S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: But finding the song for me ultimately has proven to be more fun than actually seeing it sink to picture seeing this Syncs a picture is cool, but finding the song is cooler that search for it, that thing where you’re like, Oh my god, it’s the best part of the job.
S1: Welcome back to working, I’m your host, Joon Thomas,
S3: and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler
S1: Isaac. It is so nice to be here with you again. Before we go any further, though, I need you to tell me who the beautiful voice we heard at the top of the show belongs to.
S3: Yes, we just heard the mellifluous tones of superstar music supervisor Morgan Rhodes.
S1: But what’s a music supervisor?
S3: No spoilers Jun. You’ll just have to listen to the interview, but to give you just a just a little bit of music supervisors, a very complicated job with a lot of moving parts. So the basic level of it is that they are responsible for helping choose, source and clear the legal rights to use all of the music that you hear in TV, film, video games, ads, cetera.
S1: Well, that’s one of those jobs that I and I imagine most people don’t really think about, but when you think about it feel like just a second, it’s clear it is absolutely essential and would make all of the difference to how an audience experiences a movie or TV show. Super important job?
S3: Yeah. You know, there’s this YouTube series that cracks me up where a guy overdubs into the final scenes of movies the dire straits walk of Life. So it’ll be like the end of Heat, you know? And Robert De Niro is dying, and he’s holding Al Pacino’s hand, and suddenly you’ll hear the walk of life. And, you know, it’s just a really clear sign that the music supervision can go really, really, really wrong. But when it works, it really works.
S1: Amazing. I cannot wait to get to this conversation. But before we get to the interview, I also want to mention that Slate Plus members, we’ll hear a little something extra from your conversation. What will they hear?
S3: Yes, we will be talking about the challenges, the dangers and maybe sometimes the delights of using really, really well known music in TV and film. You know, what does it mean to engage with the audience with material they already know? And how does that complicate the job?
S1: Yeah. When you’re singing along with a song before you know how the filmmaker really wants it used and how they want you to take it in, that might not be good, but also, hey, you’re singing along.
S1: All right. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Morgan Rhodes.
S3: Morgan Rhodes, thank you so much for joining us today on working.
S2: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
S3: So let’s just start with the basics. You’re a music supervisor. You’re the first music supervisor we’ve ever had on this show. So what is a music supervisor? What do you do? What is that job?
S2: I get asked this all the time, but I bet I’m never tired of answering this question because it reminds me what it is that I actually do, and I can explain to my mother on a regular basis. But basically, a music supervisor is a person who is ultimately responsible for sinking music to visual media. Television, film, games, trailers, ads. We do that in all mediums. We are responsible for licensing the music we manage, usually a staff of showrunners, producers, directors, and we work with them collaboratively to make choices. The real philosophical definition of our job is we help to manage a narrative sonically. We license tracks, we clear tracks, we negotiate rates, we chase down publishers and label holders. We dig for obscure things, all in the name of making sure that the picture looks good.
S3: Amazing. Amazing. And is that something you always wanted to do? How did you get this job?
S2: It wasn’t. I sort of fell into it through a happy accident. If you believe that or grace, if you believe that way. But I wanted to do voiceovers. I started hanging out at a radio station because I was told that’s the way to break into voiceovers. It is not, but that’s what I was told, and the person that told me was very attractive. And you know, you tend to believe people that are really attractive. I was like, That just sounds right. And it and it’s not the way I ended up being a production assistant for two big deejays a R.W, Jason Bentley and Garth Trinidad, and I worked for them for a couple of years and then I got my own show called The Playground, and I had it for a year. And when my show got cancelled, I started floating around, subbing at other radio stations, landed on another station here in L.A. called KPFK. And that’s where I fell into music supervision. I was auditioning for. A show was contacted after by Ava DuVernay, who was in post on a film called Middle of Nowhere and the Rest is sort of history that went to Sundance was critically acclaimed at Sundance. And that was almost 10 years ago.
S3: That’s wild. So there must have been a lot when you started that job with Ava DuVernay that you didn’t really know how to do about being a music supervisor, right?
S2: 100 percent. I didn’t know anything about clearance and we had a small budget, so we were clearing everything for festival rights only. I had to learn everything on the fly. We used a lot of indie music, indie musicians and artists. I was able to leverage some of the relationships I had with artists that I played on the air all the time because that was sort of the style of my show. Avant garde or left field R&B, as we call it, dance music house, broken beat acid jazz. And so I didn’t overly necessarily curate my show. I just it was just a place for discovery, and I use sort of the same sonic philosophy to get stuff together for middle of nowhere,
S3: those rights agreements that you’re negotiating for these songs you mentioned on your first film, you know you were originally just securing festival play only right for the movies. How detailed are those agreements? You know, what are the terms of them that you have to agree to when you’re negotiating with the rights holders?
