Matt Biffa is a hugely respected British music supervisor who has worked on films such as Snatch, Harry Potter, and Paddington (check out his extensive IMDb page). Last week we sat down with Matt over a cup of tea and talked all things music supervision….
How did you get into music supervision and what’s your relationship with Air-Edel?
I am and have been employed by Air-Edel for 18 years now. My first job in the music industry was as a receptionist there, so I spent about a year and a half on the phones, getting lunches, and making endless trays of coffee and tea. That was my baptism of fire really. Then I started to find music for commercials – that’s how I learnt how to work music to picture. Prior to that, I was actually working in a landfill site, so I had no previous affiliation with the music industry in any shape or form other than being an enthusiast.
Back in those days you didn’t really edit songs. The way you did it was you used your brain, your memory, and the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. I know this is hilarious to think about now, but back then if you needed a song you rang up BMG Music Publishing, or whoever, and four hours later they would bike a cassette round. So you learnt how to sync up a song – sometimes you’d use a pencil to wind a cassette to get a song starting at the right place. Nowadays, we can make things fit because we edit everything, but then it really was ‘you try it here, that doesn’t work. You try it 2 seconds later, that doesn’t quite work, what about 3 seconds earlier? Bingo!.’
So that was the start of me learning how to put stuff to picture, just for commercials. And then a film came up that I don’t think anyone at Air-Edel particularly wanted to do, so I did it. I was shown how to clear songs, and that was the other crazy thing because back then we cleared everything by fax. For Snatch I literally had 5 thick folders full of faxes going back and forth because there were a lot of songs cleared and a lot of difficult negotiations on that film. So that’s how we did it. I was literally shown how to clear a song and then sort of left to get on with it.
How do you find music? What’s your discovery process?
It’s a little bit of what I already have, it’s a little bit of what I get every day from the indies and the majors, it’s a little bit of me writing to the indies and majors saying, “this is what I need”, and more importantly, “this is the amount that I need to clear it for”. And then it’s a little bit of keeping an eye and an ear out on the blogs and the huge thing that is the internet, and just trying to wade through it. There’s so much music out there, you kind of have to stick to tried and trusted sources. It’s a little bit impossible, there’s just too much. People are making too much music, that’s the trouble, and 95% of it is awful. So that’s kind of how I do it.
How do you organise all the music you collect?
I suppose I’m quite old school once again, in the sense that what I generally tend to do is listen to stuff and remember it. I don’t categorise it – I know people who categorise stuff and they’re very organised with their libraries. Mine just sort of all goes in, and I listen to it and remember the good stuff. And generally speaking, when I’m starting something I sort of have an idea of what I’m after…..for example, if it’s a period film or through just reading the script, and thinking about the characters and the time period: Who they are, how old they are, where they live, all this kind of stuff.
Then I will start making playlists – huge playlists with hundreds and hundreds of songs, and I’ll kind of whittle them down because inevitably something will seem like a good idea at the time, and when you look at it the next day, you’ll think actually that’s rubbish, I don’t know what I was thinking. That happens all the time.
Can you tell us about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and how you got involved?
Very luckily Patrick Doyle, who we represent as a composer, was doing the score for the film. Patrick had worked with Mike Newell, the director, and so Patrick was Mike’s choice, and I sort of knew David Barron (the producer) and I just ended up doing it. I hadn’t seen any of the films, I hadn’t read any of the books. I just turned up at Leavesden for a meeting and was taken to go and see the sets and then I was like “oh blimey!” because it was amazing – the attention to detail was just something else. So that’s very luckily how I got involved, and it was a year’s work involving all sorts of crazy conversations: What do wizards sing about? How do you hear them because there’s no electricity? You can’t really even quantify it – what’s wizard or not.
You put together the wizard rock group ‘The Weird Sisters’ for the film and came up against some rather ridiculous legal issues. Can you explain what happened?
