Garrett McElver is a music supervisor living in Los Angeles working for SuperMusicVision. In addition to supervising the placement of music in shows like AMC’s Better Call Saul, Netflix’s Love, and Amazon Video’s Sneaky Pete, McElver also teaches music industry classes at the Los Angeles College of Music.
McElver talked to Behind the Setlist for a three-part series about how he got his start, the ins and outs of music supervision, and what it’s like to work inside today’s evolving music and film industry.
How did you get started in this field? And what’s your music background, and how did that turn into being involved in TV?
I was always very interested in music. I was playing in bands, and I would do shows at coffee shops and different venues in San Luis Obispo, California where I grew up. I filled in on guitar with a friend’s band and went on a short tour, and they asked me if I’d play a date at Warped Tour. I was really into music.
Then, in community college, I started studying recording engineering just as an extra elective. I really liked that and decided that maybe I would get into recording engineering, so I went to look at a school in Emeryville. As I was walking around the campus, I realized, “I think other people are going to be better at this than me. I don’t need to saturate the market with mediocrity.” And not even in like a self-deprecating kind of way, but just being realistic about what my interests and goals were.
So then I spoke to my teacher at my community college and he was like, “So what do you like about recording engineering?” He was just asking me the right questions, and he recommended a school here in Los Angeles at Cal State University. They had a music industry studies program, and I went there. It’s a very broad overview, getting into record labels, copyright law, merchandise, working with Artists & Repertoire (A & R), and all types of different things.
You take business classes, you take music classes, and you had to audition and perform. I was a vocalist, and I had to perform in front of my teachers. It was very nerve-wracking, but it was a fun process where you become very musically educated—music theory, and harmony, and things like that. One of the great things my teachers did—they would bring in different music industry professionals to just come and talk to the students. They brought in a music supervision lecture, and it was a man named Thomas Golubić. One of my favorite shows when I was in high school was Six Feet Under, and I had started noticing the music they use, but not really knowing that was a job. I was just going, “Oh I love how they use all these bands that I’m a fan of.”
And he [Golubić] worked on Six Feet Under.
At the same time, one of my classes had another guest speaker, a man named Ron Sobel, who’s an entertainment attorney. He and his partner, Steve Winogradsky, had a creative department where they worked with independent artists, a few songwriters, and had a music library catalogue for film and TV licensing. A friend of mine started interning there, and I asked her if there was room for me to go intern there, and so I started doing that. One of the people who worked there eventually took another job, and they said, “Well, Garrett’s been around for eight months hanging out and learning,” so they offered me a part-time position while I was still in school.
So I’m working in licensing for film and TV, and I meet this music supervisor. I reached out to him, and he was nice enough to let me do a phone call and pick his brain, and then I eventually asked if I could ever intern at his music supervision company. He told me no. And I said, “Well don’t say no now. How about I ask you again in the Spring?”
What I realize now that I didn’t know then is that that was the right approach in not letting him shut me out, but to say, “I know this market is always fluctuating, so I’ll reach out again,” When I reached out again, they happened to get a new show and need some extra help, so I started interning for them. That internship turned into a part-time job working in both supervision and the licensing side of it. Eventually I became full time with SuperMusicVision, and it’s been almost four years now.
I’m always fascinated to talk to people in creative fields because one thing that almost every creative field has in common is that your career trajectory is not linear. It’s all over the place. And your experience of “Oh I think someone will be better at this than me”—I think that a lot of people go through that as they’re narrowing down which piece of the puzzle they really want to fill in. So it’s cool to hear how it all eventually comes together.
And I think it’s really important in whatever field you’re in to just realize it’s a lot of self-discipline and self-analyzing to think, “What element of this dream do I actually respond to the most?” If you’re realistic about your steps, you tangentially find your way into the door.
