During CMW‘s recent Sync Summit our client SynchAudio chatted to Instinct Entertainment music supervisor Mikaila Simmons about her work and placing a track represented by them (Made Them Lions’ “Good Times”) in the recent film Bruno & Boots.
Hi Mikaila, how did you get into the music business and into music supervision in the first place?
I went to Ryerson Radio and Television and pretty much a year after I started I began working with Sony Music in their licensing department. Supervision was always something that I wanted to do – there aren’t many resources explaining how to get into it so I kind of just felt my way around and I knew that music licensing was a really good starting ground. I actually met my current boss at Sony and kept in touch.
So it just fell into place?
Yeah, I mean lots of networking and being persistent without being overly persistent and eventually the opportunity came up and here I am!
How long have you been doing it?
2 years, and so far so awesome.
What projects have you worked on so far?
Instinct’s relatively largest client is Degrassi so I worked on that, and on another show with the same crew called Open Heart. I just finished Houdini and Doyle for Fox, so that one started airing last week in North America – that was probably the biggest project I’ve worked on and I did that one solo so that was really great.
I worked on the indie film Across the Line which is airing right now and that was with Director X and Stephan James from Race, and I’ve worked on Bruno & Boots. I worked on a Norwegian horror film called Haven which was actually fantastic – think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but with an even sicker revenge plot. Horror movies are really fun because I’m really into the broody, background music type stuff. We actually got to work with an artist and do a custom-made song for that movie. And I’ve done a little bit here and there for Beauty and the Beast and on Vikings and Penny Dreadful but that was mostly licensing.
How has the business of placing music changed since you started?
Well the biggest impact that we have faced has been union fees. Union fees are becoming more and more prevalent and becoming more and more of a concern for content producers and for supervisors. They’ve always existed, but the process of actually identifying union recordings has become exponentially more prevalent, and things that we weren’t aware were union recordings are now all of a sudden coming to the surface. Essentially anything backwards is fair game so it’s actually quite terrifying for a lot of people. That’s not true for SAG-AFTRA, there is a statute of limitations on that, but AFM can pretty much go anywhere, so that’s a big concern. Not so much a concern for American sups because they tend to have bigger budgets and a little bit of money put aside to deal with that if the problem arises. But the Canadian market and Canadian budgets are very different, and yet we ask for the same scope of rights as any American sup so it’s challenging to balance those issues.
Obviously we want to compensate musicians for their work, but we want to be able to do it in a way where they’re not pricing themselves at a market, so that’s a big thing. Budgets all around have become more and more challenging. One of the shows I worked on started with X number of dollars, and by the end of the first season the budget had shrunk by a third. So when a budget’s cut in the middle of a season, how do you figure out how to work with what you have? And it just happens because it’s so easy to cut music – it’s one of the last things you pay out, and a lot of the content producers don’t understand how important it is to budget appropriately for music. So those are two big concerns.
Has being a music supervisor changed how you listen to music?
Absolutely. Sometimes in really good ways and sometimes in really annoying ways. You listen to something and you think of it in terms of dollars and cents instead of what you’re actually listening to. The best music snaps me out of that mentality, so that’s when I know when I’ve hit something magical when I don’t think of it that way.
Like Made Them Lions?
Yep! Honestly – Made Them Lions was just so much fun it was just begging to be placed in a movie like Bruno & Boots. And also in terms of sonic quality you have to listen to something that is sync-able, and when you hear XYZ that makes a song sync-able you put it on the back-burner and think I could use this here, here and here. Music becomes a commodity.
Do you usually work with Canadian projects?
We usually work with co-pros so there’s usually some kind of Canadian tie. Usually there’s funding coming from the US, or in the case of Houdini and Doyle from England and the US. There are some strictly Canadian projects. Degrassi is primarily Canadian – although it’s airing on Netflix now they’re not receiving funding from anywhere – it’s Canadian funded. I recently worked on a movie called Sadie’s Last Day on Earth which was also a Canadian project. Canadian projects are really fun – the music needs are a little bit different because they tend to want Canadian content primarily, which is very helpful but can be a little limiting because there’s only so much to work with in certain sound palates.
