I Want Your Job: Music Supervisor, Rob Lowry

Welcome to music industry week! Instead of heading down to SXSW this year, we decided to highlight a bunch of music industry professionals who work in various parts of the business to keep it running all throughout the year. A single week down in Austin might seem glamorous for a time, but the truth is the music is an industry just like any other, and if it’s your goal to work in music, that goal is totally attainable without a “networking” trip that costs hundreds of dollars.

You don’t need to travel down to Texas and brush shoulders at overcrowded showcases full of cheap beer, questionable immigration policies and ubiquitous corporate branding. If the point of going to SXSW is to get familiar with the music industry, skip all that and read our interview series instead to find out where you may fit in. There’s so many areas to work in aside from playing music, or even writing about music, and the purpose of this series is to spotlight lesser-known but essential roles that keep the music world spinning.

So far, we’ve spoken with a we spoke with a music publisher, an artist manager, and a music and entertainment lawyer. Today, we talked to a music supervisor.

Music supervision still remains a mystery to many people. Perhaps those of you watched Grey’s Anatomy or The OC and used those shows to discover cool new indie songs in high school and college have the best grasp on what exactly a good music supervisor tries to do. The trick is to create a moment on film or TV that uses music in such a way that it elevates both the song and the scene, a perfect bit of synergy that supersedes audio-visual and becomes something more. That’s the kind of moment that Rob Lowry is looking for when he supervises music for film and TV.

After a cliché but powerful experience with Almost Famous as a hopeless romantic teen, Lowry sought out a career that allowed him to dovetail music and film in a way that would impact people in a similar way. He left freezing Pennsylvania, moved to sunny LA, and worked his way up from a PA on television shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood to found his own independent company, Sweater Weather Music, and become a full-time music supervisor who works for himself. Below, we attempted to unpack the strange world of music supervision in layman’s terms.

Music supervisor is a really specific role in the industry, was it something you were specifically pursuing?

I remember being in… I think it was in eighth grade? and I skipped school to go see Almost Famous on opening day. I watched that movie and I was like, “I wanna do that. How do I feel this way? What is this feeling? That’s what I want to do.” I’ve always been kind of a hopeless romantic, and definitely emotional, so in that Cameron Crowe vein I sought out these movies, TV shows, whatever, that used music in a certain way. For a while, I wanted to be a director or something in film. In high school, and even in middle school, my prized possession was my video camera. I was taking video production classes in college when I finally realized I was involved with film as a vehicle for music. I was doing silent films just so I could put music to them –that sort of thing. And making music videos… but I think I was trying to tell a broader story, or a more specific story.

So what took you from those classes, and this germ of an idea, to actually carrying it out and taking steps to become one?

I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania and all my friends were becoming teachers. I like teaching, my dad was a musician and then a teacher. So I thought, ‘Yeah, I like kids, and I like working with kids, and I’ll probably just be a teacher. Then, long story short, I had a couple knee surgeries in college and when I was laid up in bed I had an epiphany out nowhere: “I gotta get the f*ck outta Pennsylvania…. what the f*ck am I doing?’ So I got this internship in Long Beach out in California for a summer. I came out to LA and it was really the first time I’d left Pennsylvania. I’d gone on trips for little things here and there, but it was the first time that I was away for an extended period of time. I realized I could leave Pennsylvania and go to LA, so after going back to finish college I moved here.

I worked on a talk show for a year but the whole time I knew I want to music supervise and I wanted to figure out how to do it. I got a job in scripted television as a PA on Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, and basically just became friends with all the writers. It was a very intimate setting with a group of ten writers, and a few editors, and I became close with a couple people who were super helpful and encouraging. I would give them mix CDs, and read their scripts and suggest songs, and I was doing the same with the editors here and there, and eventually over a couple years I became the showrunner’s assistant.

Then, one of the editors told me a friend was doing a really small film and they asked me to music supervise. It was called The Kitchen, and it was the first thing I’d ever done. I had a full-time job, and was doing this at night. But it was the best possible learning experience, just being thrown into it and having to figure it out. I mean, this was six or seven years ago, but like, it was a hard job, learning everything. Because I think a lot of supervisors have worked under other supervisors or have worked in sync in some industry-relate environment, whether it’s publishing or legal. But I was 23 maybe, 24, and had no experience whatsoever except that I was a fan.

What were some of the skills you learned during that process that you think are essential for the role?

