Interview with Music Supervisor, Michael Hill

Field Notes Interview #91: Michael Hill, Music Supervisor

We chatted with Music Supervisor, Michael Hill, about the intricacies involved in working with television, the evolving world of licensing for independent musicians and what key elements go into pitching music for licensing.

Simplicity. Story. Sincerity.

Michael Hill has been an insider in the music industry for a while now. Beginning as an A&R rep at Warner Brothers, Hill scouted bands and was in constant search for new, alluring sounds to sign. After some time, he ventured into the world of music production and licensing, and is now settled into his role as music supervisor, working with HBO and AMC. Throughout his career, Hill has been led by his love for music and a insatiable hunger for new sounds.

Given time to see the music industry shift and adapt with licensing as a new form of income for independent artists, Hill's role has shifted along with it. We chatted with him about how his vast experience in the industry informs his decisions, and what he looks for when receiving an ocean of emails inquiring about music. 

Marmoset: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

Michael Hill: I have been supervising music for television and film for 20 years. I began this career, in earnest, about 10 years ago. My background was actually as an A&R guy at Warner Brothers -- from 1983 to 1998. 

Within that timeframe, I also spent some time working at a record label. While doing so, I worked with many bands that did not succeed. But 25 years later, the one band everybody still remembers is The Replacements. I was their A&R guy from start to finish of their major label career -- a career that has failed spectacularly, and then succeeded much more in the recent years.

M: A great sound, but maybe wrong timing.

MH: The sad thing is, nowadays, the world and music business have changed so much. The things that they railed against while at the label, you know the whole idea of, “we want to make it big, but we do not want to have to play this game.” Well, now you do not have to [laughs].

M: In what ways do you think this has taken place? What does this shift in the music industry look like to you?

MH: Well, I think it is the rise of viable, independent labels. Artists now have the ability to get their message across to a potential fan base without having to deal with the gatekeepers in radio, the press or record stores. There used to be such an entrenched system, and even the labels were beholden to the networks of independent promoters and marketers. Back then, everything required a certain amount of money and cache to get noticed. Now, artists just need to be clever.

M: How have you seen the evolution of licensing come into the independent music scene?

MH: I think the hegemony of the major labels has faded in marketplace dominance. The floodgates opened for music of all kinds to be heard by people like me. There was a time when music was not delivered so instantaneously, and by such a wide variety of sources. So finding the rights to music was very complicated. You would have to negotiate for theatrical rights, television rights, cable rights, home video rights, while also clarifying the different ways people would carve up each field. While that still happens today, now it is basically like, “we need the rights to show this to whatever means exist,” because people do not watch things and hear things the way they did even two or three years ago. It is a very dynamic situation but it makes it easier in a sense. If I am doing a television show, I am doing all the rights except for theatrical. If I am working on a movie, I need everything. It is pretty direct. There are so many independent labels who have their own licensing people or work with a variety of companies. 

M: Do you see any cons in the way that music is so instantaneous in the modern music landscape?

MH: Selfishly, there are two cons. The biggest one being that there is so much music, I can not keep up. Even if I had an assistant working with me, I could not keep up because, frankly, I want to hear all of the music. I want to be inspired by hearing it. Part of that goes back to my talent scout days where it was all about seeing and listening to a band. Right now, I am working on a few shows, including Divorce for HBO, Feed the Beast for AMC and a comedy called Blunt Talk for STARZ. It is not that hard to work on all of these at the same time, as they each have their own niche. But to do that, and then listen to the twenty bands that have also sent me their music is challenging to do in one day. The good news is that the links people send through Dropbox last longer than they used to, and you do not have to download everything. The secondary thing, is that with so much out there for the musician there is a lot of competition and, unfortunately, the revenue is not as big. Budgets have not gotten bigger for music. The availability of music has fooled people into thinking that it is free. Currently, when you work on any given production, often times, people will put the music budget in the back and start stealing from it to pay for something else. In a sense, we all suffer because there is just so much out there, and with that comes a lot of downward competition.

M: So, would you say that bands are racing to the bottom trying to outbid each other?

MH: Having the unique position to see this from both sides, as well as understand the economics of making records and touring, my sympathies are with the musicians. I do not want to pay people nothing, I will be utterly realistic with everybody about what budget I am working with for the show -- explaining why I have what I have. I really want people to get paid for what they do. The best advice I can give musicians is that it is good to be out there, but think carefully about what you are doing. Once you have a couple synchs in your pocket, it is easier to get licensed again.

M: What stands out to you? What does the perfect email look like to you from a band? What information do you find most valuable?

MH: I get a lot of emails out of the blue. So there is not a lot of time to pay close attention to all of them. I pay closer attention to people I know, from companies I know, that are representing artists -- particularly independent artists. If I have trusted their judgment in the past, I am curious to know what they are going to do next. I think much like when I was an A&R guy. It always helps when there is some connection to something else like, “we are touring with so-and-so, they asked us to tour with them.” That is interesting to me. Or, something like, “we are friends with this band and they gave us your name.” I do respond to this more than cold-calling. There has to be a compelling reason to connect. Sometimes artists come to me with their entire catalog, and there is just not enough time for me to listen to it.

M: Would it help if bands only sent a couple of songs?

MH: A simple link and video, paired with any kind of reference that causes some form of recognition out in the world is good.

M: What is one common misconception of your profession being a music supervisor?

MH: That it is not full of incredible drudgery [laughs]. One has to please a lot of different masters in this business, and in the average television show you are supplying songs first to an editor, then to the director, then the producer comes in and makes changes to the director’s cut. In every single round, you have 6 different hurdles and in each case, you may have to change the music completely. It can be difficult. On a practical level, it is an art of matching what is in the director’s head -- which is an art of its own.