With Sync Placements In Shows Like 'Pose,' Music Supervisors Are The New A&R The positive exposure for artists from their songs appearing in film, television and advertisements has turned the job of music supervision into a power player in the music business.

With Shows Breaking New Artists, Music Supervisors Are The New A&R

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As our listening habits have changed, films, television shows and even commercials are becoming important ways to discover new music. Allyson McCabe reports on the people who get that music on-screen and how they're filling the role once played by record label talent scouts.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Amanda Krieg Thomas is a music supervisor. She's worked on such hit TV shows as "The Americans" and "Pose." She says she gets upwards of 50 pitches a day from folks looking to get songs on TV.

AMANDA KRIEG THOMAS: There's record labels. There's music publishers. There's third-party pitching companies, producers, songwriters, managers, artists. I get music sent to me all day, every day, from all of the above.

MCCABE: They're all hoping for a sync placement. That's the industry term for matching a song with what's happening on-screen. Licensing that song could earn an artist anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than a hundred thousand. It's up to Krieg Thomas to negotiate the terms for using a song, and that often involves clearing the rights with everyone from record labels to multiple songwriters on a single track. But Krieg Thomas says the creative element can be challenging, too.

KRIEG THOMAS: Every component on a television series starts with the vision of the creator, and my job is servicing that vision. And sometimes, that involves pitching song ideas. Sometimes, it involves clearing songs they want. Sometimes, it involves coming up with sort of the background, the tapestry, if you will, of the sound of the show.

MCCABE: Music supervisor Gabe McDonough does the same, only for major advertising campaigns. In 2015, he helped broker a deal with Ford to feature "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten.


RACHEL PLATTEN: (Singing) This is my fight song, take-back-my-life song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Be unstoppable.

MCCABE: Sustained TV exposure helped to drive the single up to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ignite Platten's career as a multiplatinum-selling artist. McDonough says there's no perfect song for an ad, though certain generalities apply.

GABE MCDONOUGH: Usually, it's up-tempo. It's positive - a lot of syncopation.

MCCABE: And it's best to avoid cliches.

MCDONOUGH: This swagger bomb thing that I call it, where it's like (vocalizing) - you know, you'll hear that in a lot of ads. And before that, there was this ukuleles and hand claps and whistles thing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Risk it. Bust it. Lace up and gun it.

MCCABE: McDonough says what matters most to brands is whether the song can help tell a story in 30 seconds. For artists, it's how often that story reaches our ears.

MCDONOUGH: The thing that really correlates between blowing up an artist and the commercial is just the media buy. Like, how often does it run? It's brute force.

MCCABE: Putting songs in front of listeners used to be the domain of record label A&R reps, industry talent scouts who lean on radio DJs to play new music by entry-level artists. But today TV has become so effective that even established artists, such as Beck, Migos and Grimes, are signing deals to plug their songs in ads before they appear on album releases.

MORGAN RHODES: Placement is sort of the new A&R.

MCCABE: Music supervisor Morgan Rhodes says she looks for opportunities to introduce audiences to artists who haven't been widely exposed.

RHODES: I love the research. I love the digging.

MCCABE: Rhodes was spinning records at a Los Angeles public radio station when filmmaker Ava DuVernay invited her to work on the 2012 feature "Middle Of Nowhere." Since then, Rhodes has supervised the music for several of DuVernay's projects, including the 2014 civil rights drama "Selma."

RHODES: And it was a wonderful experience, especially unearthing some artists that hadn't seen placements and may not have been as remembered.

MCCABE: One of those was Martha Bass, whose song "Walk With Me" Rhodes chose for a key scene - the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 march to Montgomery.


MARTHA BASS: (Singing) Walk with me, Lord. Walk with me.

MCCABE: When Rhodes was searching for a song for a 2017 episode of "Dear White People," she thought back to an independent artist she'd featured on her radio show a few years earlier.

RHODES: We knew that we needed a male voice. We knew that we needed a particular kind of singing - sort of a soft voice for the scene. And I remembered James Tillman.


JAMES TILLMAN: (Singing) Blowing over like wind, electrifying the place, knowing that all I want is to see your face.

MCCABE: With tens of thousands of tracks being uploaded to music streaming services every day, James Tillman says he tries to get his songs out as many ways as possible.

TILLMAN: I was on Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, Bandcamp. I just wanted to make sure the music was everywhere that it could be.

MCCABE: But after his song "Casual Encounters" appeared on "Dear White People," Tillman says his streaming count spiked, leaving a lasting impact on his audience reach.

TILLMAN: That showed me that it kind of leveled the playing field in certain ways, giving me a chance to at least reach people.

MCCABE: Music supervisor Morgan Rhodes says TV can help break through all of that online noise.

RHODES: I've seen sort of a shift in people looking to television as an ear for them, looking to television as a source for new music in the same way that we look at places like Spotify.

MCCABE: But despite getting his song on a hit TV show, for now, James Tillman remains unsigned.

TILLMAN: One placement could significantly impact your career, but it probably won't push it over the edge.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


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