Interview with NBC Music Supervisor, Alison Lieber

Field Notes Interview #93: Alison Lieber, Music Supervisor

We chatted with NBC Music Supervisor, Alison Lieber, about developing good professional habits, and the unique challenges and triumphs in working with soundtracks for television.

 

"There are no mistakes. Live without fear."

This simple mantra can be the most difficult to remember when carving a life in the creative world of the music industry. However, one thing that remains clear is how this mantra helped Lieber navigate the ever-shifting landscape of music supervision. Now, firmly rooted as a music supervisor for television, she has crafted a career that is completely her own. Enjoy.


Many would consider what you do their dream job… Tell us, how did you land a job at NBC Universal, Inc.? What led you to where you are today?

Alison Lieber: When I was an undergrad in upstate NY, I began interning at an indie label called “Team Love Records,” and was hired on about 6 months into my internship. It was an amazing experience to work for an independent music company. Especially, one that will always influence me. Some of my favorite bands have put out albums with Team Love (The Felice Brothers, Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins, etc). While working at Team Love, I was handling radio promotion and began to also send our releases to a handful of music supervisors for consideration on their projects. Alicen (the SVP of NBC TV music) was one of the supervisors that I was sending music to. Through time, she became a mentor for me. Although she was thousands of miles away, we continued to exchange emails, in which she would offer advice on how I could become a music supervisor. Working as a music supervisor has been a dream of mine since I was young and began purchasing CDs based on the music from shows like Party of Five and Dawson’s Creek. A few years ago, I moved to Los Angeles and after hustling to meet as many supervisors as possible, it serendipitously worked out that Alicen needed a new assistant. After some time as her assistant, I began supervising a handful of shows and it has been an amazing experience ever since. 

What do you think makes a good music supervisor? Certain traits, intuitions, experience, etc?

AL: If you have decided you want to work in music supervision, I would say that it would be valuable to expose yourself to as many genres of music as possible. I also think it is important to have a real passion for the work itself -- a lot of what music supervision entails is managing the expectations of producers. Often times, they will have a certain idea in mind about what song they want for a particular scene and if the show or movie’s budget will not allow for that song, you have to be the bearer of bad news -- while also spinning the conversation so that you have similar, more affordable options ready to pitch. Lastly, I would recommend getting out there, networking, and starting to tell the people you meet that you want to be a music supervisor. Having positive, strong relationships in the entertainment industry is crucial -- everyone has to get their start somewhere. 

How do you feel music can alter a viewer’s perception of a scene? How do you think this differs for television when compared to film?

AL: I think music is key for how a particular scene comes across emotionally. Whether it is licensed music or original compositions, it can either subtly change the viewers’ experience as they watch the show/film or it can drastically affect the mood of a scene. Typically, songs that are used in montage moments in television programs are super effective and tend to be licensed songs -- for example, the music featured in shows like Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and Grey’s Anatomy. Music in film is also extremely important. I think it is amazing to put together a soundtrack for a film because you are, often times, able to put together a specific sound for a project.  This is less common in television, but there are definitely some shows that have succeeded in having a “sound" -- The OC and Mad Men come to mind.

Do you have any weird processes/habits you find yourself going through when working on a project? If so, do you remember when and how these developed?

AL: Honestly, the process can differ depending on the project and how much time you have to gather songs for a particular scene. If time allows, I like to gather songs in a few different rounds. The first round would be having the creative freedom to brainstorm and see if any songs that I have in mind could work for the scene. The second round includes going through my music collection/iTunes to gather ideas from what I already have available. The third is seeking pitches from third party licensing companies, record labels and music publishers. I can recall many occasions where I have been driving and can visualize a scene playing out as I listen to a CD (am I dating myself by saying “CD”? Ha). For instance, one of my friends (and also one of my favorite musicians), Shana Falana, has some of the most visual music I have ever listened to. A few months ago, one of her songs was featured in Girlfriends Guide to Divorce on BRAVO due to an internal pitch that was provided to our producers from our music supervision team. It is moments like these where I feel especially inspired and grateful to be a music supervisor. In this day and age, licensing music is an important revenue stream for musicians, and it is important to me that I can help indie musicians pay their rent while also elevating a scene for an audience.

How do you feel your perception of television and film has changed as you continue to gain experience?

AL: While I have always noticed the music in films and television shows, I am definitely more mindful of the songs that are used -- mostly from a monetary standpoint. Since about half of a music supervisor's job is managing the budget for music on a project, I am always very interested to see what kind of music is placed in different television/films -- to consider what kind of budgets they may have been working with. I am also extra impressed when I am emotionally moved from a scene due to the music. Recently, the most amazing music moment I experienced was the use of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in one of the final episodes of Mad Men.

What do you find challenging about supervising for television? How have you overcome, as well as learned, from these challenges?

AL: The most challenging aspect of finding music for television shows is when producers do not give you a lot of direction about what they are looking for and are simultaneously hard to please. Since music is so subjective, it can be difficult to know what a particular producer is looking for until you have had the time to develop a relationship and understand their tastes. Additionally, it can be frustrating if you get too attached to a song for a scene and it does not make it in. I have definitely learned to throw my hands up in the air and know that at the end of the day, it is not my decision what song will make it into a show.

What is the best career advice you have ever been given? Can you recall a time when you found yourself applying that advice to your own career?

AL: The best career advice I have ever been given is also the best life advice I have ever received.  Back when I was thinking about making the move to Los Angeles, I was speaking with a friend about how I was nervous about making a mistake with the move. She told me that you can not make a mistake. If you work hard and you keep pushing forward, you will eventually end up where you want to be. So I think living without fear and trusting in yourself is crucial to happiness and success. Thank you!