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Interview with Music Supervisor Liza Richardson

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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: Liza Richardson, Music Supervisor

By Frances and Harry Date - Song Matchmakers Network


Anchoring Saturday nights from 8pm to 10, Liza Richardson has hosted and produced a radio show on NPR's Santa Monica, CA flagship 89.9 KCRW since 1991.

A musical chameleon, Liza has hosted a number of specialty shows on KCRW's ariwaves in the past, from the groundbreaking mix of spoken word and music, Man In The Moon to the alt-country / Latin-alternative focused, Rancho Loco to the uptempo dance music show, The Drop. Liza is known for her exceptionally diverse musical vocabulary, and her current radio show displays that with a wild blend of all genres including dance music, indie rock, deep cuts, retro roots and party jams from around the world.

A busy independent music supervisor for ads, films and TV shows, Liza's credits include the first handful of iPod silhouette spots, films Y Tu Mama Tambien (Grammy nominated), Curious George, Lords of Dogtown, Surf's Up, The Kids Are All Right and Hotel Transylvania.

Liza music supervised all five seasons of Friday Night Lights and currently helms Parenthood, Hawaii Five-0 and The Following. She was named one of 2010's Women of Impact by Variety and was recognized by her peers, The Guild of Music Supervisors, as 2011's TV Music Supervisor of The Year.

Liza is from Phoenix, AZ and holds a BFA in Theater and Dance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.


1.    SMN: Liza, before getting into music supervision, tell us about your NPR radio show on KCRW. You must have fascinating stories about that after 12 years of interviewing celebrities. Are most of your guests in the entertainment business?

LR: I’ve been at KCRW since 1991, so that’s like 23 years. And I DJ'd five years before I came to KCRW. We have a great program called the Guest DJ Project on KCRW and I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favorite people, a lot of amazing directors and surfers. I love the Guest DJ Project. It’s a great collection of interviews and great music.

2.    SMN: You DJ’ed  for the Oscars in 2007, providing music for the breaks.  What was that like, and was there something you'd like to share from that experience?

LR: It was actually kind of strange, because I DJ'd during the three minute commercial breaks, which is basically one song at a time, not really DJ'n. But it was an honor to be there. And my view was really cool. I was right by the stage and could see all the celebrities right below me. So it was neat.

3.    SMN: In your early days at KCRW you met Mark Pellington -- a “big MTV presence and, in a way, the godfather of music videos,” who asked you to help with music for a PBS special, The United States of Poetry. He said, “You know people actually do this for a living,” and a light went off. Tell us about that.

LR: He’s fantastic. Yes I met Mark at that time. I was doing a radio show on KCRW called Man In The Moon that focused on spoken word and poetry, whether it was from a play, or a poet reading his or her work, all kinds of different material. Then I started making my own recordings of poets and actors and layered it all with music. MTV syndicated Man In The Moon to college radio stations.

So the execs at MTV introduced me to Mark Pellington. They said you guys gotta meet. Mark was making a documentary called The United States of Poetry. I’ve been working with him ever since. He’s one of the greatest guys you could ever meet, just a darling man. I’ve worked with him on four films since then, including the one he just made last year called I Melt With You, which is a brutal, intense film. Very good though, very good.

4.    SMN: Your credits in advertising placements are extensive, and that’s an area we haven’t explored before. Tell us about how that differs from music supervision for movies and TV.

LR: It’s totally different. It’s usually just creative. It's not like a TV show or film where you are involved with every detail of the music, licensing, budgets, unions etc. For a commercial maybe it should be called music research or music consulting. For the most part, I only get hired to do creative research, like, hey they need a love song that’s a duet. Or something like, songs about being green for a frozen vegetable commercial, whatever the assignment, I just do research.

5.    SMN: As an independent music supervisor, where do your projects come from, and who hires you?

LR: It could be anybody. Might be a recommendation from the studio, the network, the director, the producer, a line producer you’ve worked with, an editor, an assistant editor. I’ve gotten jobs through assistants, through music editors. You don’t really know where your recommendations are going to be coming from so it’s important to put your best foot forward on every level and work compatibly with whole team. The job of the music supervisor is to balance all these different parties, whether it’s the creative people, the money people, the people that know a lot about music and the people that don’t know a lot about music.