That was a ridiculous story, and it was all to do with a UK tabloid and a typo that they made. I’d like to set the record straight, because it was never explained at the time. The band are called ‘The Weird Sisters’ in the book. We spoke to Franz Ferdinand about potentially getting involved, and the next day there was a story in this tabloid that they’d signed up to play ‘The Weird Sisters’ and they spelt it Wyrd. So we got the band together with Jarvis Cocker and a couple of the Radiohead boys, and meanwhile Warner Brothers were approaching all the bands that had similar names and basically giving them a nice sum for the use of the name.
Then they spoke to ‘The Wyrd Sisters’, a band from Canada, who said “the next time people come and see us they’re going to expect Jarvis Cocker and Radiohead”. So they sued for $40 million and tried to injunct the film in Canada. The trouble was every time people referred to this band, they always referred back to the original article where it had been spelt wrong, so because of that their screen time in the film got cut from about 40 seconds to 4 seconds. It was really frustrating, because it was a lot of work, and Jarvis had lots of really amazing plans for that band.
You later worked on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, famously using one of Nick Cave’s songs. How did that happen?
Initially there were conversations about the Weasley wedding band, and I did get a good band together for that, which would have been quite amazing. But then they said, “look, that isn’t happening anymore because the instruments are just going to play themselves, but there is this dance, read the script and then let’s talk”. They explained that it wasn’t in the book – so off I went with the script, I read it and then I was like ‘wow ok, this is a bit big’. In all 8 films it’s the only bit of source music that is really directly important. You realise that people are going to pay attention to it, and a lot of people are going to see it. I knew that we were probably going to get really badly criticized if we got it wildly wrong, and the trouble is of course that you don’t know whether you’ve got it wildly wrong until it’s too late.
There was actually something that they cut which is in the original script – and they did film it, but didn’t use it – where Hermione says when they’re listening to the radio that it’s a muggle station. I liked that because it meant that it could be quite broad, it could have been Take That or the Black Eyed Peas, or anything! It essentially explained that what we were hearing wasn’t from the wizarding world, but the Muggle one. It was really interesting. It was definitely the thing that I think I’ve enjoyed most – the whole process of it. You’re not really in competition with anyone else other than yourself at that point. David Yates (the director) rang me up and said “I really like ‘O Children’, I just want to know one thing from you – is there anything better than that?” He explained to me exactly why he liked it – I still have my handwritten notes from that phone call, and they are extremely intelligent and informative. So you set the bar, and then you either have to disprove or prove the theory that ‘O Children’ is the best song for that scene.
So would you say Harry Potter was your favourite project to work on?
You love them all in different ways but I suppose in terms of creative fun that’s at the top, and I only had to clear one song, so it wasn’t particularly difficult technically. And they did this funny thing, the Harry Potterlot, which is less usual than you would think. They hired you, told you what they wanted, and then let you get on with it. If someone disagreed with something, there were very rational, intelligent conversations as to why something wasn’t right and what the solution was.
By and large they had the same crew for each film and they were all extremely friendly and still are. They all still hang out socially. We all made some good mates out of it. Dan Radcliffe was lovely – he ran up to me on the morning that we were shooting that scene and said “you’ve made Harry Potter cool!” and threw his arms round me. I was like “I think you’ve done that all by yourself!”
What makes you get involved in a project? Do you ever seek them out yourself?
Sometimes stuff just comes in and you just think, well I’ll do it. I recently really wanted to do a movie that Ian Neil ended up doing, damn him! I’m joking, he’s one of my favourite people, I respect him hugely, and I’ve learned heaps from him. I really wanted to do this particular project, but as often happens people have their crew and Ian was already in that camp. By and large, I’m just really lucky, and I get enough work in to keep me off the streets and out of trouble.
Do you read unsolicited emails? What’s your advice for people getting in touch with you?
Blimey, I get hundreds and hundreds. I do try and read them all but it is really difficult. If I don’t action an email or read it on the actual day, it sometimes gets forgotten about the next day because so much other stuff comes in. So I think unfortunately it’s about being patient with us, that’s my advice – to be patient.