S2: So, for example, we are trying to secure certain media, and one thing that you’ll always see is all media now known or hereafter devised, including in context trailers in the scope of use, sometimes licensors. We’ll cross that out. If you’re working for a network that says we have to have those and contacts rights, and that’s a problem, you may not be able to use that song if they don’t agree to it.
S3: So that’s like just for listeners who might not understand. That’s like, you know, you’re asking them to give you the rights to use it however you want in connection to the material, and they might not want you to use it in the ad, right? Exactly.
S2: OK. Exactly. Then we’re asking for a territory. Is it just U.S. only? Is it world? Is it universe, which is a new thing?
S3: Well, now that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are going to space, it’s universe universe, right?
S2: Right? Are they going to be watching this in space? And then you’re asking for the term, which is always perpetuity. You’re asking it for not a limited term. So those are some of the rights. And then there’s a term called most favored nations, which means that if he gets 50000 for his side, I want 50000 for my side. So he’s not getting more than me, bah bah, bah bah. So there’s a lot that you’re asking for and then now things have changed, so you’re asking for streaming rights, some people asking for YouTube rights. So there’s a whole bunch of things that that are informed by the project that you’re working on.
S3: Yeah, you hear a lot about particularly television shows of yesteryear that can’t be distributed anymore because the music rights need to be renegotiated. Like I think CRP, they had to record new music for that sitcom or eyes on the prize volume, who I think can’t be distributed right now or something like that.
S2: Right. Because there are new things called non-traditional uses, which incorporate mobile apps, supplemental content and personal use. And if that song wasn’t cleared or wasn’t cleared for those certain rights and the network now wants to release it and make make it available for you to watch it on Hulu, on your phone, then those things have to be re cleared.
S3: You know, something you’ve mentioned a couple of times here is clearances. One of the things that’s fascinating about this job is that there’s, you know, the very creative part of finding, you know, the perfect piece of music for this moment in the film. But then there’s also having to go out and get the rights to actually be able to use it. And by reputation, music clearances are like the most difficult permissions to get. What is it that makes that so thorny and so complicated? And how have you learned how to navigate that over the years?
S2: The two things that make clearing music complicated are time and money. When you work in television, your schedule is fast paced, so you have a lot less time to chase down rights holders and negotiate those rights than you would on a film. You’ve got you’ve got a longer lead time. Also, what you ultimately are able to license is always informed by budget. So we all have grand, sweeping ideas of what we would like to see. But sometimes those don’t coalesce with what we actually have the budget for. And so your work is more challenging because you have to make decisions that are often informed by those two things. What do I have the time to clear? I might like this song, but or is the band in Europe? Do I have the time to find them? Are there six writers? Will I have the time to catch all six? Does the band have be for all six going to want to be featured? There is situations where a band will turn down the use because they don’t like the project or they don’t want their music Syncs. So it can be. It has its stressful moments and plus you have to get agreements. So the master side has to agree with the publishing side because if one says no, then you’re cooked. So that’s it, right?
S3: So there’s so many different people who have to sign off. If you want to use a piece of music, that’s it. Yeah, that’s so wild when you’re working on a on a film, at what point in the process are you usually coming on board for your first movie? It was in post already. Is that usually where you’re at or is it much further in advance than that or
S2: yeah, I come in a lot of times at the script phase, so I’m given a script, the pilot or the the film hasn’t been shot yet. And so we’re just talking about ideas. Very often writers have songs already scripted in because they’ve been writing to songs in their head, or they have a vision of a song that plays in a diner or a bar on the radio. And so we talk about those things we sort of try and get a sonic palette across the board was their vision for this. And then you try and match those with your with your own idea. So I come in very early and make little notes in the margins of scripts and start to get a sense of what I think this should be. A work on the show called Dear White People for Netflix. And at the beginning, Justin Simeon was the creator and I worked together to develop playlists for each character because they are young kids going to college, and we wanted everyone’s tastes to be distinct. So we worked together to develop an identity, a sonic identity. What would this kid listen to like if that was your friend? Like, what could you expect them to send you on a playlist? And we did that very early before Dear White People was even shot.
S3: And so those notes you’re making in the margins, obviously, sometimes it’s like Gimme Shelter plays, and I’m sure you mark that because the writer wants Gimme Shelter or whatever. But what are the other kinds of notes you’re taking in the margins? What are you paying attention to when you read a script that’s going to turn into the idea for a song that’ll play in a film?
