New Kid on the Block
Jennifer Pyken is a music supervisor, television royalty, and a brand new Recording Connection mentor. She has overseen the music for dozens of movies and over 1,000 episodes of television. She’s a Primetime Emmy Award nominee and Guild of Music Supervisors award winner. Her credits are outstanding, and include, Just Beyond, This Is Us, Workaholics, Game Over, The Neighbors, House Party, Smallville, One Tree Hill, Felicity, Alias, Lost, Undressed, and Happy Gilmore.
So, what exactly is a music supervisor?
A music supervisor chooses the songs and background music for film, television, games and other media and works with the creative team of directors, producers, and editors to come up with the style, tone and musical vision. It’s also budgeting, collaborating with songwriters and musicians, on-camera musical performances, working with composers, record labels, music publishers, music clearance and music cue sheets.
So you’re creating the soundtrack? Are you also composing the score?
I don’t compose at all, actually. A music supervisor finds and clears the songs for film and tv series. It could be a song coming on a car radio [diegetic] to the background of a scene [non-diegetic]. I collaborate with the director and producers to choose songs that fit their vision and budget. Also, I have songs created for tv and film projects too and oversee any on-camera band performances. Also, I handle the licensing and clearance paperwork. There’s both a creative and a business side to the profession.
I have to tell you, from like 11 to 15, this was my dream job! I thought about it all the time, maybe minus the paperwork, though.
Part of music supervising is getting the clearance and rights to songs. To be a well-rounded music supervisor it’s important to understand the clearance process. My first jobs were coordinating and clearing songs for music supervisors. Now, I sometimes hire a clearance person to do the paperwork, but I’m very hands-on and get all the deals in place.
What are some of your favorite projects you’ve ever worked on?
I am grateful to have worked on so many great series and movies including This is Us, Workaholics, Smallville, One Tree Hill, Felicity and Game Over, Man! I’m super excited about the series I’m on right now called The Way Home, I’m having a lot of songs written for it and there’s lots of on-camera musical performances.
What kind of research goes into curating a song list for a project?
I get a lot of music sent to me by artists, record labels and publishers. I go through my music library too. Research is a big part of being a music supervisor. I can really go down the rabbit hole and start finding really obscure music when reading blogs, articles, and scouring music websites. Also, I check out Spotify, Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Technology has really added a lot of tools to your proverbial belt in recent years. What was it like before we all had such easy access to the internet?
The first big technological achievement I experienced in my career was being able to burn CDs on my computer. But for so long I basically lived in record stores, conducting research. Now, I can just be sitting at a coffee shop researching on my computer. It’s made my job a lot easier, but also a lot harder— because now all my clients have easier access to everything as well. Before I could really tailor the music to what I wanted. I like collaborating, so as long as we can afford the song, but everyone having input complicates things. There are so many things I know to look for when it comes to pricing and legal, that clients don’t.
Do you have any nostalgia for the harder hunt? Do you miss spending whole days in record stores, just sifting through music?
I still go to record stores. I spend a lot of time on my computer, but I also spend a lot of time going to concerts,music festivals and conferences. There are just so many more ways now to discover new music these days.
I spend a lot of time going to concerts, music festivals and conferences. There are just so many more ways now to discover new music these days.
I would guess that discovering music in real-world contexts, like concerts, really aids in building relationships which aid in licensing.
Yea, relationships, relationships, relationships. Getting to know the bands, getting to know the managers, getting to know the publishers–it’s part of the job. But, when you want to clear a song, there’s a set legal path and super specific paperwork–you can’t just talk to your friend and get it. It could start by meeting someone at SXSW, but it’s a formal process.
One of my favorite anecdotes about this concerns Jay Z getting the rights to Annie for Hard Knock Life from Charles Strouse…
Oh yea, he wrote a bunch of letters and finally got the rights. Very cool.
You’ve said you really enjoy collaborating, do you have any specific songs you particularly loved helping create for the world of a film or television show?
Recently, I was interviewing Maria Taylor from Azure Ray for my Music Supervision Master Course and I asked her if she’d ever written a song for TV or film–she’s had tons of placements–but she said, “No.” Coincidentally, we were looking for someone to write a song for The Way Home. I took a chance and asked her to write one, we met with the creators on Zoom, and she wrote a song within a day. It was the most beautiful song and we all cried when we heard it. It came together, and our actors recorded the song that we hear throughout the entire first season, and became an integral part of the plot.
Did you have a damascene television or film soundtrack that got you interested in pursuing this as a career?
I remember watching The Breakfast Club and loving the soundtrack.
So much of what makes a sequence successful is about the music lining up with editing. Do you collaborate with the film editors to ensure proper timing?
I’ll send over a song to a film editor and say, “Start it at 26 seconds in and cut it at x point.” Not all films have music editors, but they are great to work with too. It’s a collaboration between everyone.
So, I know you are newly a mentor with Recording Connection! How’d you discover the program?
Through the music community and my friend, Brian Kraft, who heads it! I enjoy mentoring and teaching. I have taught at UCLA extension and I have developed an online-only music supervision Mastercourse as well.
What qualities do you think you’ll look for in your students?
Curiosity and Creativity too. Someone who is interested in collaborating. In my field there’s a lot of paperwork, so someone who can handle the business side as well. More than anything, though, someone who is curious, imaginative, and open-minded. Someone who is organized and can roll with the punches and work under pressure and come up with ideas. Someone who really wants to learn. Mentors were super important to my life, and I want to pay it forward.
Mentors were super important to my life, and I want to pay it forward.
And what qualities do you think make a strong music supervisor?
A strong artistic and creative vision, an ability to collaborate, communication skills, organization, flexibility, a detail-oriented outlook, an ability to negotiate, an openness to receive feedback, curiosity, passion, and kindness!