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Interview with Music Supervisor Andrea von Foerster

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On The Music Beat
The Ins and Outs of Music Placement in Movies and TV Series

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Featuring: Andrea von Foerster
  Music Supervisor– Firestarter Music, LLC
By Frances and Harry Date - Song Matchmakers Network


Andrea von Foerster has done music supervision for film, television and online projects for the last twelve years.  Credits include music documentaries such as Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme, Mayor Of The Sunset Strip and The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights as well as independent films such as (500) Days Of Summer, It’s Kind of A Funny Story and most recently From Prada To Nada.  Television work includes The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy and Dollhouse and numerous MTV shows such as Run’s House and Life of Ryan. She worked on the feature films: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (New Line Cinema) and Chronicle (20th Century Fox), the independent features Brothers & Sisters and Highland Park and the TV shows Modern Family (ABC) and Apt. 23 (ABC). She is currently working on the following film projects: The Secret Lives Of Dorks, Friended to Death, Growing Up and Other Lies. Highland Park and Someone Marry Barry. Her recent TV shows are Teddy Trouble, Dating Games and Mean Girls.


1.    SMN: What is Firestarter Music, and what role do you play in it? 

AvF: Firestarter is an independent music supervision company.  I research, pitch, place and clear songs for film, TV and online projects. I have worked for a number of music supervision companies, but went on my own 5 years ago.

2.    SMN: What are the similarities of a music supervisor’s job in movie and TV production, and how do they differ?

AvF
: The structure is always the same. I meet with my team of people - the producers, the director, whoever is the creative point of contact - and sit with them to decide what we want the sound of the project to be. Then I research and compile music that fits our vision, both creatively and financially. I often have to replace songs that are temped into a project that don’t fit our budget.

TV has a much faster pace than film.  So, typically, I have about two weeks to find, clear and deliver the music. Sometimes an episode can air as quickly as 2 weeks or a month later. Sometimes I have a lot of lead time because the show is a midseason replacement. So I’ll start working on the project in September, but the episodes don’t air until January. Generally, I have a lot more time with films.  Depending on the film and during what stage of production I’m hired, I could work on a film for a year or more. So I can go through a lot more music and ideas because I have more time to play.

3.    SMN: What challenges seem to crop up time and time again?

AvF: That is a great question. You know, budget is always an issue. Budgets have gone down steadily for a long time. Trying to get the music that fits your project’s creative vision and pleases the powers that be - the director, producers, writers, editors, studio and/or network - and still fits within your budget is definitely one of the pressing issues for a supervisor. Timing... sometimes I get hired really late in post production so I have to fit a few months of work into a few weeks.

Another challenge is when everyone on a project has “temp love” for a song placed in a scene that turns out to be unclearable or too expensive. That’s always an interesting situation. How to replace what people consider perfect. Another issue is if an artist denies the use of their song. I have nothing against this as I’m fully understanding of artists wanting to place their creative property in something that fits their tastes and morals, but it does put the music supervisor in the predicament of finding an equally good, if not better, song for the scene while still making a project happy though they didn’t get the song they originally wanted. I never have a problem with being denied as long as I get denied within 24 hours. If it takes like a month and a half and your project is saying “it has to be this song” and it’s denied, that can be painful.  So I may have replacements, but they don’t want to hear them until they know for sure their first choice is not available.

4.    SMN: Who participates in the decisions on which scenes should have music in them, and what part does a music supervisor play in that decision?

AvF
: Generally, on a film or a TV show, we’ll have a spotting session with the music supervisor, editor, director and producers. We’ll go through the project and determine which scenes work with and without music.  Afterwards, I pitch different music for those scenes that need something.

5.    SMN: How is the decision made on what genre, vibe, instrumental or vocal is needed in a scene?

AvF: Well, it depends on the project. With something like The OC, which reached out to a 13 to 30 pop culture-minded demographic, we often wanted to break the newest music possible. We wanted new, cool and relevant music. There are other shows that are far less music centric.  I work on shows like Modern Family, which generally only have music that is tied into the story line. In one episode, the producers knew they wanted to do a flash mob scene and they wanted a song that was very popular and recognizable. If we had put something in the scene that wasn’t well known, it could potentially take away from the comedy or not sell the joke as effectively. So I cleared “Free Your Mind” by En Vogue for the dance number.  Sometimes writers, directors and/or producers come in with an idea of what songs they want. But the fun for me is being given freedom to pitch and find what fits the scene and makes all parties happy.