S2: Mood is the first thing. What’s happening to proceed that scene? If you’re in a bar, are you in the bar under duress? Did you go there to get away from your troubles? Is it celebratory? Are your friends there? Are you there by yourself? Is it a moment that will lend itself to nostalgia? Up tempo? How fast or slow should something be going? And since I like to break artists. And pull artists out. I’m always thinking if the scene calls for country music, who’s doing country, alternatively, that no one knows about or hasn’t heard of yet, who do people not remember when my favorite country artist is a black woman named Linda Martell? And I’ve been looking for a place to place her music to draw the through line between the relationship between country music and black folks in this country. And so I’m always making notes like, Oh, what can I put here? And then I’m sort of old school stick yellow sticky, sticky notes inside the scripts so that I as taps so that I’ll remember. So I don’t get so caught up in the print that I forget that I made a mark for this song or that song.
S3: And in your meetings early on with the director, you know, what are the questions that you ask them? What do you want them to give you so you can do your job?
S2: What are you listening to right now? What’s your vision for this film for this series? Sometimes I will send them a playlist and in advance based on my impressions of the script to see if where we are, our visions align. What’s your budget? Because of its $30000? Then that rules out, you know, Prince, right? Or Jimi Hendrix or any of the, you know, the larger bands or somebody that’s really, really popular. And then also to I work with them, my conversations to break down the script into music moments because there might be music moments that are not scripted. Also, how attached are you to the ones that you have scripted in? The script might have been written a year ago. Maybe you feel differently now about that song you placed there. So just logistics question sonic logistics questions, I’d say.
S3: Mm hmm. And when you’re looking at those pieces of music, you know, like a piece of music could do a whole lot of different things, right? And you said that you start with mood. Are you thinking as well about kind of like, you know, character and setting and all those things because it’s such a powerful storytelling tool, right?
S2: Certainly because certainly with a series, the possibility for the character to evolve is always in your mind, always present. How much is this character going to evolve over time? Because it’s true in in film and television, as in life, your tastes evolve depending on your circumstances. So how much will this character’s taste change or how much can we anticipate the change? Is there a change in time? Are we going over? Are we traversing 30 or 40 years for which we need to show an evolution? If the film is all rock based, do we start with garage rock and then move to punk and then move to pop punk and then move to? So I just need those those bits of information to help me to make decisions.
S3: Can you talk a little bit about how you approached music supervision for Selma? Because I love the use of music in that film. I love that movie in general, and I know you and Ava DuVernay have worked together many times, and I’m just curious about how your collaboration evolved on that film. Sure.
S2: We wanted to use B-sides. That was her direction. She was like, Let’s use B-sides. Let’s do a deep dive into 1965. And if you tell a deejay that it’s just like the biggest gift ever. And that’s how I approached it. Like, not only was this the biggest gift ever because of its historical context, but also the freedom to to dig deep, to go into crates and to give a new sort of take sonically of the music of the civil rights movement. And of course, we used the staple singers and we use the impressions. So some songs people definitely associated with 1965, some songs people had no idea came out of 1965. We had two songs that were from 1965. Yesterday was hard on all of us, which was Finck. Obviously Glory. John Legend. But we pieced together pieces of 1965 that I knew people hadn’t heard of, and the song for Bloody Sunday, which is Walk With Me, which is belongs to generations of freedom fighters and had been a long around a long time. I found sort of a soulful blues version of it. And I found it on YouTube, and then I had to. Yeah. And then I had to order the vinyl from discards because there was no MP3. There was no way file. So to order the vinyl, rip it from my computer so that we could get the affair file and then send it on to the mixers. So that’s just one of the the highlights I think of my career because of the freedom that I was given, because my own journey to discover some of these songs from 1965 and sort of the privilege of sort of soundtracking that movement. But we went deep. I think I I listened to thousands of songs and we ended up with 13, but I listened to thousands of songs getting. There.
S3: Wow, so you listen to thousands of songs getting there. Do you remember sort of approximately how many songs you sent to your director to kind of eventually start the whittling down process to get to the perfect 13 songs?
S2: I think I listened to 3000. I think I might have sent her maybe 10 percent of that, maybe 300, and then we got to 13. We kept trying stuff and trying stuff and trying things and trying things and and we got to something that worked. I used a song called One Morning Soon, which was released in 1965 by a mother daughter duo. The daughter played guitar. The mother was a singer while.
S4: One morning, Sue. Don? What? Everyone.
S1: I’m on it’s
S2: just something that I found, as I did sort of a a wide, sweeping search for 1965 and I got a shout out discus because they were very helpful in that. I mean, I went deep like you just put in 1965 and you get all genres right now. You get all genres, you get blues, you get rock, you get folk. I mean, what can I say about that? It was a beautiful experience working on the film.
S3: That’s amazing. And where did the impulse behind doing all B-sides and kind of deep cuts come from? Was that was that about budget or was it just about not wanting to give us too familiar an experience of the 60s?
