You probably heard the plea for a deal with God sometime this summer. Perhaps you’d encountered Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” years before, but suddenly the song’s devastation was back in your head, on the radio, and blaring across the living room from your sibling’s TikTok feed. Or maybe you discovered it for the first time while mainlining the latest batch of the 80s nostalgia-bait Netflix series Stranger Things, which wove Bush’s plaintive synth-pop classic throughout its fourth season, helping to send it to the top of the Billboard charts for weeks nearly 40 years after its initial release.
Shortly after, Stranger Things also boosted Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” into the Top 40, when a character heroically guitar-soloed the 36-year-old metal anthem as a means of distracting monsters from sensing his friends. And earlier this year, the latest Batman movie’s use of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” helped send the early-90s slow-burner to No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100. Something is afoot with music discovery.
This phenomenon isn’t entirely new. Wayne’s World made “Bohemian Rhapsody” a bigger hit than it had been when Queen released it 16 years prior, and placement in both Slumdog Millionaire and Pineapple Express landed MIA’s “Paper Planes” near the top of the charts after months of obscurity. Ferris Bueller's Day Off even got “Twist and Shout” back on the charts.
Still, a belated boost in a song’s chart position after a sync—the industry term for use of music in film and TV—seems to be happening more often, and more powerfully. It’s a widely observed phenomenon, noted by Slate, Billboard, and The Ringer, probably attributable to the current ease of streaming old music, the amplificatory effects of social media, and TV’s recent dominance of the cultural center. (Streaming services’ ability to track every spin of a record, rather than the music industry’s old methods of measuring album purchases and radio play, also plays a major role.)
“Syncs are becoming a bigger part of the music industry than ever,” the Guardian wrote in July. If that is indeed the case, then might music supervisors—the relatively anonymous film and TV workers who get songs into shows—be emerging as some of the most powerful figures in the music business?
The question gives me pause: Think about how many songs were featured in widely-watched shows just this year that didn’t go viral or suddenly chart. Did a music supervisor personally usher Kate Bush onto the Billboard charts, or was it a collective decision of the hive mind’s taste that it was again time for everyone to bathe in Fairlight synths and Kate’s anxious soprano? Are music supervisors newly setting trends—or is “Running Up That Hill” just a great song?
I wanted to think out loud about this with some of the people who might know best, so I called up some of those supposed tastemakers. Music supervisors Janet Lopez, Jen Malone, and Robin Urdang helped me better understand what they do, and shared their perspectives on their supposed influence. Each of them has handled the music for a bevy of shows and films, and are respectively Emmy-nominated for The White Lotus, Euphoria, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The first thing any of them will tell you is how much of music supervision is anything but choosing the perfect song.
To start, what exactly does a music supervisor do?
Jen Malone: The music supervisor is in charge of anything music-related in a film or television show, from creative to clearance, whether somebody is performing something on camera, or just singing in the shower, for example. It could be the most perfect song in the world, but if you can't clear it, you can't afford it, you can't use it.
Janet Lopez: We work with filmmakers—the director, the producers, the showrunner—on what we see happening musically in a scene. We're there to support that vision, not our own. We try to understand it the way an actor would understand their character.
“It could be the most perfect song in the world, but if you can't clear it, you can't afford it, you can't use it.” —Jen Malone
Robin Urdang: We help define the musical palette of the show. We find music and license it. It depends on what your project is. Every single show is different. I do a lot of on-camera recording, like when you see a band or a performance on camera.
JL: I'm sure you have songs that you're close to, that would probably be on your filmmaking wish list. But I’m exploring what's right for the movie or show instead of what my favorite song is. It’s: OK, is it available? Who's involved? What's the scene? Is there any kind of delicate situation—drug use, for instance? Navigating the politics and logistics that come with that.
JM: Our job ends when the final episode is delivered.
I have the sense that music supervision—and the use of recognizable songs—had long been more of a film thing, and sometime in the last 10-15 years became a much more prominent part of TV. Does that sound right?
JL: Evyen [Klean, her former boss on a number of HBO shows] worked on Baywatch—so that shows you how long music supervisors have been contributing to TV. But music supervision as a profession has really begun to be seen as its own skillful and valid craft over the past 20 years—and rights are far more real.
RU: I think a lot of it was The O.C. and shows on the WB. Songs started being used on TV shows and it just got bigger and bigger. Every show decided that they were a music show, and honestly, there's a lot of TV shows that shouldn't be using a lot of music. Or they push it in and it's so oddly used. Why are they using music when there's no reason for it?
JM: I think that with The O.C., and then Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, Six Feet Under, it’s been building, and with the help of social media now, it's just exploded and really become a huge focal point of shows.
How much autonomy do you have in choosing the songs that appear in an episode?
RU: In most cases, it's really a team effort. There are showrunners, writers, and directors that choose music and put it in the script, and there are scenes where they strictly count on the music supervisor. And then there's a combination of both.
JM: The decisions of everything around the show comes down to the showrunners—what song, the way it's being played—everything from costumes to locations to makeup and editorial. It's the showrunner’s vision, and we are all there to help them realize it. Sometimes we act as translators, because the direction can be ambiguous.
RU: There are projects that I've done where I've created the sound of the show, but with other shows I've supported the creators by submitting music choices, clearing music, putting together deals, negotiating deals, finding writers to write music and musicians to record music, and finding on-camera musicians.