6.    SMN: What’s the best way for writers to get educated on how to go about writing and submitting music for TV and movies?

AvF
: The best thing is actually just make your own music. If you try to tailor something to film or TV, rather than being true to yourself as an artist, I don’t think it works as well. You can create something in your own style that you think fits a specific project, but I don’t recommend doing something outside of your own genre. It sounds disingenuous, so write what you know.  If you want your music to be placed in TV or films, do your homework.  If you want your music to add to the creative vision of a project, you should know what music that project uses. If you want your song in Grey’s Anatomy, then watch Grey’s Anatomy. Does your music actually fit the style of the show? If not, find a show that your music does fit.  I’ve had a lot of people pitch their music to me and then say they don’t watch TV or see films.  To me, you’re saying you don’t really care about the welfare of this industry or the artistic integrity of the projects I work on; you only care about yourself and your art. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t go over well with me.

Sometimes there are opportunities in TV and film where I need something original because the film is not coming out until next year.  If we like an existing song, it could get placed elsewhere as a featured use in a TV show or in a major ad campaign before the film release, so we want something that will still be fresh a year from now. When I’m looking for something original, I’ll go out to writers, artists, publishers and managers, tell them what my project is looking for and how quickly I need something delivered. Film and TV placement isn’t like in the songwriter world. There is no pitch list, no central place for you to find out about something. You just have to make the best music you know how to make, send it to music supervisors, and if it fits a project, you’ve got a shot at a placement.

7.    SMN: How do you like to work with writers, artists, bands, and publishers, and how do you like to receive submissions?


AvF: I actually love dealing with anybody who knows what they’re talking about. That is a broad statement, but it’s true. I like dealing with labels and publishers, because, obviously, I know that somebody is accountable, and they already understand the game if they are major or a major indie company. I also like third party sync agents. They’re great because they often have amazing up and coming artists that better fit my budget than an artist with a major label or publisher, and they understand the licensing process. I don’t mind dealing with artists directly if they understand the placement process. If an artist doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I ask which performing rights organization (PRO) they’re registered with, I assume collecting the information I need for clearance probably isn’t going to go very smoothly. If you aren’t registered with a PRO, you don’t get any royalties for TV placements and royalties are where most of your money is going to come from.

I need to know if the song is a co-write.  You may be independent, but if you wrote with a writer signed to a major publisher, I need to know because there is a price bracket I’m dealing with. This situation might throw you out of a spot I was hoping to pitch you for because a major publisher may want more money for the placement of their writer’s songs than a writer who is independent. Also, I need to know if there are samples or if the song is a cover. As long as people are honest with me upfront and there are no surprises as to what I am dealing with, I’m good.

I prefer to receive my submissions digitally. I don’t want to have to stream it; I just want to download it quick and easy. It may take me some time to get to the music as it may not be relevant to my projects at a particular time, but I get to everything eventually. For me, anything that does not expire, like on Box.net, is amazing.

8.    SMN: What publications and websites list movie and TV shows that are in production?

AvF
: The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety are good resources. But these days you can just go to the network websites and see what TV shows are happening. Or go to IMDB.com; you’ll see keywords for shows that are already on TV. You can scroll over these key words to determine whether it is a romantic comedy or a thriller and get a general idea of what a show is like.

Also TVshowmusic.com is one of my favorite websites. The site lists all the songs that are in music heavy shows by episode and season. So a writer or artist can check out the site and see if their music fits the songs that are getting placed on a particular show. If you pitch a country song to a music supervisor on a show that normally uses hip hop, you can potentially ruin a future relationship with that supervisor. We’re often under a lot of deadlines, and it’s our name on the line, so we need to be able to trust our resources. Relationships are extremely important. 