S2: Or I think it was a creative decision, which I thought was just such a gift. As I said before, I thought great because, you know, you realize that not everyone that watched Selma was around them. You know, my parents were around, but I wasn’t around in 1965, nor were my nieces and nephews. And so some people were experiencing all that footage in that moment for the first time. And I think for me as a music supervisor, I just wanted to do something that I thought centralized 1965 as a moment, but didn’t have you saying, Oh, I remember that song, but saying, like, Wow, what is that song? Or I didn’t realize that song came out in 1965, and that is, I think, my goal as a music supervisor that I would rather be asked, what was that song than told? That was my jam. So I live, I live to to do that, to answer that question.
S3: I imagine that part of this job, you know, you start all the way in pre-production, you start with the script and these initial conversations with the director, but you’re also deeply involved in post-production as the films kind of all coming together in the editing room, right? What’s the job like at that part of the process?
S2: Well, let’s go back a little bit, because if there are songs scripted, already scripted that the director producers attached to after we have that conversation, then I have to go about clearing those before we even get there. So you know what? You’re left with budget wise, there might be on camera moments, which I’m also responsible for producing pre-recorded and choreography and all that kind of stuff. So that might be there, too. Then once you’re deep in post, you have various stages, you’ve got previews, you’ve got mixes, you’ve got playbacks, you’ve got spots, all where we’re trying these songs to see what works. And because cuts change, your needs might change. Like the space that you have for a song might change. So that song may not work because it’s too long or the moments too short or the tempo has slowed down, or they’ve taken out a scene that wasn’t theirs. You have to replace bah bah bah. So there’s a lot that goes on to post. Fast is busy, like busy.
S3: It sounds like you have to bring a lot of options for each moment. Then if things are changing all the time, you
S2: do and those options are informed by those factors that I mentioned before time and money. You do your this is my wish list. This is what I would love to have. But if that doesn’t work, here’s something that’s in that pocket. Sonically, that’s suitable that I think we can clear for this fee and in this amount of time. So you always have to have Plan B’s several Plan B’s
S3: and are there times when you’re watching an edit and you’re actually the one who spots that the piece of music isn’t working? And you’re saying to the director, Hey, I actually think the music that we have here is wrong. Let’s do this other thing.
S2: Sometimes I’ll say, you know, it might work, but I but I want to beat it. I might want to beat my own choice or something happens to me while I’m watching it. Something different might happen to me. It might evoke something different emotionally, so I want to try something different. But that happens a lot. And that’s part of your work. As a music supervisor. We work very collaboratively and sometimes you have to yield to the decision of someone else, and sometimes you have the opportunity to say, Hey, man, let’s let’s try this. Let’s see if this works.
S3: I’m glad you brought that up because, you know, collaboration beyond being a thing that I’m a big fan of. We talk about it a lot here on the show with with people and a lot of different fields. And obviously, you know, part of having a good collaboration is having healthy conflict and figuring out how to navigate conflict in a productive way. In those moments of conflict, do you have a particular approach? You know, how do you navigate conflict in your collaborative relationships?
S2: My philosophy as a music supervisor is it is not about me. It is certainly nothing more than a road show. I am here to serve the vision of that filmmaker, of that creator. And to get to that, I will negotiate and compromise and collaborate the way that I have to. The larger goal, as I see it, is about the music and the artist. As a music supervisor, I’m only as good as the music that I find. It’s not. My ear, it’s that music. And so I keep that at the forefront. But the goal is to get that artists to that moment in service of that vision. And that helps me because there’s no ego about it when it comes to me. I’m here to to really help carry this narrative. Now, of course, there are going to be songs that you love, you love, you love that you feel that are so perfect. But at the point where someone else’s vision doesn’t align with yours, I’m OK with that as long as we get to a great resolution. And sometimes you don’t always get what you want, but I’m OK with that. Those things don’t keep me up at night. The things that keep me up at night are the songs that don’t clear for whatever reason, the band said no, or we just didn’t have the money for that, or we couldn’t track down one of the writers. Those are the things that bother me, but the negotiations and the collaborations. That’s just part of the game in
S3: your recent project, which is, of course, out in theaters right now is a Space Jam two, which is in some ways a very different job because there’s original pieces of music created for the film. What is the music supervisor role like when you’re commissioning artists to write new songs for your soundtrack?
S2: Well, the process is similar, but different. We send out creative briefs. When we started working on Space Jam, obviously it’s a high profile film, so we got a lot of publishers and record labels reaching out to us. I was a call music supervisor along with Kier Lehman. So we had a lot of people reaching out to us. You know, we think the artists could do this. We think our artists could do that. Can we send you some things? They have a vision in mind based on Space Jam. And so it’s sort of like more of the work is fielding through those submissions. But the other part of it is we’re still trying to do what’s a core part of the music supervisor’s job, which is managing those moments. And there wasn’t anything necessarily pre-scripted, you know, in the script, there wasn’t anything preachy. And so we had to fill in those blanks. What we wanted to do was create a great experience, like the first Space Jam soundtrack was. We also wanted to nod to the past. And so we’ve got salt and pepper on the soundtrack they were on. The first we got pump up the jam on the soundtrack. That was a part of the first. So we wanted to shout out the the 90s version, but do a new thing as well.
