Scenes from Quarantine: How Music Supervisors Are Adapting to the Pandemic
By Amanda Shoffner, ASCAP Director, Film & TV/Visual Media • May 29, 2020
While Hollywood begins the conversation about opening up post-quarantine, the greater entertainment industry is still grappling with lots of questions. What will our new normal look like? No one is quite sure yet, but what we do know is that resilience and creativity will lead the way.
We snuck in some time with five of our friends from the music supervision community to see what their new reality looks like. Whether you’re interested in music supervision, pitching your own music or a catalog, or just want to know what’s happening behind the scenes of your favorite shows, there is some great wisdom to be shared here.
Has your workload changed? What new routines have you put in place to keep yourself motivated and positive during these new workdays?
Kerri Drootin, Senior Director, Music Supervision and Licensing, NBCUniversal Television: I wouldn’t say my workload has slowed down as much as I would say that my workload has changed. I had a lot on my plate right before quarantine started. If things had stayed normal, I would have been juggling new series starting up, pilot season going full steam ahead, and my current shows. The Parks and Recreation special was a fun surprise that came fast and furious. I literally had to work some last-minute magic through dinner one night. There’s no way I would have been able to pull all of that off during quarantine while helping our 8-year-old navigate distance learning, dealing with the miserable, unreliable internet service we have, and learning to work on my home computer setup for the first time.
It’s fairly convenient for me that I get to work in the same room now as my husband — a record dealer with a ridiculously extensive collection. I’ve been in this business for 20 years now and it’s fun to have him sitting across from me as my unwitting and unpaid assistant. My daughter gets in on the action too, but I’ve also found myself dodging some pretty uncomfortable questions regarding content that she probably shouldn’t have seen (a carpet/drapes reference in A.P. Bio that I just wasn’t up for explaining).
Anny Colvin, Trailer Music Supervisor, Head of Music at Jax: We've definitely started to slow down with the major studio clients because theaters aren't open, but the streaming clients have filled that void and then some. This is a perfect time to market online content, especially to people who otherwise haven't stepped out of the traditional distribution channels. We work in a very inventive industry, however, so I anticipate some thoughtful new ways of getting movies out into the world.
My work-from-home routine to keep me motivated is to NOT CHANGE MY ROUTINE AT ALL. I'm still getting up early, having my coffee, working out and sticking to a very similar schedule to what I would have done if I were going into the office. It hasn't felt like much of a difference besides the high fashion pajama lewks I've been rocking.
Amine Ramer, Freelance Music Supervisor, States of Sound: Yes [my workload has dropped] by about 75%. To maintain positivity, I have tried to stick to my same routine of waking at the same time, getting showered and dressed just like before, making my bed then starting my day. Although the workday consists of only a couple hours of work at most, I try and find time to appreciate nature and be grateful for what I do have. What helps keep me positive is the hope that this is a wakeup call for America that we need better systems for everyone. This makes it clear we are all connected.
Peymon Maskan, Music Supervisor for Advertising, Radish Music: In some ways it has slowed. I just started my company, so I had planned for this to be a time of visiting my friends at different agencies and announcing my new shingle. In other ways, producers and clients from the past have been reaching out and work has been steady. I think working remotely favors people you already know.
I’d also say that there was an initial rush for brands to put out messages that reflect the new reality of lockdown. I don’t know about you, but ads where people aren’t practicing social distancing seem old in the current environment. Brands have been rushing to update their messages and advertising with old social behavior out of rotation. So, there is more work there for sure. Things will shift again soon, and brands will need to be nimble and shift again.
Lindsay Wolfington, Freelance Music Supervisor, Lone Wolf Music Supervision: Work has slowed down for the most part; I only have two projects still going. In the beginning, I almost wished things would shut down completely so that I could focus on my mental health, my family and homeschooling, but it’s actually been nice to keep creative juices flowing. Homeschooling can get intense (my kids don’t feel the pressure to be polite or hide their feelings around me). A daily walk, yoga or bike ride helps my sanity. A good cheese plate while I cook dinner helps, too. Overall, I have enjoyed the increased family time.
What is the best discovery you've had (musically or otherwise) during this time?
WOLFINGTON: I really like Zoom! Conference calls on Zoom are much more interesting and generally keep me more focused then just listening to voices (and not always being sure of who is talking). I’ve also been teaching my USC Music Supervision class over Zoom and I’m still able to bring in panelists and present topics like I did before…just without the 1.5 hour commute!
DROOTIN: Our family has really been enjoying The Grateful Dead’s Friday night “Shakedown Stream” series (no surprise to anyone who knows us) and I loved the Pink Floyd movie Live in Pompeii that streamed recently. One favorite was the East Side Revue comp of LA bands on Rampart Records. It’s from the late ‘60s, pressed on tie-dye colored vinyl, and totally rules!