If you really want to work in music supervision, and you research it a lot, it’s not like you can just sign up as Music Supervisor or start working for someone. Sometimes it’s very competitive and hard to get in, but going in through other companies where you’re working with artists and pitching music for licensing, or if you work at a record label, or if you work as a DJ at a radio station, or if you just write for a music blog and maybe you interview a supervisor—there are always ways to try to navigate into different things, and you never know when you’ll stumble onto something you actually like even more. Or you might say, “I thought I wanted to be in music supervision, but I realize the part I like most is finding bands, and now I realize being in A & R at a record label is way more up my alley than working on television shows.”
And that leads me to ask what’s probably going to sound like a dumb question. So you’re a Music Supervisor. What all does that entail? What is your responsibility versus anybody else who works on the music on a TV show?
Excellent question. I think there is a lot of misconception about what music supervisors actually do day-to-day. There’s a fantasy that we’re hanging out on the couch, listening to records, and picking our favorite bands and showing them to the directors. I think of the job as Music Supervisor almost as being more in the film and TV industry than it is in the music industry.
You’re hired by productions, by studios, by networks, to work on their projects, and then your skillset is your knowledge, your access to the music, and your understanding of licensing music. So really your job is to help manage the music budget. You’re helping the director, the writers, and the editors find music that helps tell their story. A director has a vision for what the project’s going to be, or a television showrunner knows what kind of story they’re trying to tell with these characters, and the music supervisor’s job is to say, “What music can we use to help you achieve your vision?”
A film without any music is going to inherently feel incomplete in a lot of ways, so a composer is writing original music to support the emotions and the tension and all the different score needs throughout the project, while the music supervisor’s helping create the rest of the music palette. That can include big montages and big music moments, or end-title uses, but it’s also songs on at the bar in the background, or at the coffee shop, or different incidental needs. So our day-to-day is actually a lot of prepping and discussing.
Yeah. I’d imagine that you in your role have to be very organized and pragmatic. You have to get down to business.
Absolutely. Organization might be the most crucial skillset that a supervisor can have. You’re dealing with managing a music budget. You’re dealing with organizing your own music collection so that you can quickly find ideas and understand who owns them. There’s a whole strategy of just finding music that you can afford. And if you’re working with a small music budget, it can be very stressful because you’re having to go to artists and labels and say, “I only have a little bit of money and I really want to use your music.” Sometimes they say, “We won’t do it for that little,” and then you’re trying to find artists that will. So now you’re not even getting to think about storytelling and what works for the characters because you’re pulled back by what it’s going to cost.
If you’re working on a huge studio film, you might have a music budget where you’re less worried about those things and you get to be purely creative and not worry about it. If you’re dealing with a small independent studio that has very little money for music, but you really believe in the story, then it’s a whole added challenge.
That’s all experience. You develop that knowledge and that skillset. There are things you can do with the agreements where payment is deferred over time, and all kinds of things. So then I’m spending the day just negotiating the terms of an agreement, which has nothing to do with storytelling or listening to music. It’s purely just music business.
That’s a far cry from sitting around and listening to records all day.
I think many people who aspire to be music supervisors realize that it might not be what they thought it was. They might not actually enjoy it in the end, because at times it can be very stressful. It can be very demanding. It can be overwhelming. You’re dealing with all different types of personalities. You’re working with various filmmakers, television creators, music labels, and people pitching you music. It’s a lot of people, and there are many that I’ve worked with that I think are some of the smartest and most creative people in the world, and then there are people we’ve come across where you’re like, “I don’t enjoy the day-to-day interaction with you.”
Often, people find that they like being on the record label, or on the publishing or licensing side because then you’re really only working with bands and artists. You’re sending them music supervisors, and then letting the supervisors do all the dirty work in figuring out how to use that music.
So as supervisors, when does your role begin? How early are you involved in a TV show?
We’re usually involved as early as the script stage, so as a television show is being written, we’re reading scripts and breaking them down for potential music moments. Then we’re figuring out what our budget is and how to divide up the budget amongst those music moments, and then we’re assembling ideas.