S3: And some of the songs are collaborations between multiple artists. Were y’all putting those collaborations together? Or, you know, how did Lil Baby and Kirk Franklin wind up together on a track, for example?
S2: The Lord? No.
S3: Oh, OK, good point.
S2: It was. We started out with a beat. We had a beautiful beat by just blaze. Who did that beat. It was a sample that he finessed beautifully. We sent it to to Kirk Franklin and Kirk Franklin turned back something that was beautiful. And then, together with us and the record label, they put Little Baby and Kirk Franklin together, and it was just magic. That was another moment that I thought people are going to be very surprised at this collaboration, but it’s such a beautiful song and the message is so empowering. We also sent them the brief in terms of what the lyrics needed to be, that it should be empowering and uplifting and you know about being a winner personally, but also about, you know, winning on the court. It just, I don’t know what to say about that, except it was just a magical collaboration that was just so seamless. And in what world can that be wrong? Just Blaze and Kirk Franklin and little baby like sonically, how do you go wrong with that? And and they got it right?
S4: Just pray. So. I believe you.
S3: The government you’ve mentioned a couple of times the creative brief, I’m really fascinated by this, what is in that creative brief and how was it developed in general?
S2: Creative briefs are what exactly we need sonically for this moment, in some cases will do keywords winning, overcoming. Father son will do reference tracks sometimes like it should sound like. Think this vibe? Think this tempo? Think this flow? And we’ll also describe the scene will give temple recommendations. Here’s the bpm. We need something out because if we’re trying to marry it to action, we know what the speed should be like. So we try and give as much information as possible to someone that’s writing a song.
S3: And so that’s all. It sounds like this is all happening sort of impost once the movie is being edited. Sort of much later in the process, right?
S2: Not necessarily. Sometimes that happens if you know you’re going to use an original song for the series and you see something in the script, the script might say, you know, and at the end, you know, she sings a song about blah blah blah. She sings her heart out to her boyfriend. If you know the beginning where you want an original song there, then you make that brief at the beginning, which gives the artists a chance to flesh it out, which gives you a chance to get some scratch demos to see where it is and process, and to make any revisions or feedback that’s necessary. So that happens early as well.
S3: It really sounds like a very collaborative process. You know, when you’re making these original songs because the film itself or the TV show has so many demands for each individual piece of music 100 percent.
S2: So either you’re working on something original and you’re also looking for something that exists or getting new submissions from labels. Either you’re doing either or both. And so there’s a lot of things happening at the same time that you’re responsible for as a music supervisor.
S3: And when you’re thinking about putting these songs together, are you thinking about like how they fit together as an album? Because, you know, at least for us, 90s kids writers like always the music from and inspired by the Motion Picture, and it was like a really, really an album like, are you thinking about how these artists fit together or is it really just about the individual moment?
S2: It depends. Sometimes I know we did a soundtrack for Dear Wife. I think that was season two, and I wanted something that was really curated. I wanted a blend of of songs people hadn’t heard of and new stuff that people were aware of. So it was really supposed to be curated and I wanted it to be curated because we were releasing it on vinyl. So I wanted it to have the cool factor, which which vinyl does in other cases, cases, films and shows that have big soundtrack possibilities. I think sequencing is something that we think about, too. We try and be responsible for the way that you’re going to listen, the order of songs to take you on on some sort of journey. And I think we did that well with with Space Jam because we try and follow, you know, LeBron getting snatched up into the server verse with him trying to fight through him, you know, mean the Looney Tunes, then playing and onto resolution with we win. So and we win starts out, but it’s just a reminder that they are going to win in the end, because wouldn’t it be terrible if they didn’t, you know? Yes. So we want to keep winning in the forefront that this is about a game, but sequencing is important in those moments.
S3: And so now that’s in theaters, and I imagine you’re working on the next thing where today, you know, we’re interviewing you, where have we caught you in your creative process? What are you doing right now?
S2: I am working on two animated pieces. I’m working on a film set in 1999 that’s heavy rock and punk and just finished the final season of Dear White People. So sort of busy and I’m starting work on a musical that’ll come out in 2023.
S3: Oh, you’re starting work on a musical. Are the songs, licensed songs or original songs?
S2: Or we are radically reimagining the songs that already exist?
S3: Oh, got it. Got it! So you have to take existing work and then get people to redo it.
S2: Finesse it, for sure.
S3: Wow, that’s that’s incredible. Your body of work stretches a lot of different genres of music. I mean, everything you just mentioned there is like six different things. You’ve got punk and, you know, late 90s rock and musical that whose songs are going to reimagine. You must do a ton of research, I imagine.
