19 Jul '23 - blog / Event report, Knowledge

Meet the Music Supervisors: The Power of Music on Screen

We brought fellow media composers, music professionals, and creative industry leaders together on the 7th of June for BMIM Special. Since BMIM is all about sharing knowledge, we’ll share a few of the panels the creatives joined on a successful day at LAB111 as articles. The first one is Meet the Music Supervisors: The Power of Music on Screen, with Jumi Akinfenwa, Laura Bell, and Matt Biffa.

Sometimes music does not immediately catch on when it is released but suddenly gains ground through trailers and video games. The music supervisors on this panel tell all about how viewers consume music on screen and share their predictions of music supervision and sync.

Jumi Akinfenwa is the music supervisor at Redfive, based in London. She currently works on TV shows and films and previously worked for shows such as Break Point on Netflix, Make or Break on Apple, and she’s worked at Amazon Studios. Laura Bell has her own company, Bell Music Supervision, and she comes from the music industry, where she’s worked in many different roles: from record label executive to sync and publishing. She made the switch two and a half years ago when many big streaming companies entered the Netherlands.

She has worked on Modern Love Amsterdam, several Netflix films, and many broadcast films and series. Matt Biffa has been a music supervisor for about twenty-seven years and did a lot of bad movies (in his words) when he started, but he also did some great projects like Harry Potter, Sex Education, and The End of the F***ing World.

The last mentioned explains that the job didn’t even really exist when he started in 1995. Matt Biffa: ‘I was quite lucky because I got into it when it was still quite a baby thing in England. It was more of a thing in America. Initially, I did the occasional commercial, which I did not enjoy because the snob in me was a bit like they don’t care about the art; they care about the product they want to sell. Back then, it was very analog, and you had cassette and video. I learned how to put music to a picture using a pencil and a cassette of just lining up a song, playing it, and seeing if it worked.’ A lot has changed since.

Specific, cool little niches

The real recognition for the profession came in 2005 when Grey’s Anatomy featured ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol if it’s up to Biffa. But what’s so special about this profession, and what kind of an impact does the right music have on commercials, film, and TV? Laura Bell: ‘It’s a very specific job. I called Baz Luhrmann’s music supervisor and asked them what I needed to do to be able to do it. They told me I needed to work in every part of the music industry and that I needed to really know my music. During all of my work in the industry, I’ve come across a lot of sounds. But what I love most is going down the rabbit hole, doing music research of the things I don’t know. Last week I was looking into Egyptian funk from the 70s, and on Monday, I was looking at cantopop. These really specific, really cool little niches are all so fascinating, and I love that if you’re in a story, and you want to understand the characters, you want to understand where they’re coming from, that you have to do that music research and understand why you choose something. It is very cerebral, because if you drop a song in, it can interrupt two other characters’ stories that might happen at the beginning and the end of the scene. So it’s not like this song is there just because it sounds good; it’s actually this song is there because you’ve just heard another song, and it marks the start of what you’re going to see and hear next’, explains Bell.

Matt Biffa gives an example of why the music really matters to give depth to characters: ‘I’m having this right now with the fourth season of Sex Education, where we have quite a well-defined idea of the show’s sound and how it relates to the characters, but we have new directors. They want to bring their own thing to the show, but some of the songs that are finding their way in are not compatible with the characters. Sometimes directors only think about the action in the scene rather than a character’s backstory. If you think of Maeve, for example – there are certain bands she wouldn’t listen to because they’d be too macho or to cock-rock. There might be certain lyrics which are sort of borderline misogynistic and all this kind of stuff. That might have been ok for the mid-90’s but not now. That’s not who she is. She likes Sonic Youth because she worships Kim Gordon. So she likes Slint, Pavement, PJ Harvey, all that kind of stuff. A woman that likes complex female characters wouldn’t go anywhere near some of these bands. Stuff like that matters, so you have to go down that rabbit hole to discover new things.’

Against the algorithms

Jumi Akinfenwa explains how she does that: ‘I love using platforms that have really bad algorithms, like Bandcamp and Reddit, because again, that’s sort of the online rabbit hole, and you’re really forced to sit there for hours and look for stuff. Unlike DSP, it’s not feeding you stuff based on your previous listens.’

Normally, the showrunners decide on which songs they are actually going to use in the show. But music supervisors are not only on the hunt for fitting music; it’s a lot more than that. Laura Bell: ‘A lot of our job is looking after the administration, like the clearances, the licensing, the cue sheets, and the contracts. Music in shows is always budgeted, but often it’s not budgeted well, and that’s part of our role as music supervisors also. We have to talk about that budget from the very beginning. And I think as soon as you start working on a production, you have to question the needs and costs. How can we make it work?’

So education is a big part of the role of music supervisors, just like they did on BMIM Special. Stay tuned for more articles on the specialist panels.

Written by: Meike Jentjens
Pictures by: Birgit Bijl