6.    SMN: What is typically your biggest challenge as a music supervisor?


LR: I think one of the biggest challenges for me is just staying on top of music. There is an overwhelming amount of music being made and championed and pushed. Getting the tunes into my system, into my iTunes program takes a lot of care and time. I label each mp3 so that’s it’s useful and searchable and has the right contact info embedded in it. I embellish the metadata and spend a lot of time with it so that all the music in my system is searchable. Marc in my office is our download manager. All the pitches are sent to him first and he'll navigate all the proprietary download systems, some requiring multiple passwords and user names; it's all just too much for me to handle, so he does it for me! He downloads everything, puts it in my download folder and from there I add to iTunes and organize everything further. Oh yeah, then you have to actually listen to the music ;)

So I think management of the volume of music that comes through the office is the hardest thing. Also sometimes, trying to be in two places at once.

SMN: Let me get back to how you tag your songs in Itunes. What information do you put in that is meaningful to you?

LR: For me, I keep it pretty simple. I don’t go crazy trying to describe a song in the genre field, that’s just not useful to me, there are too many songs. I always put the release year in the song field. I know the year is in the metadata, but if I’m making a playlist I may put it in chronological order. I indicate the person that sent it to me first. Also whether or not it’s flexible pricing or a one stop.

I label the genre either rock uptempo, rock mellow which includes rock, singer-songwriter, electronic, everything. Or urban/pop, and that’s anything you hear on pop radio, rap, hip-hop. Rock and hip-hop have lately been blending together more and more, so this is just an impression,  a helpful way for me to search, it doesn’t have to be a science. If something has a hip-hop beat but a rock structure, and I put it in the rock, that’s fine, or vice versa. It’s just to help me find things quickly. If it's a hip hop rock song with a jazzy twist and country flair, I give up! ;) I also have the category traditional where I put everything from country to blues to old R&B to old soul, anything traditional American, jazz too. And World Music is a separate genre as well, which is anything in another language. Those are my basic categories. I have a few more, but those are the most useful.

7.    SMN: You’re the music supervisor of the new ABC show, Lucky 7. We've seen the trailers, and it looks like great fun. Can you walk us though the process of what takes place when you begin a new project, selecting the music and placing music in a scene.

LR: Let’s take that show, for example, because every show is a little different. On that show, I get a script. I immediately read the script and break it down into a chart. Each episode I work on, of anything, has its own chart. It’s a tracking chart, a way for me to communicate with my staff as well as my production. It’s just a simple chart that lists the scene number, the location and the scene description. I have a column for music notes, which is where I communicate with people about what’s going on, questions for assistant, my clearance person, my production. Then I list the song, the artist, what kind of use it is, i.e. background vocal or visual vocal, the length of the use, and the price estimate. So I start with the script and fill out that chart. I send it to my producers and discuss the episode with them.

I don’t really do that on every ep if it’s a show that doesn’t have a ton of music, but on Lucky 7 we have a ton of music, so we need to discuss this early on. So I’ll send them the chart and make some recommendations. You might need ideas for mood and vibe on set, but it won’t be married to picture, so I’ll send some ideas. There’s an orchestra playing here, it’s a visual instrumental, how are we going to handle this? Is it going to be something we record or something we find an existing recording for? You discuss all the ideas for things that are happening in the upcoming episodes with the producers, and the producers chime in and tell you what they think.

Usually, once the scene is shot, the editors get their hands on it immediately, that day or the next day, and they’ve got to be supplied with any music that’s been supplied to the set. Then you get into post production, and that’s a lot of song wrestling, trying this and trying that. Every editor is different. Some editors will start with their own ideas, and some will draw from a pile of music I’ve given them at the beginning of the season and throughout. Some editors will ask me to work on every scene. If it’s a background scene, you can’t hear the music very well and we don’t need to spend a lot of money there, the guys in my office handle all those and some big spots as well. But usually the big spots I work on myself. Of course, the director, the producers, the editors all contribute great music ideas. It’s a joint effort. It’s not like the music supervisor is a boss. The music supervisor brings the horse to water and can supply options for whatever the problem is, like if we need songs to fit a certain budget, no problem, we have to know song prices pretty well, and where to find great music for different budgets. It's hard for producers to know how much songs cost and who owns recordings and publishing, we help navigate that for them.