9.    SMN: Do you have a go-to list of songs? How do writers or artists know you’re looking for a song?

AvF: The short answer is no. I don’t know any music supervisors that do a big brief and send it out—that’s more of an ad agency thing to do. In film and TV music supervision, we only have so much time to find, listen, filter, pitch and clear music. So, if you send out a brief with what you’re looking for to the particular companies that you have in mind, that brief is often forwarded and forwarded, and then you start getting music from people you don’t know. It’s not efficient.

It’s really about luck and timing, like most things in this industry. It’s just one of those things; you just have to be in the right place at the right time. For me, if I know my project needs a certain type of artist, I’ll go to the people I know have that type of artist. Or if I met an artist at a show/showcase/festival, I’ll keep them in mind as well. It’s really all about storing things in your brain to know who to go to and how fast you can get it. Speed is always a factor. Dealing with artists and writers directly doesn’t always work out due to scheduling. If I need to clear a song of yours, I don’t want to find out that you can’t get back to me because you’re in the studio; you’re on tour, etc.

10.    SMN: There are a lot of writers that write instrumentals, what type of TV shows are most likely to use instrumentals and queues written by different composers rather than a composer that is hired for the show itself?

AvF
: Composers are usually hired to cover most instrumental cues in a project. Composers cover all the tone changes and highlight scenes exactly where a project requires. But instrumental tracks are often licensed from sources such as music libraries for background music in restaurants, elevators, parties and so on. It’s not all that common to license instrumental music by artists for a project unless it’s really a standout track.

11.    SMN: How do production companies fit into that scenario are certain shows given to certain production companies to write the music or is that strictly composers?

AvF
: In my experience, I’ve only dealt with composers being hired to do score.

12.    SMN: Can you generalize about what particular attributes of a song makes it useful for a film or TV show?

AvF: Vague lyrics are great; I know that sounds ridiculous but songs about friends or songs about sort of general topics can be easier to place. Sometimes it’s difficult to find songs that aren’t about love. More specific lyrics may make a song harder to place because those lyrics can change the meaning of the scene. Wordy songs are harder to place under dialogue. It’s always good to have an instrumental version of your song available so we can weave in and out of a song as needed. Unless I have a project about black metal or polka, I’m not going to be using a whole lot of those two genres. Singer/songwriter, pop, hip hop and indie rock are what I have the most use for.

13.    SMN: That subjects and moods recur in TV episodes and movies more often than others; for example, party scenes, and breakup scenes.  What topic and genre would produce the most placements for a writer?

AvF: There’s always a party scene, restaurant scene, bar scene, car source. If you’re lucky, you get the montage, which is like the Holy Grail for a supervisor because there is no dialogue to account for. You get to have that emotional music moment where the song takes over the story and elevates everything. The same places you would have music in your life, you’ll have in TV or film…at a party, a wedding, a high school dance, on road trips, when you’re sad, when you’re getting ready to go out.

14.    SMN: Can you describe the process you go through in your role as music supervisor from pre to post production, and does it differ for movies and TV?

AvF: It really depends on what point you get hired. For (500) Days of Summer I was hired just before the film was picked up. There was quite a bit of music needed for on camera scenes, and that music needed to be chosen and cleared before we started shooting. On other films, I’ve been hired seven months into post and given two weeks to do everything. So far I’ve never been hired during production; it’s always been during preproduction or post-production. For television it’s quite different because you’re hired for the whole season; the pace is much quicker, and the musical identity of the show can often be more cohesive than on a film. But the process is always similar for film or TV. Find the music that fits your project and clear it. Your job is to make everyone happy, and when you do that, it’s an amazing feeling.

15.    SMN: How many episodes are generally produced for a TV show?

AvF: When I started in television about a decade ago, the average pick up for a show was around 21 episodes. These days, a show will get picked up for 6 shows plus the pilot, and if it does well, they’ll pick up the back six. That’s usually for a half hour show. For an hour network show, the order will often be 12 episodes plus the pilot, and if it does well, they’ll pick up the back 10-12 episodes. For cable shows, it’s very different. Their seasons are all over the place, and the episode orders seem to vary quite a bit.

16.    .SMN: What’s a typical lead time for selecting music for a scene, and how does it differ for movies and TV?


AvF
: For TV, generally, you’ll have about two weeks to figure out what you’re going to use, clear it, and deliver your episode. Sometimes two weeks to a month depending on what your production schedule is. It varies for film because it depends on when you get hired and if the director and/or producers already have ideas about what they want. Sometimes it takes a year or two to complete post-production on a film so you’re cycling through music for just as long.