S2: I do. I do. And that’s that’s one of my favorite parts of the job. Finding the song for me ultimately has proven to be more fun than actually seeing it Syncs a picture. Seeing this Syncs a picture is cool, but finding the song is cooler that search for it, that thing where you’re like, Oh my god, it’s just that moment of discovery, the child of a college professor, some sort of internal research. And I love just digging through the crates as a deejay. I mean, it’s just it’s the best part of the job
S3: as you’re doing that. Is there like a system you’ve developed? For keeping track of everything you discover, you know, do you have like very I could imagine a world with a very micro, detailed Spotify playlist that’s like rock music, 1975, Feel-Good Rock Music, 1975, downer or, you know, whatever, man.
S2: You know, I aspire to be very organized in that way. But I am so of the moment and in the moment that I have less on Shazam things that I’ve Shazam. Being out somewhere pre-pandemic, being out somewhere, I have things that I’ve found on blogs. I still scour blogs for that. I even still deal with iTunes. People that bought this also bought this. I’m always in that also bought section, and I love paper, some always writing stuff. I have this notebook right here is filled. There’s five things that I found this morning right on here, so I’m always just looking for stuff and then poring through all the submissions that I get. So I don’t have to do as much deep digging because there’s always I think once you watch the music supervisor, you get another calling card of the things that they like to play, so the things that they typically do. And so I get sent things form, but I think what people see out there on shelves. So yeah, there’s there’s lists everywhere right now, playlists everywhere.
S3: That’s amazing. Well, Morgan Rhoads, thank you so much for joining us on working and talking about your process.
S2: Thank you so much. Glad to be here. I appreciate it.
S1: Isaac? Oh, my goodness, what a crazy but absolutely essential role music supervisor is and what an interesting combination of skills it requires. You need to really know music in the sense of having a mental Rolodex of artists and genres. You have to feel music to know what will be good to set a particular mood or establish a character trait. And then you have to be a combination of detective tracking down artists and rights holders and have a lawyerly side to negotiate those licensing agreements and get them nailed down. To say the least, those things don’t always come in one package.
S3: Yeah, it is very strange to me that those are the same job, and we should say that often, you know, there are music supervising companies that have staff members that do some of it and things like that. So it’s not always down to one person, although clearly she’s had to do a lot of it herself. But you know, when you think about it, it’s like, OK, I think I could maybe be good at the choosing the music part if I worked hard at it. Like, it’s understandable I have wide tastes when I direct. I think very clearly about the music I use. I used to play music, so I have a good understanding of rhythm and tone and things like that. But yeah, you know, tracking down six band members and their coach songwriter and the record label guy and the publisher, all of whom haven’t spoken to each other in 20 years. So you can get them to sign off on it. I mean, that just actually sounds like my personal hell, to be completely honest.
S1: Exactly. I’m really glad that you see Morgan about research because again, that our combination comes into play here. It makes perfect sense that she would take pride in showcasing obscure artists, but they can’t be so obscure that she and her team can’t track them down to license the song.
S3: Right? Yeah. I mean, you really can’t just use something that you haven’t been able to clear and hope no one makes a fuss about it, you know, particularly in the movies, no matter the size of the movie, someone’s going to see that and think there’s a lot of money there. So, you know, if you’re trying to use a B-side put out on a single from a Pittsburgh local soul record label in 1966 that was never collected or reissued anywhere else, that’s going to be a problematic journey. Probably, you know, part of the creative research process for her is very clearly figuring out what’s going to be available in the first place. She said that about budget to write, You know, the first thing she does is if there’s stuff the director of the screenplay absolutely needs, she goes and clears that immediately, so she knows how much more money she has to play with to make all the other choices. And that’s what those are real constraints. But as we often like to say here on the show, constraints actually enable creativity.
S1: We sure do. I think that the work of the music supervisor is yet another one of those professions where their work is most noticed when they mess up. I think of those times when it feels as though a song is too much for the moment is been placed in. It pulls you out of the moment. Especially in period pieces where you can tell you can just tell that they spent a fortune license in the songs. But the drama isn’t enough to sustain, say, light my fire, and you can just hear the dollars that have been spent instead of having a particular emotion that they wanted to evoke. Do you ever have that feeling?
S3: Oh yeah, of course. I mean, and there’s also moments where the music was sort of putting a hat on a hat, you know, doing something to the scenes already doing instead of really enriching it. You know, the example I think of the very thing you’re talking about, this is really stuck in my mind for years because it’s one of the few bum music cues in an otherwise brilliant show. There’s an episode of Mad Men were Don Draper listens to the final song from Beatles’ Revolver. The song Tomorrow never knows. And that song is maybe one of the greatest recordings of the 20th century, and there is no scene in a television show that is not going to be completely overwhelmed and eclipsed by it. It just can’t handle it. It’s too big. The song is also at the end of the album, and so they have to contrive this whole thing where his wife has told him to skip to the last track and play it first so they can have a reason to use it. It just feels very schematic and like they just really wanted that song there as it’s like, just play it over the credits.