I have licensed stuff as a result of unsolicited email before, and I have actually struck up relationships with people who I will then go to if I need something. So it does work, but a lot of it is based on situations that occur at a fortuitous time…. like I’ve realised I needed something 5 minutes ago, and I happen to get an email that happens to relate to what I’ve just thought about and therefore I’ll pursue it. It’s a little bit the luck of the day, the time, what I happen to need at that time. And then, when I have a bit more time to think about it, I will sit down and think about who I actually need to approach to get what I need. You’ve got to remember a lot of it is budget based as well, so a lot of times I’m approaching people who I know I can do a quick deal with.
As big a problem as they are, do you think budget constrictions have made a lot of projects more creative musically?
Well exactly, 99% of the time a lot of people do just want something that the audience is going to know and recognize, although I suspect that, particularly with things like Breaking Bad, people want to be surprised. That’s my little theory – that people want to be surprised.
And tools like Shazam are great for helping you with that discovery process
Yeah, I use Shazam all the time actually! There’s a lot of stuff in my tags, mostly from radio (usually BBC6 music), that is definitely going to get pitched for Fresh Meat next year. I can tell I’ve been listening to the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show because there’s a lot of that stuff. And that goes back to the music discovery question – actually, thinking about it, Shazam is something I’m increasingly using, and looking at everything I’ve tagged now I can see that unconsciously it’s all for Fresh Meat. That show is one of my favourite things to do. It’s very much like Harry Potter in the sense that everybody is genuinely friendly.
Other than budgets what are your biggest day-to-day challenges?
These change from day to day. Sometimes it can just be the creative challenge because often you just can’t get a scene right, for love or money. Sometimes it can take months to get the scene done. Sometimes you actually have to say ‘I’m not going to think about this for 10 days’ and try and come back to it with fresh ears and eyes, because it can drive you a bit crazy. You don’t know whether anything is good anymore, so you have to take a step back from it.
There’s also the pure frustration of clearance and the inordinate amount of time it can take. You’re at the mercy of third parties. This isn’t a job to do if you’re a control freak because you are at the mercy of people all of the time, so you have to try and let it go a bit and trust that it’s either going to happen or not. And if it doesn’t, you have to be organised enough to not leave yourself in a situation where you’ve got nowhere to go.
What’s the furthest you’ve had to go to clear a song?
Writing to a hospital in Missouri for a film I did a fair few years ago. I couldn’t find a publisher for this particular song, but I found out that the granddaughter of one of the writers had a liver transplant at a hospital in Missouri, and consequently was a sort of financial donor to the hospital. So I rang them up and said “look I’m really sorry, this is really not the done thing, but could you please put me in touch with her, or her attorney?”. I eventually spoke to the family lawyer who told me that the song was owned by EMI. It hadn’t been registered anywhere so we just didn’t know. It was one of those Second World War songs, something like “You keep sending them over and I’ll keep knocking ‘em back”.
So I got the song in the end, but you do need a little bit of sleuthing expertise sometimes.
What’s been your biggest mistake as a music supervisor?
I was fortunate in that I did make some quite bad mistakes quite early on but I managed – touch wood – to rectify them. I did things like not clearing a song for the whole world – that’s my all time worst balls up. That was for the second film I ever did (Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?) and the song was of the greatest, most iconic punk songs ever by one of the greatest, most iconic punk bands of all time. I cleared the master and it was a really good fee, maybe £16,000 a side which nowadays wouldn’t fly at all, and that was a lot for back then. So I cleared it and I didn’t realise I hadn’t cleared it for America. Back then you couldn’t really speak to anybody in the film and TV departments, they were a bit of a closed shop, so I spent weeks flirting with the receptionist at a certain record company in LA until they put me through with who I needed to speak to and I was able to rectify it. But it was pretty nerve wracking. You only ever make that mistake once!
What’s your advice for artists wanting to get a sync?
Just write really good songs. Don’t worry about the sync. The song that I most hate in the world is a matter of public record if you are friends with me on Facebook, and I loathe this particular song because to me it sounds like it was written as if they wanted a sync. Any sync – pile cream, vodka, loo paper, just sync the damn thing! It’s just toe curling in every way. So my advice to artists is…..just be really good, and just have something about you really.
