Who prepares the music for a movie, video, advertisements, or a video game? The answer is – a music supervisor.

Sounds like a nice and easy job for lovers of both of these parts of the art world. You select the music you like and pair them with, say, scenes in a film, and presto!

If it were only that easy… The job involves so much more and can involve tricky hurdles. From proper matching of images and music, following the plot or the whole idea of such a project, to legal issues like licensing the music and payments to artists. Let us not forget the technical issues like proper syncing and dubbing.

But who is a music supervisor and what does he actually do? Career Explorer gives the most succinct description. “A music supervisor is someone who bridges the gap between the music industry and any other form of visual media. He or she will propose previously recorded songs to the directors and producers of TV shows, movies, advertisements, trailers, promos, live events, and video games.”

A music supervisor will typically read through a script, collaborate with the director and producer in order to determine what type of music will be needed for a particular project, and then proceed to seek permission to license and to work out the financial details of the song’s use. The songwriter or artist may accept or decline the use of their song (above)

In some cases, a music supervisor will work with a composer to create original music. If this is the case, he or she has the responsibility of booking a studio, hiring the musicians and singers, and consulting with a music contractor and a sound engineer in order to create the original score (above)

The role of a music supervisor in more detail

As Masterclass.com explains, “a music supervisor is someone who bridges the gap between the music industry and any other form of visual media. They will propose previously recorded songs to the directors and producers of TV shows, movies, advertisements, trailers, promos, live events, and video games.” These days, that list includes the growing field of podcasts.

In a way, music supervisors, are a branch of music producers. They can work in the music department of a film or TV production. Their job is to select the music and license it. But, most music supervisors work as freelancers. Music supervisors are a relatively new category. “In 2010, the Los Angeles–based Guild of Music Supervisors was founded to promote awareness and understanding of the position within the Hollywood film industry (above).

One part of the music supervisor’s job is very creative and it requires a good dose of artistic sensitivity and a very wide knowledge of music. As Wise Geek explains, “music for a film, television show or commercial must be carefully chosen to reflect and enhance the mood and story of the individual production. Appropriate music selection can mean the difference between a scene that resonates powerfully with an audience and one that falls flat.”

The second part of the job is both legal and technical and maybe not so glamorous. He has to work with “various licensing companies to secure permission to use specific music in productions.” The music supervisor must know what licensing entity must be contacted for a specific piece of music, as well as how much that piece of music will cost to the production. In some cases, music supervisors who are limited by a production’s budget cannot afford the licensing fees for their first choices of music and must make different choices (above).

The technical part of the job and what is involved

Very often, musical supervisors need to work very closely with the persons who are taking care of the sound design of a specific product. The sound design addresses all sounds in a production that are not music, such as sound effects or vocals. By working together with sound design, music supervisors can enhance the impact of both the music and the sound of a dramatic production (above). This would also mean that they have an input into dubbing, syncing music with the images and the dialogue, and similar technical details.

But, what would be a more detailed job description of a music supervisor look like? Masterclass (above), lists the following tasks:

  • Meetings and coordination with the director and the producers;
  • “Spot” the visual media;
  • Select, negotiate and license music;
  • Ensure the distribution of royalties.

And what would be the qualifications and skills a musical supervisor needs to have to do his job properly? Here is the list:

  • Detailed knowledge of music and music history;
  • Understanding of licensing and creative rights;
  • People (communication) skills.

In their meetings and coordination with the director and producer(s), music supervisors discuss the idea behind the project and get a view of how the director and producer see it. Based on those ideas, it is the musical supervisor’s job to propose the general direction of the music as well as its specific genre(s) and style(s).

“Spot” the visual media is the industry term by which the music supervisor views the rough cut of the project. His job there is to find the spot, indicate where the music fits in. He also has to propose whether that should be already existing music, or whether the production composer has to come up with some original music.

music supervisor

Legal aspects of the job and the skills

The legal aspect of the music supervisor’s job might not be so artistic but is quite essential. He first makes a final selection of the existing music or engages artists to write new, or cover old songs or compositions. It could be practically anything, from pop to programmatic music. Then he has to play often quite an intricate game of “navigating the maze of rights holders, intellectual-property laws, music licensing, and the public domain” (career Explorer, above). Here, there are two things he has to pay close attention to. One is avoiding copyright infringement and the other is staying within the budget.

Afterward, a music supervisor has to ensure that the artist gets proper royalties. “Royalties are tracked through “cue sheets,” which are lists of all songs used in a specific production. The music supervisor maintains the cue sheets to make sure all artists are credited properly and receive royalties for any music used in the production.”

On the other hand, what are the skills a music supervisor has to possess to do his job properly? First on the list is certainly detailed knowledge of music, music history, and music (recording) artists. “In order to suggest music for any situation in any type of film or TV show, a music supervisor needs to have a wide knowledge of most types of music and their cultural backgrounds.” For example, if he is working on a film that deals with a certain historical period, he has to be well informed about the music from that part of history.

“Music supervision is all about knowing the legal ins and outs of licensing music.” This includes knowing who gets royalties, who owns creative rights to particular songs, which songs are essentially unattainable, and which songs are in the public domain.

Personal skills of musical supervisors

People skills are probably the most important among the personal skills a music supervisor needs to have. As Masterclass explains, music supervisors spend a lot of time negotiating with artists and record labels for song rights. They also listen to pitches from licensing companies and music-publishing companies (also called music publishers) for songs the companies want them to use. A music supervisor often has tight connections within the music industry. On top of that, music supervisors work closely with composers, music editors, music directors, production directors, and producers to make sure the music is just right.

But, there are other personal skills that a musical supervisor needs to properly do his job. These include:

  • Self-management and self-motivation;
  • Strong verbal communication skills;
  • Strong negotiation skills;
  • The ability to do detailed and thorough research;
  • Networking skills, and as mentioned, connections within the publishing industries and music recording;
  • Good sense of organization and keeping up with deadlines;
  • Good knowledge of film and film industry:
  • “A natural sense of narrative, emotional nuance of music plus instincts on visual and musical trends .”(Mandy.com).

Since quite a number of music supervisors (more often than not) work as freelancers, they usually operate from a home office and/or studio. Mandy.com (above) gives a certain salary range for music supervisors. These are:

TV episode: $2,000 to $5,000

Low budget indie film: $10,000

Blockbuster movie: $500,000

New trends for music supervisors

As previously mentioned, musical supervisors are a relatively new category. This means that the field of musical supervision is still developing and is including new trends every day. We mentioned working on music for podcasts. Still, there is one field where the role of musical supervisors is developing. That is music streaming and sync licensing.

Music Supervision 101 notes that music business professionals are known as “music supervisors” are the gatekeepers to synch licenses, which can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to an artist’s annual earnings. What is actually sync licensing?

According to Digital Music News, It’s a license that enables the matching of your music within a movie, TV show, commercial, video game, or any other form of visual media. The operative word here is ‘synchronization,’ which refers to the time-perfect matching of video with audio (i.e., music). For those who prefer math, the sync license boils down to the following equation: Video + audio = sync license were ‘audio’ = $.

On the other hand, musical supervisors also seem to be getting roles with music streaming services. This particularly concerns curated playlists and licensing of music. This role though is not fully defined yet.