An insider explains how songs get into TV shows and movies

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An insider explains how songs get into TV shows and movies

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Music supervision—actually picking and placing what songs appear in TV shows and movies—has been around for a long time, but there wasn’t a “famous” music supervisor until Alexandra Patsavas came on the scene. She made music the centerpiece of shows like The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy, and, with the founding of her own company, Chop Shop, and label, Chop Shop Records, has been a force all across the entertainment world ever since, working on everything from Mad Men to the Hunger Games movies. Her latest project is the retro-modernist The Astronaut Wives Club, which premieres Thursday, June 18, on ABC. The A.V. Club talked to Patsavas about her job, her library, and how she finds the next big thing.

The A.V. Club: How did you get into the industry?

Alexandra Patsavas: I got into the industry, gosh, when I was in college. I worked for the organization that brought bands onto campus and I got very involved with that. Eventually, I was doing my own shows at off-campus locations, which was my first introduction into music that didn’t include just me being a crazy fan, which was how I was from the time I was a junior high kid. And I got to, firsthand, see that music was a business which, as a kid, I was not exposed to. Then I came out to L.A. and I booked a lot of acts for an agency called Triad, which is now a part of William Morris.

AVC: Were you a booking agent or a promoter?

AP: I was a promoter. I was a college kid who was also trying my hand at promoting. I worked for the university and then did a few shows on my own. You have to remember this is the late ’80s. A long time ago, back when they called “indie rock” “college rock,” I think.

Then I worked for Triad. I had booked a lot of acts for them, and I worked in the mail room for a short time there. And then I worked at BMI, which is Broadcast Music Inc., which was really eye opening for me and exposed me for the first time to the film music business, which I found really compelling.

AVC: Why did placements and licensing appeal to you?

AP: I don’t think I even knew, honestly, that it was placements; I don’t think I could put that into words at that point. But I was working as the assistant in the film and TV department at BMI and I was starting to become exposed to, just through my bosses, booking appointments with composers and music supervisors and film-music executives at studios and networks, and it was the first time I really understood that how music came together in visual media was a job. And that I found really exciting. Also, although so much of my career has been about new music, which I love to death, I found it really interesting that that job was separate from a more typical A&R record industry job, which is what my friends and my peer group were doing. That you could use music from any era for these projects that wasn’t so much based on the latest thing, but how you told the story with music? That was really eye opening for me.

AVC: You can influence the art in a way, or work with the creators collaboratively.

AP: You can contribute as a part of a creative team in a way that is separate from signing artists and developing artists, which is really hard. It’s a rare and special thing when these big artists emerge, and I just like the idea that I could be working, too, in a creative way.

AVC: You’ve since started your own label and done all that, too. So you did branch out in that way.

AP: I’m just telling you how I felt at the time. This was back in, like, 1992. My opinions have changed and all sorts of stuff has happened in the meantime, but that’s what I found really compelling about it.

Anyway, I went to work for Roger Corman as the music supervisor there; they call it grad school. And it was, and it was really terrific. I must have worked on 30 or 40 projects over almost three years and the very generous music supervisor who worked there taught me the basics of cue sheets and spotting sessions and how the mechanics of music supervision work, and that it’s a lot less sexy as it seems.

AVC: A lot of people must think the job is just going to shows and listening to records, but it is a job, and it’s more than that.

AP: It’s fun; it’s terrific fun. But it has a budget and a time frame and, more than anything, the music supervisor is a part of the creative team that the executive producer or showrunner on a TV show or the director on a film—in most cases we are really carrying out their vision in every aspect of how the project or the film or the television show looks, sounds, feels. A big part of this job is licensing things, obtaining rights, and those rights are very specific. We are clearing songs to a scene description, for an exact amount of time for a certain rights package. It’s not like, ”Gosh, that’s cool. Wasn’t that cool?”

AVC: We’re specifically talking about The Astronaut Wives Club. How did you land on that project and how have you worked through those episodes?

AP: Well, in this case, I’d had an opportunity to work for Stephanie Savage and Fake Empire for years. My first show for them was The Mountain, then The O.C. and Gossip Girl and Chuck, among others. So we talked about the project and I was able to read the script and have a very specific, creative conversation with Stephanie Savage, the creator. Because it’s a 10-part miniseries, I was in the unique position of getting to read all 10 scripts at least through a draft stage—maybe not through a final. But I was able to see where the story was going and that’s a unique situation for television. Oftentimes, we’re reading a script at a time and maybe have two or three at the beginning of the season, but near the end of the season, the scripts are coming pretty close to shoot date so it’s a bit of a mad dash. So Stephanie and I talked about what she wanted for music and how she wanted music to feel in Astronaut Wives Club and we talked about a mix of new songs and covers and songs from the ’60s. The show spans from the early to the late ’60s, as does the book. And she loves new music so much that she wanted to make sure we had a combination of all three.

