Who are you and what is your background?
My name is Michael Hill and I run an independent music supervision company. I work primarily in television – or networks like HBO, Showtime, Starz, AMC and Netflix – but I also do independent films, most recently John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties, which will be released in early 2018.
I started my career as a journalist in New York City, writing about music for such publications as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. I was also an editor for a very influential monthly called The New York Rocker. After the Rocker folded, I started booking gigs one night a week with Ira Kaplan (now of the band Yo La Tengo). We did shows with bands that would become well known in the eighties and nineties: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, 10,000 Maniacs, Sonic Youth, the Violent Femmes, among many others. Thanks to that job, I was offered a position at Warner Brothers Records as an A&R scout. I stayed at Warner Bros for 15 years, working with a wide range of bands, including the Replacements, whose career was recently chronicled in a book called “Trouble Boys” by author Bob Mehr. After I left Warner, I started to build a new career as a music supervisor, starting with small indie films and TV shows, and eventually getting offered the HBO series, “Bored To Death,” which was my “big break.”
Your current job:
I supervise the music for TV series and films, finding and licensing music; working closely with directors, producers, and editors; finding and working alongside composers to ensure that the music in all my projects works in a holistic way. Recent work: HBO’s “Divorce,” Showtime’s “The Affair,” Netflix’s “Gypsy.” I am also currently working on a film called “Unfollow The Rules,” with Sarah Jessica Parker.
Tell us more about your job as a music supervisor:
I find music for the shows I work on – the music playing on a jukebox, as background in a restaurant, on a car radio – wherever music is playing. I also find music that will be featured more prominently: in opening or end credits or over a montage. My job is all about negotiation. I have to learn what the directors, editors, and producers want to use and see if we can afford it or even license it. I need to negotiate with labels, publishers, and artists to ensure that we can get a deal that is affordable for us and acceptable to them. I have to monitor the work of our composer to ensure that he or she is making deadlines and supplying music to the specifications of our director or producers. I also need to collaborate with a music editor, who has the technical skills to place music to my specifications. And finally, I attend music mixes to make sure that all the music – the songs I have sourced and the music the composer has written – fits together seamlessly in a cut.
What are the challenges in your business?
The basic challenge of my business is to find the song or piece of music that works perfectly in a scene – that enhances the action while not overtaking it or commenting overtly on it, maybe working counter to it in a way that helps the scene. And then a bunch of fresh challenges follow. Will the producers or director like it? Can we afford it? Will the label and publisher clear it? Every scene and every song bring these questions. Keeping within budget is a great challenge, especially with indie films, but staying fresh and original, finding music that hasn’t been used before, is almost an equal challenge. And now, with the proliferation of music streaming sites, everybody comes into a music spotting session with a bunch of ideas from their playlists. But finding what truly works, what’s affordable and what feels unique to the project is a lot tougher than just listening to a bunch of cool tunes.
3 tips for those who are thinking to start a music career:
1) Listen to the widest range of music you can – old and new. Learn about music history. Have a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips because potential employers will ask about what you like and what you know.
2) If you want a job like mine, watch a lot of films and television with an ear to how the music is used. Find what you like and figure out why it worked so well.
3) Go to see a lot of bands, especially in small clubs. I got “discovered” while booking at a small club by the A&R director of Warner Bros. Get to know your local scene and try to become a part of it.