — on the music side there are these sort of landmarks in it, then we can start to stretch. Even if you go through the season it gets significantly deeper towards the end than at the beginning and all that comes from taking myself out of it and thinking about what’s best for the show.”
Education & Training
There aren’t any Music Supervision degree programs available, at present, although some forward-thinking schools such as Berklee and UCLA do offer coursework and Certificate programs related to the subject. Cowie advises aspiring Music Supervisors simply learn as much as possible about a wide variety of music.
His advice is “to just study the shit out of all music. I was talking to another writer earlier today and he used the analogy of picking music as being like painting: the more music you know of, the more colors you have to work with. Because this job really isn’t about your favorite music, it’s about serving the scene in the best way possible.
“Your job then becomes to find the good version of that song. In researching music you’ve got to be able to separate the good from the bad and you gather a range of knowledge. We throw genre out the window. I wouldn’t be able to do this job if I didn’t spend twenty years researching music.”
He adds, “If I could do it all over again, I’d intern at a Publisher’s for a while. If you want to get into supervision, that’s one of the strongest first moves you can make: spending time at a Publisher’s and understanding the back end of this and how it works.
“You know, everybody can listen to music and develop some sort of taste but the thing that’s going to get you the job is an understanding of the licensing and business side.”
The Guild of Music Supervisors is a professional and educational organization for Music Supervisors currently already employed in the business. Although they’re not open to non-professional level members, their website is a good starting place for those looking to learn more about this career field.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Study music. A good sub-note is — and this something I’m a huge believer in — to get your head out of genre. Get your head out of the idea of genre, any types of restrictions that would separate one type of music from another. It’s informed by everything else and the more you can fill out those connections the better chance you have of getting this job.
“If you can jump into a genre you don’t have experience in and can tell ‘this is better than this,’ [that’s important because] I have to do that all the time. I listen to music I wouldn’t normally listen to and find the good ones.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Since I wasn’t in school for it I didn’t really see people working towards it so I can’t really answer that. I know there are classes for it now; there’s one at UCLA that I would actually love to take. Because it’s so new it’s still being defined and that’s just as exciting as it is scary.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Especially with this show I’ve gotten a flood of emails from people asking ‘How do I do this?’ and I think there’s not as much of an awareness of the business side from the people who reach out and are like ‘You got the dream job! You pick music all day!’ That’s part of it but there’s more to it. There’s a lot more than just picking the music. There is a lot of people stuff, too.
“You’d have to ask Alan and Aziz but I think part of what they like about working with me is we all want to talk to each other every day. There are a lot of people who taught me about so much music who are much deeper than I am but they’re missing some of the social side.
“That’s really important and that ability to compromise — that open-mindedness — doesn’t always come with a record collection. In fact, it rarely does.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Records! I spend every single day trying to learn about something I didn’t know about the day before. After twenty years of that, it starts to add up in a very beautiful way. I didn’t really realize I was building to something, I just followed my own curiosity. Then you look back and see where you were learning everything.
I read this book a few years ago called The War of Art and it changed my life. I recommend it to anybody who wants to do anything in the creative world. In that book, he talks about identifying the thing you’d still do if you were the last person on earth and he says that’s your zone. If I was the last person on earth I’d spend my time breaking into record stores and playing everything.”
.Zach Cowie is a DJ and the Music Supervisor for the Netflix series Master of None, Apple TV+’s Little America and the Showtime series On Becoming a Central in South Florida. His film credits include music supervision and consultancy for Public Enemies, The Little Hours, Isn’t It Romantic and Celeste and Jesse Forever.
His career as a Music Supervisor has been written up by Billboard, Deadline, 89.3 KPCC, BBC, Variety, The Guardian, The Stranger, Brooklyn Vegan, ASCAP, The Decider, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Pitchfork, The Fader, Slate, TIFF and Entertainment Weekly.
Cowie has been nominated for an Emmy and the Guild of Music Supervisors’ award for Best Music Supervision in a Television Comedy/Musical, both for his work on Master of None. He has served as a panelist at the State of Music in Media Conference.