S1: It’s OK when it does work, though. I mean, it’s great, right? Obviously, I’m totally in the bag for the Americans. But every season you could tell that there would really blow the budget on one or two. Or, you know, maybe up to five songs are relatively small. For example, yeah. Yeah, I mean, but I can picture that scene right now. I just think of Tusk and I can see that monster epic chase scene. And they always work for me in that show. Are there shows that you’d like to shout out for good use of music?
S3: I mean, one that I think about a lot is the show Insecure on HBO, I think is really good at using music, partly because there’s just a ton of it on the show. In between every scene, there’s usually a music cue that’s taking you from one location to another or forward in time. There’s often diabetic music playing in the. Background, ESA Rae’s character is an event planner, so there’s also real life music acts performing on the show. There’s a there’s a ton of music constantly thrown at the audience and basically all of it works.
S1: Hmm. You mentioned one of the great frustrations of the streaming age, a time when we are so lucky that we can access so many great shows from the past. But licensing issues mean that some of them just can’t be seen in the original format because so much music was used that they would now cost an absolute fortune. But how could they have ever known that they would have needed to sign universal rights for a TV you carry in your pocket? I mean, it’s I just can’t blame people for not seeing quite that far into the future. I mean,
S3: what they do now, right? Because those contracts now say, we can use it. You know, we can broadcast it on the moon until the end of time. But it is one of the many problems with our existing copyright system that I’m not exactly sure how you resolve without making things enter the public domain sooner. Do you know what I mean? Like, the reasoning on both sides completely makes sense. But at the end of the day, you end up with really weird examples. The one I talked about in the episode is, you know, worth listeners looking into WKRN in Cincinnati is a TV sitcom that was set in a rock music station, and they could not afford to re clear the real life music for the DVD release. And so they hired musicians to record vaguely sound alike tracks, and it just doesn’t work. It actually wrecks the show like the show isn’t funny anymore. It’s a really weird thing, and it’s purely a product of them not realizing that someday there would be something called a DVD, and you would need to have the rights for that.
S1: Yeah. Well, baby, did you ever wonder wonder whatever became of the music that were in that great show anyway? I’m glad you asked about the sequencing of tracks because there definitely was a time in the not too distant past when movie soundtracks were a huge part of the way people experience music because it was a good way to get a lot of songs from a lot of artists that are, you know, relatively good price because they were all bangers, right? Yeah, I’m not sure that is much of a thing anymore, except in the slightly different world of original cast recordings of, you know, stage musicals, right? That’s that’s kind of a sad thing, right?
S3: Yeah. I mean, I remember going to the Sam Goody in the Mozza gallery and going to get the soundtrack to a movie because there was one band I liked on it. And then you listen to all the other bands and you discover things. I will admit this actually intersects with a weird thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is that I do not actually understand how people find music now. Exactly like I know that sounds weird, but like when I was a kid, it was the radio and there was like a lot of different radio stations and alternative radio and independent radio and stuff. And then in the 90s, it was like film soundtracks and magazines, and then in the aughts it was, you know, pitchfork and blogs. And I believe TV commercials actually drove a lot of record sales, right? But now I guess it’s like it’s algorithms like, I actually just don’t understand it. You know, you used to watch MTV to find music, and now there’s no music on MTV. So I do feel like there’s this. There’s just like an element that’s missing. I genuinely don’t get it, but I’m going to ask my students tomorrow when I see them because I’m teaching college freshmen this semester, I’m going to ask them, How do you actually find music that you listen to? I’m very curious to know.
S1: My guess is that, you know, on streaming platforms where they have these channels that are basically for your discovery or whatever they call them, which honestly, like, I think if I was a young person like, don’t tell me what I’m going to enjoy. Exactly. Keep your algorithm away from my my beautiful years. Yeah, my perfect taste.
S3: We could not sound older than we do. I know,
S1: I know right now. I know, I know I’m older than you to. I feel bad for you, for ringing you into my old, old ways that I am in love. Isaac, with the concept of Morgan coming up with a playlist for each character when she was working on Dear White People, that’s the show I really love. The fourth and final season will be on Netflix later this month with a lot of musical elements, including some new musical elements. We have talked about writers doing that, you know, getting together a playlist to evoke an era or a mood. But it makes a ton of sense to do it to distinguish between characters. And it sounds like it’s something that Morgan just loves to do.