AVC: So it’s new songs that sound old, new artists covering old songs, or both?

AP: It’s current songs and new artists covering songs from the time period and old songs as well; it’s all three.

We talked about how it might be interesting to riff on the stars and moons and space aspects with the lyrics, but not make it overwhelming. It’s an interesting thing to go out to publishers and artists and labels and see how we could tie that in in a way that was not too obvious, but in a way that would be meaningful. Then I sent her some compilations and got a lot of feedback from Stephanie and we homed in on the sound. Once the show actually goes into production, there are definitely a lot of specific moments that need specific pitches so I need to start with these general compilations that aren’t pegged to a scene, necessarily, and are more about vibe and feel.

AVC: Like a vision board?

AP: Exactly. And some of those songs from the very first comp are in the series and many of them are not, but it’s the start of the conversation and the first way to start to identify the musical signature.

AVC: How many songs are you sending on those compilations? Is it 20 or is it 100?

AP: I think it’s closer to 400, because the signature she wanted to create was a unique thing where we were doing ’60s artists, new artists, covers—and that was such a wide place to go and in some instances, when you’re homing in on a very specific thing, there’s less to choose from. In this sort of instance, the sky is the limit.

AVC: You’ve done song placements for Mad Men. How is this different?

AP: Stephanie’s idea for the music was that we wouldn’t just use period music, that there was room for covers and new music, and once you have room for new music, obviously music is limitless in every era, but it really sort of opened the door.

Then there are on-cameras, which is when a character sings on camera or if there’s a scene where the actors are dancing to music and they’re singing along in any way, those things need to be sorted before the shoot, so before a shoot, we’re obviously identifying those scenes. Is the song clearable, does the actor need to learn the song? The music supervisor is involved in all those aspects as well.

AVC: That is a lot of work. It sounds overwhelming.

AP: No, it’s not. Some scripts are very on-camera heavy and some, all the songs might just be “needle drops,” which is what we call a source cue that is used after the episode is shot. But when music is on camera, it has to be cleared and sorted out in advance. Dancers need to learn choreography, the actors need to learn choreography, and the actors, of course, need to have lyrics and learn how to sing whatever song we’re doing.

AVC: And all of this stuff needs to be licensed in advance, right? Where you say, “Okay, Sub Pop, we need to use a Father John Misty song. Is that cool?”

AP: Yeah. “Here is my request. I need this song for this scene for this amount of time for these rights.” It’s pretty organized. “Can we make a deal to use the copyright of this song in conjunction with this program?”

AVC: And you said you have different budgets? Is that budget per episode or per show? We know, for example, in Mad Men, it was a big deal when they used a Beatles song because that was probably more expensive than a song from a Numero Group compilation. Is that true?

AP: Obviously, certain songs are more expensive than others and certain uses are more expensive than others. A title, an end title, a visual vocal when an actor is singing along or dancing to a song, those are the more premium uses, which is available in all budgets. But the budgets are typically locked before we start, so I have a good sense of what I’m working with. And if there’s a special situation where a song looks like it’s going to go over budget, we discuss it with the music departments at the studios and have a conversation and see what that means for budget. Sometimes it means we’ll make it up in later episodes, sometimes we’ll make it up in story. It’s really case by case.

AVC: You have back-up songs, I imagine.

AP: Always have a back-up song, sure. On Astronaut Wives Club, we were able to use a lot of real period music that was lesser-known songs of the era so it was cool to discover some of those bands that don’t come up in every playlist. It was interesting to see some of the indie music of that era.

AVC: Now when you’re talking about discovering music like that, you’ll go out to publishers and labels, but are you also going through your own personal collection? Are you digging, are talking to your staff? How are you discovering? It is like, ‘Let’s find stuff from ’68?’”