Can you tell us about any recent and future projects?
The Riot Club was really enjoyable. The funny thing about it is that the characters all have really bad taste in music, so it kind of goes against what you try to do as a music supervisor. You’ve got these characters who really only know the charts, and what their brothers liked, and what was popular at school. So those guys either try and fight against what they are, and go completely the other way into really hard-core Hip Hop, or they just go for Chris de Burgh. So there’s actually quite a lot of really bad music in The Riot Club! Deliberately! Apart from the Graham Coxon song that he wrote specially for the end credits, which was superb., obviously..
Paddington’s been really fun. It’s been quite difficult in the sense that there was a little bit of last minute stuff to do. People change their minds – that happens, that’s fine. We’ve got a really good calypso band that was put together by a crew called Electric Wave Bureau – it’s a collective of people with loads of different skills, and they were brilliant to work with. So we put this really great calypso band together of genuinely old calypso dudes. There’s a few other songs that help to support a joke in the film and they are quite straightforward.
I’ll start getting into Fresh Meat early next year, and I’ve got another documentary with director Lucy Walker, which I’m really looking forward to doing. There’s also possibly another TV thing and I’ve just started Dad’s Army!
What changes would you like to see in future for the world of music supervision and licensing?
We’ve always had the same problem ever since I started, which is that producers don’t always budget appropriately, and so you end up with nowhere near enough to be able to do the job properly. That’s really frustrating because then you have to make the best of a bad lot. The other stuff, on the side of filmmakers, is really stuff that you can’t expect them to know, but we still get all these things where people say, “oh if you have less than 3 seconds of something you can copy it” or, “oh, it was done in 1911 so it’s in the public domain”. Actually it’s 70 years after the death of the composer who might have died in 1984 so it’s resolutely not in the public domain! But I suppose you can’t really expect people to know that.
The one thing that would be nice would be for the UK publishers to have a bit more autonomy in terms of clearing US repertoire. So in other words, when you’re trying to clear US repertoire you go to your guy in the UK, and he goes to his guy in the States who fervently disagrees with the fee structure that we have over here and frankly, stuff just gets lost. The quote that comes back might be realistic for the American market, but not for the English market. These are the realities of the UK film industry.
I tell you what else I’d like to see – more catalogue. Back in the day you used to get all sorts of amazing CD books of really obscure catalogue gems from labels and publishers. There was an amazing one from East Memphis Music Publishing, I think it was, which had Take 2 of ‘Sitting On The Dock of the Bay’ and Otis Redding buggers up the whistling and someone says “Boy, you ain’t never gonna make it as a whistler”. EMI Music Publishing used to send things round called ‘Tapes of the Unexpected’. There was a guy there called David who basically used to just go through the archives and find the weirdest shit and put 10 really weird things onto a CD and send them out. I still refer back to a lot of the ‘Tapes of the Unexpected’ stuff because there was a lot of great music on it. So more catalogue – that’s what I’d really like. Of course, we all have to get sent the new this, the new that, but there’s so much amazing hidden stuff out there. You can’t know everything so you rely on the publishers and the master owners to direct you to it.
What are your favourite film soundtracks?
It seems a bit obvious to say this, but the Tarantino soundtracks – you can’t not really. I’ve dealt with Mary Ramos (Tarantino’s music supervisor) before on a documentary I did called Countdown to Zero and she was awesome. Scorsese is another one, his use of music is just classic – stuff like Mean Streets. So with film, I suppose inadvertently it is based on directors. John Hughes, for example. You still can’t beat The Breakfast Club can you, or even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It’s not a film, but all the Breaking Bad stuff just made me think ‘I’ve gotta up my game!’ It’s our job to know a lot of music, so when you see something on TV, 99 times out of 100 you’re going to know what it is. But with Breaking Bad there was stuff where I was like, “Dammit, Thomas what have you done there!?”. I had to pause it, and find out what it was. Thomas Golubić is definitely the music supervisor that makes me go sort of “Arghh!” I absolutely love him to bits, I think he’s just extraordinary.