Want To Be A Music Supervisor? Here’s What They Do

what does a music supervisor do
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what does a music supervisor do
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Photo Credit: Berklee Music

Can you imagine watching a film without music or playing a game without a backing soundtrack? Music is such an integral part of experiencing media, and it’s a music supervisor’s job to find the right song for their medium. 

The following was created in collaboration with Berklee College of Music, a company DMN is proud to be partnered with.

Music supervision can be a career all by itself, but anyone working with media may need to be a music supervisor at some point. Producers may need to license a track for a TV episode, or maybe as a composer you’re asked for music in a style you’re not comfortable writing. You never know when you may encounter a music supervision opportunity, even when working in adjacent industries. 

You don’t need decades of experience to find yourself in a music supervision role. Berklee Online offers a Music Supervision Professional Certificate that can teach you the basics of the job. From finding the right piece of music, licensing the piece, and accurately documenting the piece on a cue sheet. 

So What Does a Music Supervisor Do?

It is a music supervisor’s job to coordinate the right to use a piece of music in a work from the rights holders. There are many aspects of music supervision that may start before filming, especially if the rights for a pop song are involved. 

Finding the Right Piece of Music

Music supervisors are responsible for finding the right piece of music to fit a scene. If a scene in a TV show, movie, or video game calls for a specific song to be used, music supervisors must contact the rights owners to start negotiating a license to use the track. That may involve obtaining permission to use the track from the artist’s management or discussing a licensing fee with a record label. 

But what if the original recording can’t be used because the record company wants too much? Or the recording is going to appear in another piece of media, and the rights holder doesn’t want to saturate the market? Music supervisors are tasked with finding creative ways to solve these problems.

One solution might be to re-record the song with a live band sound instead of using the original recording. Or if the song’s lyrics aren’t relevant to the plot or emotions in the script, the song may be replaced with another popular track. Here, the music supervisor would seek out alternatives to offer the scriptwriters and director.

Music supervision is often about finding several licensable tracks to present for the project. Having options to choose from means music can be played over the scene to see how well it fits. Take a look at Berklee Online’s Music Business Handbook, which features an extensive interview with Music Supervisor Janet Billig Rich.

Music Licensing

Finding the right song for the project is just one small part of a music supervisor’s job. The next part is to negotiate a license with the rights holder successfully. There are many different approaches to this, depending on the project at hand. 

In film, a license quote request is often sent early in production. Music supervisors want to know if a considered track can be licensed as early as possible. In a license request, music supervisors are essentially asking how much a rights holder will charge for the use of their song. Sometimes these requests leave the dollar amount blank for a ‘name their price’ model, or a personalized note with a suggested fee can be included. 

How much a rights holder will want for the license can be impacted by the song’s popularity and many other factors. For example, it will cost much more to license the Guns N’ Roses’ track, “Welcome to the Jungle,” than a similar track from a lesser-known rock band. Factors that can impact licensing negotiations include the usage type (background or featured), length of the license, territories the license covers, media types, and the overall budget of the production. 

Blanket music licenses from performance rights organizations (PRO) can be a savior for music supervisors. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC all offer a blanket music license for their members’ music as long as all guidelines are followed. This can give music supervisors freedom to scour catalogs from PROs for the perfect song. 

Attributing Music on Cue Sheets

Once the music is found, licensed, and approved by the project’s director, the last job of a music supervisor is to confirm that all the music’s relevant details are included in the cue sheet and filmed with PROs. 

A cue sheet is a log of every single piece of music that is used in any production. It includes the details of the production company, rights ownership, type of use, length of use, and the PRO affiliations of each writer and publisher. 

Production hiccups can mean that music may need to be substituted or removed. Having accurate information in the cue sheet is crucial to making sure the production accounts for any substitutions. Making a mistake here could mean a years-long headache in sorting out rights and performance royalties. 

Ready to Take the Next Step?

If you found this quick rundown of music supervision fascinating, and you want to learn more, you can earn a professional certificate in music supervision from Berklee Online. Berklee’s courses cover music business trends and strategies, music licensing, copyright law, and detail the ins and outs a music supervisor can expect to encounter while on the job. Berklee Online also offers more than 250 courses, including more than 30 music business courses.