I have definitely been getting some really great music to listen to through general blasts like the new X, L7 and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down as well as some vintage stuff that I can’t wait to dig into, like the ‘60s girl group album by The Chicks, some deep cut African synth pop and some ‘60s teenage Peruvian garage psych! I’m just thankful for all of the creative pitch people keeping music coming through, resending me things that I’ve gotten from them multiple times, and also keeping me set up with nostalgic bangers like Nirvana and the Black Crowes. I think everybody needs some of their childhood favorites right now.
COLVIN: The discovery I've made is more of a practical one. I've had to put on a "new set of ears" and really rethink the kind of music and sound design we use. Typically, our trailers are heard in huge theaters with 5:1 or Atmos sound systems where the music is actually physically felt and present. At this time, most people are watching trailers on their laptops or phones. The low-end synthy bass line that undulates, throbs, shakes you to your core and makes you feel like your heart is in your throat - that sound is almost imperceptible on a laptop. We've had to really pull back and be impactful in more thoughtful and subtle ways.
RAMER: I find myself rediscovering things. I have a new appreciation for Sam Cooke and have discovered some new neoclassical music. I’m also going back to a book I could never finish, but have rediscovered called The Origins of Totalitarianism" by Hannah Arendt.
MASKAN: Honestly, all the additional free time I’ve had by not driving to meetings, being in meetings, and driving from meetings has freed me up to listen to way more music. My best discoveries have been when I have time to get beyond the music I’m supposed to hear, and I can dig into music that I seek out. When there’s no time in life to seek, a part of the thrill of music supervision is missing.
How has communication between you and the production team changed while working from home? Have you had to overcome any new challenges with video calls replacing your in-person meetings?
RAMER: Communication has become more concise and amazingly easier to schedule, as everyone is now available for meetings. Still, video calls are much more difficult as we are all trying to watch the show on a shared screen that keeps on freezing…
COLVIN: I work pretty intimately with editors and if you've ever met one out in the wild you'd know they are a rather introverted bunch. One of my favorite parts of the job is helping them communicate their vision through music. My biggest struggle during this time is having meaningful and productive creative conversations over the phone or over video chat.
So many conversations about music choices are about how it makes you feel or how you want it to make you feel. I'm used to being in-person and seeing someone's emotional reaction to music (and perhaps nudging them one way or the other). I'll be happy to get back into the office so I can mind meld with my editors again!
MASKAN: I find myself being sensitive to people’s experience on a video call. It’s hard to stop everything and have the whole team listen to a new idea through Zoom. As music supervisors, we’re at a disadvantage when we aren’t controlling the listening experience. I’ve always opted to play music in person rather than send tunes and wait to hear their favorites. So much of the job is talking through the music you are playing. My favorite sessions are in person where I can set context, listen to their reactions and respond in real time. Ideas that push the envelope rarely happen in isolation. We need to be together and instill confidence in bold decision making, shore up the small voices in the room, and create agreement on what success looks like. All that is lost in a video call.
DROOTIN: I have now had virtual spotting sessions and it’s going pretty smooth! However, I’m pretty sure I was unmuted for most of the first session I did, and everybody was too polite to tell me! I’ve also had a couple of conference calls that I didn’t realize were Zoom calls until just before start time. My quarantine look definitely consists of no makeup and messy pigtails, so it is what it is!
WOLFINGTON: I’m still doing a lot of communication via email. I was working from home previously and have been doing remote spotting sessions with shows that post in Vancouver, so this hasn’t changed drastically. The biggest challenge to my meetings now is the computer microphone picking up noise from the other three people in the house!
What's the best pitch email that you've been sent? Has anyone been uncharacteristically creative with their reach-outs?
MASKAN: We’re just getting past the first wave of heartfelt messaging, which has tended to be tonally narrow. This next phase should be more interesting, as clients look for ways to sound different and break away from the navel-gazing, optimistic, sincere tone that exists right now.
RAMER: I received an email asking for my address to send actual coffee for the new single from Delacey called "Black Coffee.” That was a nice surprise!
WOLFINGTON: One of my regular pitch partners sent me a lovely email asking if she could have lunch delivered to me and hang out via Zoom. I thought that was a perfect way of translating the meeting we would have when she came to town into today’s reality!
COLVIN: Most attempts at "sales" during times like these are cringeworthy. And trust me, I empathize wholeheartedly. We are in the same boat! You should hear some of the marketing conversations we've had to have over the past few weeks. That being said, my favorite pitch was an email from a major label with the simple subject line "TODAY IS TUESDAY." I had a good laugh and also definitely thought it was Wednesday, so it was equally informative!