8.    SMN: About how many songs will you listen to and select for that series, and where do the song come from?

LR: From all over, our own research, music that comes in the mail and in emails. All the different licensors I’ve had relationships with for a long time are the ones I mostly use, because I just know them, we have a shorthand and a trusted relationship. New music companies come along every day too. We get so many pitches, from managers, from publishers, record labels, from everybody. There are times when we have a huge search that we could use help on, so we reach out specifically. Like for Lucky 7, I’m probably going to need a lot of songs about money because we are doing a lot of money montages. It also takes place in a certain place of the world, in Queens, New York, and Brooklyn. So what kind of music is the soundtrack for that? But generally I don't reach out for pitches that often because if I can stay on top of what's good and new and exciting, I don't really need to.

Also I listen to KCRW a lot and am very much influenced and inspired by all our DJs. It’s a great resource for me. But overall we just dig around on the internet for info, news, tunes, buzz , discovery.

9.    SMN: When you get a submission, what will you be listening for?  How do you determine what to select lyrically when the script hasn't been written for all the episodes?

LR: I try to keep as much saved for post (production) as I can. Unless it is a song that’s scripted or a visual vocal, something that’s going to be shot on camera, I think it’s much better to work with picture when you’re searching for songs. So ideally, the editor will send a Quicktime of the scene that they want ideas for. Sometimes editors want ideas before they start cutting which sometimes works out fine. They describe what they are looking for, maybe a mellow, quiet song that has a lot of emotion about coming home. Okay, I can do that without picture. But I would prefer to be trying songs against picture because you can learn so much from a little lo-res QT. It’s like when you meet someone in person, you have an instinct, an instant impression. Same thing, you can immediately see the level of comedy, like if it’s really funny, if it’s sarcastically funny, or if it’s not that funny. Is it sophisticated, or is it not so sophisticated? The nuance of the casting, acting, wardrobe and set design all inform the music choices. So much direction you can take from looking at the picture, so I really try to do most of the song pitching in the post-production process.

10.    SMN: Who makes the final decision on what song to use?

LR: Definitely the producer. On a TV show, the producer. On a film, the director. Usually.

11.    SMN: If a song has a person's name in it, like Charlene, for example, and it's used in the verse, are you able to use it? Let's say the chorus has no name in it.

LR: There are times when you can cut around it, and there are times when you can’t. Usually if you have to edit a song, it's harder to sell I find. And yes, Charlene may bump if the scene has a girl named Sarah in it. Songs shouldn't have to work too hard to fit into a song spot. If it's not natural, it's not meant to be. Some songs cut in to the scene perfectly with no effort but that's rare, but exciting when it happens. Also there are so many GREAT songs that you think will be easy to find spots for, but you never do. Sometimes I think it's just the luck of the draw, there's no real science or rule as to what gets syncronized and what doesn't.

SMN: Should a writer stay away from writing songs with a person's name?

LR: Then again there are so many great songs with names in them. I think artists should write songs for themselves and their fans, don’t worry too much about syncs, because if you write songs specifically for syncs, you're in danger of sounding too synch-y. There are times when I think, omg, sync song or promo music. What I'm really looking for is talent, passion and expression. It may not get a sync, but I don’t think songs should just be written with syncs in mind. It takes away the magic sometimes.

12.    SMN: If you like a song and find out the track mix is not available, are you able to use it?

LR: It depends on the scene. The other day for Parenthood we had a scene where we needed the instrumental, and it wasn’t available, but we used the song anyway! It doesn’t always work that way, but we got lucky and were still able to use it. Sweet!

13.    SMN: Many of our readers are publishers and music licensing companies. If they've done their homework, understand the type of music you use in your shows, what's the best way to submit music?  Would it be by genre, a mix of genres, or something else? Also, if they have several songs that fit the show, how many are best to submit at one time?

LR: Every music supervisor is different. My preference is getting a full album from an artist. Because this is like a body of work, a finished product, your heart and soul. One song at a time is okay, but it’s easier for me to get a vibe for the artist if I get a full album. A lot of pitchers will send me 10 albums at a time, which is ridiculous. There is no way I can choose even three of those when I have a hundred more emails to go through that morning. It’s just too much time spent. One song at a time is okay, if it’s somebody that I have a relationship with, and I’m a fan, then sure, but not as an attachment, should be in a yousendit link or the like.

As an introductory thing, like from somebody I don’t know, depends on how much time I have. For pitchers, people that pitch music to music supervisors, I would say the best way for me is a full album in one email, ideally with a picture or something visual to go along with it so I can get a feel for it. If it’s poorly presented, I worry that the music also might be poor. Why not include a great picture of yourself or awesome, expressive album art?

