1) STEVEN, LOOKING AT YOUR RESUME, I SEE THAT YOU HAVE BEEN A CLUB DJ, MUSIC JOURNALIST, LABEL EXECUTIVE, HOWEVER NOWADAYS YOU RUN A SUCCESSFUL MUSIC SUPERVISION AND CLEARANCE COMPANY. HOW AND WHY DID YOU SHIFT YOUR FOCUS TOWARDS THIS ENDEAVOR?
Well as we get older we need to focus, right? Honestly though, in 2010 I was approached for an in-house Music Supervisor/Executive gig at Lucasfilm in the Bay Area. So that necessitated a relocation and a ‘cleaning the decks’ of all my side gigs. It was a massive job and one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime, but I really didn’t have time for anything else. And when I returned to Los Angeles, “La La Land” came up pretty quickly and was also an all-consuming job. I tend to gravitate towards these huge projects with lots of recording and production work. So while I would love to have some fun side-jobs or hobbies rolling, it’s just unrealistic. Although maybe I wouldn’t mind another DJ gig…as long as I didn’t have to stay up too late.
2) CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THE OSCAR WINNING ‘LA LA LAND’? COULD YOU HAVE EVER PREDICTED ITS SUCCESS?
This could be a really long answer, so I’ll do my best to keep it brief (brevity is not one of my strong points!) I was working with La La Land’s Executive Music Producer Marius de Vries on a Lucasfilm production and we became really good friends. He had been working on La La for a year or so and I pestered him a lot about a possible music supervisor job. I mean, what a dream gig! When Emma and Ryan jumped on board, the production really hit full speed. And they initially pulled me in to oversee Emma and Ryan’s pre-prodcution work (vocal and dance training, plus piano lessons in Ryan’s case). I’ve overseen a lot of talent in my career – mostly as a marketing guy at various record labels in the 90s – so I had the skill set they needed. And then this morphed very quickly into a full-blown Music Supervisor gig. Now, I’m often asked about the specifics of this job because people are really accustomed to thinking of music supervisors as the ones that pick and license songs. For a musical, it’s a totally different beast. I sometimes describe it as being like a film’s Line Producer, but for the Music department. It really entails overseeing the whole process, organizing and keeping your eyes on all of the many moving parts and making sure everything is on track. So this includes overseeing the songwriting processes, score composition and production, vocal recordings, pre-production of any material needed on-set and coordinating the music portion of the shoot days, interfacing with the other key departments (director and producers, the choreographers, ADs, props, sound, etc.) as well as musician casting, the final music mix and soundtrack album production. It’s a lot! But I had the most amazing music team to work with – Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Amy Dunning at Lionsgate and her team, Marius de Vries and Eldad Guetta on the music production end, Liz Kinnon who was Ryan’s piano coach, Peter Rotter and Jasper Randall who contracted our musicians and singers, Nick Baxter who was an incredible mixer and recordist, our music editor Jason Ruder, Andy Nelson our mixer, Eric Vetro our vocal coach and Randy Kerber our piano consultant…I’m name-dropping because they all worked their asses off and brought A+ work to the table every day. Seriously, this film was a team effort and it shows on screen.
Could I have predicted the success? Well, we all HOPED it would resonate and touch people. But I don’t think any of us could have predicted the intensity of the love we received. It was humbling and such an honor to hear so many wonderful things from so many people. I would say we all had an inkling that it was going to be a hit when we screened the film for the first time at the Venice Film Festival in August of 2016. We were all so nervous! But the (traditionally pretty tough) audience erupted into applause after every musical number and gave us a standing ovation at the end that seemed to go on forever. We all had some pretty serious tears in our eyes that night.
3) BEING A MUSIC SUPERVISOR OFTEN INVOLVES MANAGING EXPECTATIONS BECAUSE OF BUDGETS OR BECAUSE DIRECTORS BECOME TOO ATTACHED TO CERTAIN SONGS. HOW DO YOU HANDLE THESE TRICKY SITUATIONS?
I like to think that anything is possible. And I hate saying “no’ to a director. So I guess I’d say that one of my biggest strengths is in problem solving. When it comes to hurdles on the production side of things, I think “OK, we can’t afford to accomplish what you want in the traditional way, but here’s a compromise or alternate way to reach the same goal.” You have to be creative. There’s always a way over, through or around that wall. You specifically asked about the unaffordable song. And from my experience, the biggest problem is when a publisher or label just says “no.” A ‘pass’ is often the final word. But if the problem is an astronomical license fee, you at least know that they’re fine with the project and the use and maybe there’s room for negotiation. Sometimes they just won’t budge and you have to move on to another song. But it’s extremely rare to find a situation in which only one song will work. Digging deeper usually yields a better song choice anyhow, because perhaps it wasn’t so obvious and it makes for a much more rewarding discovery.
4) YOU HAVE HEADED THE MUSIC DEPARTMENT AT LUCASFILM AND YOU HAVE A STEADY RELATIONSHIP WITH DISNEY. WHAT MAKES SUCH INDUSTRY HEAVYWEIGHTS ENTRUST YOU WITH THEIR PROJECTS? I BET ITS NOT JUST BEING EFFECTIVE RIGHT?
Hmm…you’d have to ask them! But I like to think that they trust me because of the traits I’ve alluded to in the previous questions – I’m organized, resourceful, optimistic and very much a team player. And I always put the project first. No matter how cool a song is or how badly I want to work with a certain performer, it’s all about what best serves the story. And sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely places, so you have to check your ego at the door and focus on the big picture.
5) A GOOD NUMBER OF FOLKS FROM OUR FORUM WOULD ASK YOU: HOW DO I GET MY SONGS INTO A FILM, OR, HOW DO I GET HIRED? WHAT DOES SOMEONE HAVE TO DO TO BE SPOTTED BY YOUR RADAR?
There’s no perfect answer to that question. As with everything in the business, it all comes down to three things: relationships, timing and suitability. I’ve met the most amazing and talented people over the course of the (many) years that I’ve been doing this. And sometimes it just takes a long time for the right thing to come along and then I’ll give them a call. Since I tend to gravitate towards these big musical things, which take YEARS to complete, I often go for long stretches where I don’t need anything at all. And then I have a burst where I need to get a new project up-and-running. Luckily, I have the most amazing go-to people (as most of us do) so I start there. But I’m always looking for fresh blood and I love meeting new people when I can – at events, through friend’s recommendations or whatever.
Those just getting started should understand that supervisors are a bit bombarded from all sides, so it’s easy to get lost in the deluge. It helps to be selective in the approach and focused in what you’re submitting. Make sure to do the research and get an understanding of the film’s tone and possible needs. Don’t go sending explicit songs about drugs and strippers to Disney for kid’s animated movies (that happened to me a lot when I was at Disney – true story). And if you’re brand new to the biz and just trying to make a first impression, it’s good to have some sort of representative out there helping you. Someone with the relationships you don’t have. We’re much more likely to pay attention to a submission that comes to us through a trusted source – an agent, manager, publisher, label, music placement company, vocal contractor, etc. Because we all get A LOT of stuff. And I always stress that any material should be as clearly identified and organized as possible. This seems like a no-brainer, but I get a lot of material with no context whatsoever, missing file names or no contact info. But talent and great work always win in the end. Believe in your art and be patient! See, there I go with that ‘optimist’ thing again…