What’s a current project that you’re working on?
A little bit of everything – with TV you’re almost always on because as soon as you get renewed you’re starting a new season and the backend on the licensing side can take months and months. People don’t recognise that the job is 30-40% creative and then 60-70% paperwork, and we do all of our licensing in-house which not all music supervisors do. So we literally negotiate the deals, sign the deal memos, do the paperwork, do the cue sheets – we’re a one-stop-shop. With Degrassi I literally finished the last license a couple of weeks ago and I’ve already got scripts for the next season. Vikings and Penny Dreadful have been going ever since, Houdini and Doyle we’re still waiting to hear whether it’ll be picked up for Season 2, so a little bit of everything!
How would an artist go about trying to work with you?
We are one of the few companies that accept unsolicited material. Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re getting a high volume of songs but we do try to listen to everything. I would say make sure that you are writing a succinct email, you have all of your metadata in place, remember that WAVs do not copy over the metadata so everything will disappear on our end so we’ll have no idea how to contact you once we load that. So I would say a succinct email, a download link and streaming option, and make sure the downloads link to one bundle – not one link to one song and one link to another. Other than that just know what you’re pitching for – know what projects we work on and what we would want to hear. If you can listen to your product and say, “I could seriously see this in Degrassi”, it’s worth pitching. If not then maybe we’re not the best company to approach. That being said, there are one-off situations across the board in different genres.
So do you have a listening session?
It’s not really a session, and this is what’s working against you – it can just be a five second click, and if we like what we hear in the first five seconds we’ll keep listening, if not we move on because we’re listening to so much.
What’s your biggest challenge as a music supervisor?
Time management. And being able to give every client as much time and energy as they deserve without leading on to the fact that we are working with a bunch of other clients. Most production companies in Canada work on a couple of shows at a time, so everyone on their end is used to working with people that are only working on one or two things, but we’re usually working on seven or eight things at once. So being able to manage their expectations and give them everything that they want while not letting anything else suffer.
Managing budgets – again, always difficult, and finding good Canadian content when needed. And even in shows when it’s not necessarily a requirement to have Canadian content, finding good Canadian songs because we like to benefit artists that are really talented and can really use the money, and a lot of Canadian artists are really good.
What’s your advice for writers who want to make their stuff work for film and television?
First and foremost, do what you love. You can have certain projects that you gear more towards sync – there are certain bands that are sync bands that make most of their money from licensing. That being said, you have to recognise that for every one song that is placed in any of our shows there are thirty pitched, so it’s very difficult to promise syncs to anyone. You can listen to the trends in music and think, “it sounds like everybody’s going for a Black Keys sound right now in sync” and kind of follow that.
Is that safe to try and be like the other stuff that you hear?
That’s up for debate, because every once in a while we are going to need a cheap sound-a-like and that option is always nice to have in our back pocket. That being said if you’re looking to be an artist first and a sync artist second, I would say do what you love, do it well and someone will notice it and if the right project comes along they’ll get in touch. Hone your craft and make sure that you have a good team in place to pitch it to the supervisors if you’re not doing it yourself. Do a little research into what publishing companies can work for you.
What catches your attention when you listen to a new submission?
Honestly, so much of it is taste. There are certain sonic qualities that really speak to me – I grew up on Radiohead and Spiritualized and a bunch of broody angst-y music (laughs) so I tend to really love listening to stuff that I would listen to at home. That being said, I work on a lot of projects that call for poppier, peppier stuff. In terms of sync-ability an even mix is always nice because if there are pops and jolts it’s really hard to place in a background setting. Just really good music for whatever it is. In order to be a good sup you have to be able to appreciate good music across genres – you have to be able to step out of yourself and say, “I’m not going to be able to put Radiohead on every project that I work on”, and know that Made Them Lions is a really good band and they have a certain sound that could work on this project or this project – being able to recognise that.
Thank you so much Mikaila!
We’d like to say a huge thanks to SynchAudio for conducting this interview. Find out more about SynchAudio at the links below, and if you’re headed to Midem 2016 click here to learn about SynchAudio presenting Mary Ramos at this year’s event.