S3: Well, I mean, who doesn’t love a good mixtape, right? Yeah, I used to love making those. I love listening to my friends. Send me playlists on Spotify. You know, I love that. But I think when you’re talking about a collaborative project where you are making something that doesn’t yet exist, you know, like an episode of television where it’s just words on a page, you haven’t shown anything. You know, it can be helpful to make as much of it concrete as possible. You know, we talked about that with Brenda and Don DeLillo. The costume designer, right, it’s like you want them to feel the piece of fabric so they understand what it’s like, not just look at a sketch, you want to just make it feel real. And so I do think there’s a difference between saying, you know, I think this character likes broken beat. And it’s another to say this specific bugs in the Attic song is what I imagine this character listening to in their headphones. This page in the script. Does that make sense to you? And the more specific those examples are? And again, this is true. Whether you’re doing something in a, you know, preparing for a board meeting or making a TV show, you know, the more that you can get specific about it, the easier it is to give feedback on it and for the for the project to move forward.
S1: You know, and as someone who spends a lot of time reading, I love the idea of, you know, you’re in your car driving to something or you’re, you know, cleaning your house and you can be doing your research because you’re listening to a playlist that one of your collaborators put together for you. I love that it doesn’t involve sitting and looking at a screen or, you know, staring at a book. Things that I love to do, but that I already do for much too long every day. I love that concept.
S3: Yeah, totally. I mean, I think we often define research way too narrowly in our culture and thus, you know, in our minds and research is actually a broad swath of activities. It is not just going to the library and looking up the definition for something in an encyclopedia or whatever.
S1: Yeah, amazing. We hope you enjoyed the show. If you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Then you will never miss an episode.
S3: Thank you to Morgan Rhodes for being our guest this week and enormous thanks to another Morgan Morgan Flannery for stepping in to produce this week’s show while the wonderful Cameron Drews is on vacation. We will be back next week with Ramon Alarm’s conversation with book jacket designer Rodrigo Corral. Until then, get back to work. HAZILY plus, listeners, thank you for supporting everything we do here on working, we have a little bit extra from our interview with Morgan Rhodes, and I hope you enjoy it. Thanks. And one thing you mentioned earlier is is liking to break artists out and expose audiences new things. It also strikes me and correct me if I’m wrong here, that using a really well-known song is sort of playing with fire, right? Because audiences have their own associations with that song that they bring to the table. How do you assuming you have the money to do what you want? How do you think through like, Oh, I just the song might be too well known to do here? Is that is that something that happens
S2: sometimes, but sometimes it depends on on what the project is. There might be a situation where they’re trying to cut a slice of the year. So this is a film that’s all about the year 2000, let’s say, for example, and they want to draw the audience into those moments where they remember where they were, how old they were, what they were doing in 2000. And in those situations, it’s good to use a recognizable song because you’re sparking some emotional response in the audience that’s happened to me as someone just watching films would be like, Oh my God, I remember that, right? Mm-Hmm. Have to be careful with that, too, because you are also dealing with people’s memories. And so if you put that recognizable song in someplace crazy, you have you got someone’s emotions in your pocket and you got to live with that. So I think there’s two ways to go about it. One is to use recognizable songs as a gateway to nostalgia. The other way is to remix how they’ve been used or how they’ve been associated. So you give someone new memories like they’re like, Oh my God, I remember that song. I would have never thought to have it here, but it works.
S3: Is there a time when you’ve done that?
S2: There is. It was the opposite of using a recognizable song, but it was a very recognizable band and a song that people were like, OK, so oh my god, I love this band. But I had no idea. They did a song about this or this was even in my catalog, which was my goal. Their sound is recognizable. The band is the miracles. The song is Nobody Street in L.A., which I didn’t even know. I heard it randomly one night at two o’clock in the morning, and I was like, What is this? Oh my God, who knew about the miracles? I was in my house clutching my pearls? And it was two years before I ever had a chance to use it. I just made a note. Wherever you find an opportunity, seize the opportunity. And I found a place for it. It was a scene in Dear White People where one of our key characters, Lionel, is coming to his own, you know, walking in his truth, in his sexuality. And it’s sort of a montage as he’s walking through campus and that song plays, and I get asked about that song all the time. Like, really, most of the questions are like the miracles did this unlike like the miracles did this OK, the miracles, your miracles, my miracles, the miracles. And so it’s sort of a flip of taking a very well-recognized band and pulling something from their catalog that no one would have seen coming.
S3: Hmm. It sounds like, you know, even when you’re not working on a project, you’re always working. Your brain is always flagging songs to kind of file away later.
S2: I’m working right now. We’re having a whole conversation, and my mind is also being like, Wow, what else do I need to do a deep dive on regarding the miracles? I’m already like, go back to the miracles and see if there’s other jewels out there. So yeah, I’m always thinking about music.
S3: All right, that’s it for this week. Thank you so much again for supporting everything we do right here on working.