Say Hello To Hollywood: Writing For Film and TV

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Jenny Lewis. Photo by Autumn de Wilde.
Jenny Lewis. Photo by Autumn de Wilde.

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE

Like any industry, the TV and film business has its own language. Learn it. Understand it. It’ll make you a better candidate for landing good gigs.

“There’s so much technical stuff you have to know,” Schwartzman notes. “I know a lot of musicians who aren’t very technical people. They don’t use computers, they don’t use software … They’re sort of purposely old-school, which is really cool. But with film, you’re dealing with sound editors and the overall mix, and there’s so many deliverables that need to be specific. You’re working with timecode, hitting certain moments in the edit… Everything needs to be so specific. It’s a skill that I had to learn – a language I didn’t speak that I had to get hip to.”

Musicians who can produceas well as compose may have an advantage, too, especially in the TV world. Television studios already have to deal with actors, crew members, network execs and the like, and their budgets are usually tight. If you can save them the trouble of adding more names to the payroll, they might bump you up in line.

“It’s becoming very common for one person to do everything,” says Schlesinger. “At this point, the TV executives sort of expect it. They like to cut deals where it’s an “all in” thing, and you deliver the entire product yourself. If you need to hire someone else on your own time – someone to produce the song, or maybe someone to play a certain instrument – then that’s up to you.”

“Interaction with multiple human beings isn’t as essential as it once was,” adds Paley, who’s noticed a major shift in the business since he wrote for The Ren & Stimpy Show in the early ’90s. “There was a time when somebody wrote a song, somebody else arranged it, somebody else produced it, somebody else sang it. But at this point, all of those jobs can be done by the same person. There’s a huge difference between the way things used to be done and the way they’re currently done. It’s not necessarily bad. It’s just evolution.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSIC SUPERVISORS 

If you’re a musician looking to license some of your songs, a music supervisor can be your best friend. Supervisors are the tastemakers of the film and TV world, because they choose specific songs for shows, soundtracks and trailers. If you want to hear your songs on, say, the newest CW network drama, you’ll probably need to go through one of them.

“A lot of people are saying that TV is the new radio, but you really can’t discount radio in L.A., where we have great stations like KCRW,” says Jennifer Lanchart, an independent music supervisor and licensing agent whose past clients include Cat Power. “I don’t agree that radio has been replaced here. That said, a lot of the DJs on KCRW are also music supervisors. There’s at least six of them, including Liza Richardson, who supervised shows like Friday Night Lights and movies like The Kids Are All Right. Usually, a good portion of the music they play on that station is something you can also hear on TV or in a film.

In other words, TV and radio aren’t necessarily in direct competition with each other – at least not in Los Angeles. Instead, they’re related to each other, with music supervisors serving as the common ancestor.

Bruce Gilbert is the music supervisor for Weeds, Orange Is The New Black and a host of movies. He says his best qualification for the job is his own appetite for music. He’s a fan, first and foremost. That’s a good thing for bands, because it means some of the most highly sought-after supervisors in the business aren’t just thinking with their wallets – they’re thinking with their ears.

“With shows like Weeds,” Gilbert says, “we suffered from a fairly restrictive budget, so we had to dig a little deeper for stuff. As a result, we surfaced some music that maybe hadn’t been exposed all that much before.”

“Get in touch with a music supervisor!” advises Paley, talking to any musicians who’re looking to dive into the film and TV worlds. “Find out who the best music supervisors are, and tell them what you’re good at. L.A. is very, very competitive, but that’s a healthy thing. Get a thick skin and believe in what you’re doing, because knocking on doors and getting them slammed in your face for years can be frustrating. But it’s what you’ve gotta do.”

“Ultimately, people offer you jobs because they like your work,” says Schlesinger, who thinks networking isn’t as important as actual talent. “I don’t know if you need to go to every party and shake every hand. That won’t make you a better songwriter.”

ONE GIG LEADS TO ANOTHER … SO TAKE THOSE GIGS!

Remember: TV and film work is temporary. TV shows can’t run forever. There’s a lot of turnover between different projects, which can be advantageous for anyone looking to expand his/her group of contacts. In other words, your co-worker today might be a potential boss tomorrow … so be nice and do good work.

“I was asked to write the music for The L Word after [show creator] Ilene Chaiken heard something I’d done with Jonathan Richmann  from the Modern Lovers,” Paley says. “How random is that? One thing really does lead to another.”

The moral? Accept the gigs that come your way, even if they seem bizarre.

“I did some music for Big Time Rush on Nickelodeon, where Snoop Dogg was guesting,” remembers Schlesinger. “I had to do a demo for Snoop to listen to, and then send it to Snoop so he could replace it with his own voice. That was embarrassing. In the end, the whole thing came out great. But I was just sitting there, cringing, thinking of him listening to my rap.”

Robert Schwartzman may sum it up the best.

“The movie industry is changing,” he says. “There are a lot of studios popping up in different places, with a lot of incentives given by different states to welcome filmmaking in different parts of the country. But L.A. is still the central place for this industry. Being in that city can definitely allow you to take meetings with the right people, to be accessible to a filmmaker you might want to work with, and have that face time. It’s hard to do all of that over the internet. It helps to be here, to be working … and to keep at it.”

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