Some shows don’t really have a specific music direction or vibe, the song choices are based on the scene only. But there are shows, like Parenthood, that have a certain vibe. Lucky 7 as well. We work on a Netflix show called Hemlock Grove that has a tight budget, but a very specific vibe, so people can send me a folder of music that’s one-stop, $2,000, all in, dark, gothic, young music for that show.

14.    SMN: Besides being a music supervisor for TV shows, you just finished working on the feature film Enough Said. The plot line, "A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she's interested in learns he's her new friend's ex-husband" seems really amusing. How do you interact with the composer Marcelo Zarvos when deciding on the music to be composed for the movie? As a music supervisor, do you have any interaction with the composers?

LR: I don’t really have any say over what the composer does. The director and studio execs are the ones giving notes to the composer. If there is no music executive, then I can step into that role, but I haven't done it very often. Marcelo is lovely, and I really enjoyed working alongside him!

15.    SMN: Would you explain the term “remusicing” and how it comes about?

LR: Friday Night Lights is an example of when re-musicing was required. You’ve got a show, an hour-long drama, with a big appetite for music, and we put a lot of music in. But if we were to pay all media licenses on all that music, it would have cost millions for the five seasons, a fortune! So the licensing strategy went like this: We bought two-year terms for everything, which is enough for the original broadcast on NBC and then DIRECTV. But we had to replace much of it for perpetuity, for DVD, Netflix, or iTunes etc. It was heartbreaking, a lot of that music had to go but we kept a lot of it as well. The most emotional and most effective uses of music were paid for in perpetuity, and they stayed in. There is still a lot of great music in Friday Night Lights that survived, but I know how many insanely cool jams were there in the first place. So we worked out a blanket deal with the Five Alarm library so that any music spot that wasn't necessary to the story had to be replaced with something cheaper. They did an amazing job. Most shows don't really do re-musicing. I haven’t worked on a show since Friday Night Lights that does it.
 
16.    SMN: How do you organize and categorize the music you receive that you think might be used in the future? You already talked about that with the metadata, but I’m wondering, do you have an Excel spreadsheet that you can easily refer to for what you’re looking for?

LR: I don't. 

SMN: And that’s in iTunes? Do you make any playlists in iTunes?

LR: Yes and I access old playlists all the time for new searches. Most of the time I start over but it’s fun to refer back to old searches, for sure.

17.    SMN: Do you have a favorite story about the business that you’d like to share, something that happened to you or someone else, perhaps?

LR: I was working on a surf movie for my friend Aaron Lieber, he’s a director, and the film is called "Zero to 100: The Story of Lakey Peterson", a new, awesome, inspiring sports film. It’s so good. Not a lot of money, a documentary. I love to surf and I love the director and Lakey, so we were super stoked to work on it. We needed about 30 songs, for a budget of $30,000, an amazing music budget for a documentary but as you can see, only $1K per spot pretty much.

One of the artists we discovered in that process was Antoine Allain, a friend of Lakey’s who lives in Santa Barbara. He has a great reggae song about the ocean, and we were able to place it in Hawaii Five-O in the opening teaser in this really big spot. The lyrics were perfect and everybody loved it and was crazy about the song. So the artist made enough money on that one spot to make another record! That’s just really cool when something like that happens.

A similar thing happened with another Hawaiian friend of mine, a kid that I met at the Kauai Music Festival, Kepa Kruse. He’s like a Hawaiian prince, a gentleman and has a unique sound, very quiet, mellow, kind of music. He nailed a spot in Hawaii Five-O which enabled him to find a new apartment for his dad. He’s now a really great friend and, in fact, his college buddy Marc, now works in my office!

SMN: That’s the goal with us too, being in the music business, to get our artists and our writers out there, just to let them know people believe in them.

LR: Yeah, totally. You can’t do that everyday because you don’t have those opportunities every day. There are days when your director just wants The Stones. It’s so neat when there’s the discovery element and you can really help someone get to the next level. That’s just the best.

18.    SMN: What question should we have asked that we didn’t?

LR: I can’t think of anything. It’s been fantastic speaking with you.

SMN: And so have you. We thank you so much for all your time and everything that you’ve given us; it’s really great information.

LR: It’s my pleasure. Thank YOU.


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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.

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