AP: I’ve been at it a long time, so I have lots of great, old relationships and my staff is super involved with everything. My own collection has become bigger and bigger, but in the old days, it was CDs on a wall—think about that mess. Music supervisors were always in big caves of rooms that seemed like CDs were going to fall at any moment, but now we have big digital libraries, which has really changed our ability to store a lot of music and just makes it a lot easier to send things digitally. We’re able to get music much more instantaneously. It used to be a FedEx if we needed it immediately, now it takes a minute. Really, some of the mechanics are very different.

AVC: Do you catalog stuff? Do you put tags on your digital library? For instance, a Beach Boys song might be tagged “surf,” “’64,” “beach,” and so on?

AP: Yes, definitely. Sometimes we tag it by publisher or label or song, multiple tags. By year, it just sort of depends.

We went out to many publishers and labels and said not only are we interested in music both known and unknown from the ’60s, but also songs that had a more spiritual footprint in the ’60s that would feel like they were inspired by Nancy Sinatra or Lee Hazlewood or Dusty Springfield. Who are the modern artists where there is a wonderful but almost subtle line to the past?

AVC: Bands like The Drums, Bleachers, and Andrew Bird are on Astronaut Wives Club. Why did you choose those?

AP: I think that those artists definitely, you can sort of feel the ’60s influence and it’s not necessarily in a straight line. We used BØRNS, we used Guards and First-Aid Kit, and all of those bands just fit so well with the scene. I don’t know how to answer that other than to say it made a lot of sense, especially interspersed with more classic ’60s artists like Harry Nilsson or Mel Torme.

AVC: When you commission a modern artist covering a song, how does that work? Do you pick out the artist first, or do you go out and say, “Who will be willing to do this?”

AP: For this show, the covers were actually pre-existing. I went out and asked. We don’t use a lot of covers, just a few; I actually don’t want to mention what one it is, because it’s tied to a significant story points.

First-Aid Kit does a beautiful cover and they sent it to us and I sent it right to Stephanie and she just loved it. So it just depends; sometimes the songs are selected first. Stephanie or Josh Schwartz and I did a lot of that on The O.C. and Gossip Girl and had a song in mind, like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” or “If You Leave” that Nada Surf did, or “Forever Young.” We had a lot of songs in mind first, then went out and had bands cover them. But the songs are almost always ones we had in mind first that made sense to the story.

AVC: How have you seen the industry change over time?

AP: I think there have been a lot of changes because I’ve been in it for so long.

My first television show was around 2000, so I’ve had 15 fall seasons. Originally everything was pre-analog and when I made compilations it was in real time and I had these crazy tape duplicators where I actually had to pause it and make a mixtape for somebody. It took me like four hours to do it, so the mechanics of this job have changed so much, and so has licensing. We used to have to call BMI or ASCAP on the phone, and we were sent to a research department and would ask who owned the song, and there’d be another phone or fax number—so there’d be a lot of faxing and phoning and, by nature, you’d lose days. You’d lose clearance days on a tight TV schedule. Now, we go to the great websites that BMI or ASCAP have and everything is pretty easy. A lot of clearances are digital so that moves much faster. The mechanics, as far as licensing, have really opened up.

At the beginning, it was very hard to convince bands that it was a good idea to have music on TV, and in the 15 years I’ve been working in network television and cable television, there’s a lot more willingness and enthusiasm for licensing. That is a result, I think, of fans finding new favorite bands from commercials and TV and movies so it’s a discovery tool now. ABC has a great website where fans can find not only the list of songs from the episode that just aired, but maybe a download or a great bio on a band or something like that. ABC Music Lounge is such a great tool for connecting. Album sales aren’t what they used to be.

AVC: It’s an alternative revenue stream, too.

AP: Everything has changed in 15 years, and maybe this is a way for a band to buy a van or go on tour. There’s a lot of upsides, especially for good use.

AVC: I think some of the perceptions have changed, too. It used to be selling out. Now people say, “Well, I watch Mad Men, so why wouldn’t I want to have my song on that show?”

AP: I think that’s how it used to be perceived, for sure. “I’m selling out to the man, man!” In the old days it used to be about local bands and fan zines and I just can not stress enough this analog idea. Then you’d find bands in your own hometown and friends of those bands, and you go collect vinyl, and your worldview is based on maybe an important magazine like Q. You would discover music in a very curated way because that’s what music journalists were writing about. Now, every band is a local band and it’s just as easy to like a band in your hometown as it is to like one from across the world. That’s so different. The idea that all this programming is international and you can reach these people all over the world and fans that maybe were not inclined to buy new music or listen to new music are discovering new music through their favorite TV show is pretty neat.