How do you decide what songs to use where?
JL: There are different schools of thought. Your roadmap is your script. When I'm breaking down a script, I'll say: we're entering the person's bedroom, but this person wouldn't necessarily come into a quiet space. Music is part of their identity. So what kind of music do we see on their shelves, what kind of music would probably be on that turntable?
RU: In production, when you start getting cuts, you start laying in music and sending music over to the creative team and sometimes they say, “Hey, we want to use this down here,” and you'd go and clear it. Sometimes they need options for songs. Or I could look at a cut and say, “I think we should use a song here.”
JM: It depends on how the music is functioning in the show and how the song helps tell the story or convey an emotion that is not necessarily said in dialogue. As the show is being edited, more spaces for music are revealed.
In the wake of Stranger Things causing songs to chart, are record label people blowing up your phone, trying to get you to introduce their bands to new audiences?
JL: 100% to all that. There is an important relationship between labels and publishers, the music community, and music supervision. The impact that a scene—and the song in it—can have on an audience is not unnoticed. It's a part of how we work, and it's part of the conversations that are had all the time, and my phone does blow up and ring.
RU: I don't look at something and say, “Hey, let's do this, it's going to become a hit on the charts.” I look at the show or the film first. That's what's important to me. What happened with Stranger Things is amazing, but I don't think the showrunners, or [music supervisor] Nora [Felder], or anybody else went in there saying, “I think this song is going to be a hit, and we're going to make it it's going to reach the top of the charts and it's going to be a revival for her.” We all hope that happens.
The labels and the publishers want to work with us as much as we want to work with them. And we always try to find a way to make it work. My biggest gripe is when I'm going for an old song, and they quote me a ridiculously high [fee] and say, “This was a huge hit.” Yeah, but just think, it's going to go out to an entirely new audience. That's what was so great about the Psychedelic Furs in Call Me By Your Name [which led to a “Love My Way” streaming boomlet], or Kate Bush. So why wouldn't you want your artist to take the chance? it doesn't have to cost an astronomical fee that you can't afford to put in your show.
Could you share an example of how a record label helped you find a song for a show?
JM: In Euphoria Season 2, when Lexi decides to kind of take charge and decides that she's going to write this script—her character really turns at that moment. And I knew that Sam [Levinson, the showrunner] was a fan of 100 Gecs from early conversations. So I worked with Atlantic Records to see what kind of new music [we could get] from either 100 Gecs or Laura Les. Normally, we give [the showrunner] like five to six options, but for this one, I just submitted the one option. I was like, “We’ve got to use this one.”
Would you say that it’s become easier to clear songs, given the growing impression of TV as a music hitmaker?
JM: Yes, I would. That’s been kind of a turning point in the last year, because everybody is seeing the impact of having a sync in a show.
JL: It's always challenging when you're after a big song.
RU: You still want to get the best deal that you can for an artist, so I don't know if it makes that much of a difference. There is so much more access to television and films now with streaming. It's not like it goes on a network and then goes away. It repeats. So the price has had to increase with that. It wouldn't be fair to the artists for it not to.
Do you see yourself as a powerful gatekeeper?
RU: I wouldn't say that. It's a team effort. You could pick a gazillion songs you think are good, and it's not up to you to put it in there. It's going to be up to the filmmakers. We do hopefully add to the knowledge that filmmakers have, and present them with music that they may not have thought of or heard before.
JL: In terms of influence, we are kind of an A&R, discovering new artists and new songs for the medium. Music supervision has done that very successfully for a very long time, and I feel proud of that. But don't think that it's right to only credit the music supervisor for that, because there's an entire team working towards a vision for a scene. We are a small part of the whole.
JM: Our job is always to serve the story, and to use the best song in the scene. Breaking an artist or bringing a song back to life is a bonus. Awareness and introduction—that's amazing, but that's not our job.
Do you think there is a certain kind of use that helps songs explode in popularity after use in a show? For example, “Running Up That Hill” wasn’t just used interstitially in Stranger Things. It was a central motif of the latest season, and even appeared within the world of the series.
JM: I do think it's the way the song is used in the show also really contributes to how the song is received by the audience—2pac, for example [in Euphoria]. Having done that rap word-for-word on camera definitely struck a chord with people.
Music supervisors, a rare non-unionized part of the film industry, are currently seeking to unionize. Are you involved?
JM: I am absolutely involved in it, and I support it 1,000%. It's long overdue. Music supervisors are the head of a department, and we are not necessarily treated as such when it comes to compensation and benefits as the other heads of departments on a TV show. Music supervisors are one of the very few people that are on from pre-production and the script stage, all the way to the final delivery of the final episode. There are not many heads of departments that are on a show for that long.
RU: Music supervisors get paid in a very awkward and not usually fair way. I personally, am doing it for the up-and-coming music supervisors, because I think they should be paid well, and get benefits and pensions
JL: We're not paid weekly—we're paid for the entire production, and that production can last a year or more. You get paid at different stages of production. So, delays for anything affect your bottom line. And I would love for there to be something done so that there could be a bit more reliability or security.
JM: With the music being such a spotlight and having such an impact—not only in the story, but now the attention that we're getting for that—we are integral to the production. But again, we just don't have the same rights in compensation and benefits. Whether it's health benefits or pension, we just don't have that. for the most part, we just get paid per episode. And that's it.
Follow Jack Denton on Twitter.