Field Notes #97: An Interview with Music Supervisor, David Hayman

Striving to create undeniable moments.

You know when you’re watching a film or TV show, and that one familiar song starts playing and completely makes the scene? Toronto-based music supervisor, David Hayman, loves being a part of those undeniable moments. A film school graduate and award-winning music supervisor, Hayman founded the music-supervision only agency, The Supergroup Sonic Branding Co., in 2012. The Supergroup specializes in many things -- from music licensing and searches to sonic branding -- and has credits in everything from small indie movies to advertisements to shows like Rookie Blue and films like Born To Be Blue. Outside of his work with The Supergroup, Hayman is also helping to start a branch of The Guild of Music Supervisors in Canada.

We chatted with Hayman about current licensing trends in the Canadian market, the rise of “sadvertising” and working on films with smaller budgets. Enjoy.

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

David Hayman: I consider myself in the entertainment industry, although at the bank I tell them I’m in the advertising industry. I came up as a filmmaker and I got frustrated with the process along the way. Right from the get go, I think I was frustrated by the process, before I even touched film school, because my understanding going into film school... sort of crushed the auteur dream of, like, wanting to “do it all” and just create something for the world. I realized after four years of filmmaking and school that I was a better supporter and connector than I was an actual creator, because I was somewhat bored by the tediousness of the process. I like to come in, drop a cherry on top, drop the mic, walk out. You know, next project. So I did that in film school -- I would help people edit in post and jump on their projects... They would say, “Hey, can Dave help produce this?” but really all I was doing was looking at what they got, or trying to clear a song for them.

So in film school, when I first landed my first-ever placement, which was the Mighty Mouse theme song, and I got the Viacom approval, I thought it was the coolest thing. I’d always sort of... I’ve always loved brands. So even to get the Viacom logo approval of a real Mighty Mouse theme, I was through the roof. I hadn’t really actually felt that excitement on film before, and every time I’d land something that made the film legit, and connect with the audience, it was stellar for me. Because I’d see it in the screenings -- they hated most of the films in film school, but then a song would come on and everyone would have this moment of release, and it was like everyone was in the same headspace as I wanted them to be in.

What created legitimacy of the film through music?

D: For me, to be totally honest, we were the last year the last year to do film. Like film, film, 35mm for our 4th year projects. We were also emerging as filmmakers at the same time as the Blair Witch Project. The aesthetic quality became less important -- it was more about content, what you could do with it, and taking the medium and kind of giving it a sheen with music. So you put a polished song on it and all of a sudden it gives legitimacy to everything. Everything looks purposeful -- that out of focus shot looks on purpose because... that’s a classic song. That really helped. And I think it also brings value to Canadian films, where sometimes, you know, we’re lacking on budget. Our television shows have a little less coverage than an American show... the actors might not be as known or whatever. But when a song comes in, and it’s familiar and it kicks ass, it’s undeniable. So I love being a part of those undeniable moments.

In what way do you find that your experience in Toronto, in particular, has provided you a unique perspective in music licensing?

D: I’ve never gotten lazy. Not to say that anyone’s lazy in what we do -- far from it. But... I’ve never graduated to the films that have that huge budget where everything is going to be possible and anything I want I can get. Or anything the director wants they can get. Which to me doesn’t even sound like fun, because I’m not a paper pusher. I’m a problem solver. So you have a creative problem -- frankly, you can’t afford something -- we’re going to find a better solution. And that allows me to take something totally off the table because you just can’t afford it. As a Canadian, you just can’t afford this song, unless you strip back everything else in your film. So we now have a clean slate and the director has somewhat of an open mind, if they’re responsible. So with that clean slate I can go left. I can go way left. I can go dead on and present alts. But it allows me to then come in and suggest something to elevate the story or character.

With less of a budget, do you find yourself in some ways having a little more freedom to do what you want to do?