Obviously, people really tend to romanticize music supervision: “I have f*cking awesome taste in music, I’m a crate digger, I can do that.’ And that’s not really it. Good taste is important, but the job is like 60% to 70% paperwork, dealing with egos, managing egos, managing expectations of producers and directors. Supervision is a lot of being a voice of reason. But I’ve also been put on jobs where I disagreed with the director or the producer’s vision for music, and you can’t get defensive about it. You’re the middleman a lot of the time, it’s more about getting fair deals, in terms of what you have to offer the artist and the publisher.

I think a lot of tastemakers or people who think they have amazing taste — and they probably do — can be a pretentiousness about it. For me, that’s not very welcome. Like, sometimes a Carly Rae Jepsen song is the best f*cking song for a scene and you have to be okay with that. And, I mean, I’m okay with it because I love Carly Rae Jepsen, but it doesn’t always have to be this super-weird obscure thing. A lot of the time, that works really well, and that’s awesome, but like, if you want to pay $1 million for a Beyonce song, it’s probably because the Beyonce song works really well there, and you want that recognizability.

For anyone who is still in the dark about what a music supervisor does, let’s break it down in super basic terms. What are the main tasks you handle?

I would say a music supervisor is someone who kind of oversees all musical aspects of a production including clearance and licensing to use the music legally. You handle the music budget of the film and sometimes you’re hiring a composer for the score as well. You’re ingesting creative input from directors and producers and finding the common thread between all these different opinions. You have to find music that’s going to service the studio head, the showrunner, the writer, the editor, and the director. Especially in TV, there’s a lot of people involved.

If you’re doing a film, music is too often is the last thing that people think about, because it’s really the last thing you do. I’ve been on films where I get the script and they’re say they have $100,000 for music, which includes licensing, and the composer, and your fee. And then halfway through production, they’ll cut it to $50,000 for music, and then by the time they get to post-production, they’ll only have $30,000 for music left. But their expectations haven’t changed from the $100,000 you had six months ago.

For film or TV, you could be working on something that has twenty or thirty songs, and then at the end of it all you have to do a queue sheet to send to the performers’ rights organizations to make sure they get paid royalties and stuff. There’s a lot of intricacies to it, but I think it’s like anything where you’ll learn if you really love it. And you can practice it and do it on your own, but putting stuff over old scenes of movies, or calling up, you know, USC’s film department and seeing if any of their directors need music for anything. There’s just a lot of people doing stuff and they probably don’t realize that they need a music supervisor, or know what a music supervisor does, and they’re just like ‘This is my favorite song. I’m gonna put it to this and then submit it to this film festival.’ But they don’t have any rights to it.

You’ve been an independent supervisors throughout your career right?

I’ve always been by myself, so my company is just me. It’s called Sweater Weather Music, and it’s just me, so it’s technically freelance. I get hired by a director, by a producer, by a studio. There are bigger companies, like something like Alex Patsavas who has her company, Chop Shop. She did, like, The O.C.. She’s the head of Chop Shop and then she has supervisors under her who are doing different shows, so there’s, like, an umbrella. There’s a company called Format that’s a similar thing where it’s bunch of supervisors and they’re doing, like, all the Marvel stuff. There’s times where I’ll work with one of my good friends who is also a supervisor, we’ll do projects together just because it’s fun, and we have kinda like the same temperament and the same tastes. It’s like collaborating with an artist on something, ad it’s always fun to bounce ideas off someone else. But as a freelancer it’s definitely a hustle.

What is your favorite part about the job?

The best part is definitely that magic moment when there’s a scene that, you see the scene or you read the scene, and you’re like, ‘That’s gonna be special. We need to find the song that will enhances the scene.’ Because, that’s what you’re doing. It’s great when you see something and you’re like, ‘F*ck, that song’s amazing. This is such a special scene.’ The most famous example, probably, is the “Tiny Dancer” moment in Almost Famous. Especially since that’s kind of like the film that inspired me to do this. That’s my example of the perfect moment. The scene would be nothing without that song, and I don’t know that the movie would be the same without that scene, so everything is built on that song at that moment.

But, a lot of music supervision is complementing the visual. A big part of the job is you want to complement what you’re seeing in the picture, you don’t want to overwhelm it. You don’t want to overtake it, take the focus away from it. You want to complement it, and lift it up. I would never say that I’m an artist. I’m definitely using other people’s art and I remain a fan. But I do view supervision as storytelling. So those moments when those moments you’ve been struggling to find the right song… and then you’re just like, ‘Oh sh*t, this is the song!’ Or you see something for the first time and think: ‘I know what the song is for this.’

Check out Rob Lowry’s music supervision company Sweater Weather Music.