17.    SMN: I know that you receive over 1,000 emails a day. How do you keep track of the music you receive—that is, organize it, prioritize it, and so forth?

AvF: Everyone has their own special sort of gift for storing information about the things they’re passionate about. For me, remembering songs or random facts and useless knowledge about that music happens automatically. I mean, I can forget where I live at night, but I know where I first heard a song, no matter how much time has passed. If I’m at a venue/bar/restaurant/store and someone is talking to me while music is playing, I don’t hear a single word that person is saying because all I can do is concentrate on the song.

As far as organization goes, everything is imported into iTunes and I relabel all of it. I label who the publisher is, who the master owner is, contact information, male or female vocal or instrumental, and the year the song was released (if I can find it). I put in as much information as possible, and I am usually very meticulous about my downloads.

For finding music, I’m not much of a blog or website person because it gets overwhelming, and I already look at a computer for 18 hours a day.  I prefer to go to concerts, music showcases, festivals or just meeting random people in my daily life who turn out to be in a band. Years ago, at a music event in Nashville, I got a ride in the same car as a musician who said he wanted to do more composing.  About a month later, I asked him to compose for two of my reality shows, and he was amazing. It can be that simple.

18.    SMN: If you were an artist, songwriter, or publisher, and you could only go to one industry conference to network with movie and TV music supervisors, which one would it be?


AvF: I wouldn’t recommend a massive scale festival because it’s too scattered and too hard to find and connect with people you’re looking for. There are a lot of great conferences in Canada like Canadian Music Week and Pop Montréal. Film festivals can be a great way to network with music supervisors as well. The Nashville Film Festival was a great experience for me. I met a lot of great artists there. I think you just have to do your homework and see what event fits the kind of music that you do.

19.    SMN: Is there an important question that we should have asked but didn’t?

AvF
: I have to stress the importance of accurate information. If music is your job and not your hobby, then you’ve got to do your homework. Every supervisor likes to get music a different way and there is no one way to find out without you contacting each supervisor. I seriously get over 1,000 e-mails a day, and they all come from people I do business with or people who hope to do business with me. Artists, publishers, labels, agents, managers, moms. All of them are sending me music and wondering what I’m working on. And while it may take a long time for me to get back to everybody or to download every link, I do my best.

I consider myself lucky to have that many people coming to me and doing part of my job for me, sending me this incredible music so I don’t have to go out looking for it. I prefer download links; I rarely listen to physical CD’s anymore. Some people want to have a link so they can stream it first and then download; some people only want physical copies. You can’t take it personally if you do not hear back from a supervisor. We are continuously dealing with fires, and it is fast paced work. If your call or e-mail is not pertinent to a deadline, you won’t hear from us for awhile. E-mail is usually the best way to reach us. We already know you’re probably a musician and you want your music heard. We don’t need your story (unless it’s a really good one); we just want good songs.

Metadata is so important. If you don’t know how to do it, ask a 13 year old; it’s easy. Correctly tagging information on your tracks is vital for a supervisor. Honestly if something comes up track 1, track 2, it will be deleted. How am I going to know what it is? It needs to be tagged and made as easy as possible for the supervisor. If you get me your music and do it right the first time, then we’re good. Now you’re in my brain because the music is good, and you got it to me the right way, no hassles.

To recap: We’re all in this together so let’s make it easy. Find out how music supervisors want music delivered and know what they are working on. Know that supervisors don’t always update their credits on IMDB, so it’s not going to be completely accurate. We can’t return every e-mail received despite best efforts, so when you submit music, it’s really like sending a letter to Santa. Santa ain’t writing back, but if all goes well, he’ll deliver on Christmas.

SMN: Thank you, Andrea, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. 


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Frances and Harry Date are Song Matchmakers Network – a boutique one stop music publisher, music licensing, and production company.  Have a question you’d like us to ask or a person you’d like us to interview? Send them to SongMatchmakersquestions@gmail.com
For more information about us, see our website SongMatchmakersNetwork.com.


This interview was originally published in August of 2011. It was updated in May of 2013.

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