D: More creativity. I would say less freedom. No, not less freedom, it just... it is what it is. Sometimes you have -- in the indie budget world -- what you consider a good, healthy budget, but it’s being eaten up by a song. My strategy is to kind of always create tentpoles that your film can rest on. But if that tent pole is stuck on one song, you have a good ol’ Canadian teepee. And that’s what happens sometimes -- just one big pole in the center and then you have to build the rest of the soundtrack with a lot of indie music. To me, when someone recognizes a song, great. When someone falls in love and discovers something new from a film -- that’s the big win. It allows me to put my friends or locals and emerging artists from around the world that I meet into films that are vehicles going into the States or going on Netflix. So that opens up a whole world that allows me to be creative.

So looking at trends in licensing, where do you see that going -- more particularly in the Canadian music landscape? What trends are currently happening and where do you foresee it going?

D: Licensing budgets are stable, you know. Television’s not going up or down right now because the popularity of television is not growing. I think the popularity of the Internet just keeps truckin’ forward, to the point where we’re at the 15-second spot being the darling, and not the 30-second broadcast. So the 15-second pre-roll web is actually more important. We’re out of that space where “can we also do a 15-second version for the online?” and we have to pump the breaks and go “well, is that for pre-roll?” That changes the whole picture, because that’s how you’re getting to people right away. That 15 seconds is impactful, you can still tell a great story in 15 seconds, you can still punch out a good song. Fifteen seconds is a lot less time to live with a song, so at the same time we’re moving out of high-tempo, in-your-face music into what I call “sadvertising music.” Sadvertising music, you know, we’re a part of that and I think some of the most wonderful campaigns are in that genre -- but the music is generally slower, you get piano movements that don’t resolve themselves in 15 seconds, so there’s something happening like, you know, maybe the 30 pre-rolls are going to start being heroes because you’ve got this long, drawn out spots with beautiful music underneath. We do a lot of covers because of that. People want an interesting take that touches people’s hearts, but in a new way. A cover does that immediately. It’s something that you recognize that touches you but there’s a newness to it, and then we bring that celebrity factor where we’ll try to bring someone who’s recording, releasing an album, someone special from the States or Europe or something like that, and try to tie in a celebrity angle to it. Added value, added echo effect and amplification.

From when you started off as a music supervisor until now, what are some definitive ways you’ve had to change your approach?

D: Well, I used to believe there was added value in having an emerging artist do original content for an advertisement, and now I realize that that’s pretty much farting in the wind for everybody. Because for the artist, it doesn’t really resonate if they’re emerging... it usually is just lost. The idea that they can produce as well as someone who is a seasoned composer is not really the truth. Now we’ve pulled back and we really work with artists to do covers. And as much as I’d love to take credit for the covers that are on my reel, what we do is casting -- it’s that film approach that I do, because casting is 90 percent of the film. That’s the job of the director -- you find the right people. And all you do is ask them to be themselves. Let them live or die on this spot based on what they already do, because they’re going to celebrate it at the end of the day, and you want it to fit into their body of work. That’s been very successful to me. When Phrasey4th covered “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”. You can get it on Spotify because she felt like it fit into her body of work. And that’s what we do -- we ask people to put it through their filter and that’s been successful.

Toronto is a very established entertainment city. What is one thing that you would say to the US counterpart that they don’t understand about Toronto? What’s something that makes you think “this needs to be clear”?

D: What needs to clear is that, we’ve just always been doing what we’re doing. And although it seems like we want approval, we don’t need it. So things will continue whether we’re famous, whether the spotlight is on or off. People in Toronto are always going to be doing what they’re doing. Whether it’s because of cold weather... or the freedom of the government to allow us to help support the arts and use that or that money being used for other projects, initiatives and endeavors that then support the arts and give it a platform and a stage. That’s all a wonderful thing. I think it’s a war of attrition in this country and that’s what people don’t understand, is you stick with it and you become legendary. When I sort of put the headphones on Americans and they listen to the legends of Canada, there’s that “wow.” There’s that moment or there are those legends, or those legends are already a part of their mosiac of heroes. Whether it’s Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen, Neil Young. Jonie MItchell to Drake and Broken and all the great shit that’s happening now. I mean, it’s real. It’s real. It’s not an act. It’s never been an act.

Posted on September 2, 2016 and filed under Field Notes, Music.