For example, we worked on Better Call Saul, and a lot of that is so character driven. The story is a man named Jimmy McGill becoming the character of Saul Goodman, and that we know from Breaking Bad. So, at some point in the story of Jimmy McGill, something happens to him where he probably loses everything, or he has to change his path and leave everything behind. So we say, “Who is Jimmy, and what kind of music would he respond to or listen to? What kind of music fits his personality that would help tell his story?” Any time you think of the music on that show, you have a really specific tone or lyrics that help guide that story forward.
You’re working to help achieve the vision of a filmmaker or television showrunner, and using the budget parameters you’re given. You’re emailing with editors, directors, showrunners, producers, post-producers, and associate producers, and working with a music editor, and so a lot of the day is talking about what kind of music, then looking for that kind of music, then trying it against picture, then working with everyone to find what the right answer is.
That’s so interesting that you’re involved as early as the script stage. I would have never thought that. I would have thought that you guys don’t come in until after a lot of stuff is already filmed.
Yeah, and not every project will have you on as early as the script stage. I think most supervisors would agree that that’s the most ideal scenario because it lets you help offer advice or pay attention to potential areas that could become problematic later. If you can start thinking about things early on, then you can really help make the post-production process easier.
Many directors and writers know the basics of licensing and what’s needed. But if you’re working with someone who’s more inexperienced, and they have a song by the Backstreet Boys scripted in, and then they go and film the scene with the song in it, and suddenly they realize they have to pay money—it’s nice to be involved early on. If they can’t afford it, then you can say, “Let me help you find a song that would achieve the same goal as that Backstreet Boys song does.”
It’s nice to just be involved throughout that discussion, and then as they’re filming, they’re figuring out exactly what the tone of that project’s going to be. They know from what they wrote what they want it to be, but once they’re on set and they’re working with actors, they’re helping keep that in line with their vision. If you can help that process with music as well, it just becomes more of a cohesive project.
Sometimes we’ll even have mixtapes created and send them to the actors, and they’ll listen to them on set so they’re in that headspace. Also, we work on a show called Halt and Catch Fire that goes to lots of different venues where there’s live music, and it’s helpful to have music on set that is actually licensed for the show. It makes it a little bit easier on the post-production process.
How do you go about creating original pieces for a show?
So the composer is a separate job from music supervisor. While a music supervisor would love to be brought on as early as possible, the composer might be brought on after filming has begun. We’re finding song ideas to potentially license, and the songs aren’t going to change in length or in time, whereas the composer is writing original music. They’re not going to start writing something until they know the picture’s done being edited.
Many composers will come with a director or producers that have worked with them in the past. Sometimes directors don’t have a composer yet, and we offer to help find them one because we have developed relationships with lots of composers. We like to help find the right fit, so we listen to a lot of score and a lot of original music written for other projects and get a sense of what and how other composers are writing. That way, if and when we’re asked to help bring in some composers to demo or to interview, we can make some educated recommendations. Once a composer is hired, our involvement with them is purely just in discussion with what the music on a project is going to be.
After a film or after a television show has been completed and they’ve locked the picture, meaning they’re not going to make any more edits, the composer, the supervisor, the music editor, the producers, and the director will all watch the project together, and they do what’s called a music spotting session. They go through the entire episode or the entire film and they say, “Composer, can you write music for this scene? It’s supposed to be dramatic,” and they’ll talk about what kind of tone they’re going after. Or they’ll say, “For this scene, we should have a song in the background. Let’s get a classic rock jukebox thing.” Everyone’s voicing their opinions about what the right sound is, and what the right tone is, and really you’re just delegating all of the music moments. Then, at the end of it, everybody says, “break” and they all go to their separate corners and do their thing.
Occasionally, a composer and a supervisor might ask to tackle the same scene. Sometimes you do this when you’re trying to figure out what the right answer is. Sometimes, we’ll try a direction, and a composer might try a direction, and you just figure out what the right choice is and what makes the most sense. It’s happened on our projects where the composer writes something so amazing that it makes the song seem like the wrong idea, so we’ll use that original piece of music. And then there are times when they’ll write a beautiful original piece of music, but then the director feels that an existing song actually works for a different reason, and they might make that decision instead. So it’s all a just a collaboration on filling each music need in the right way possible.