We are excited to announce a new monthly feature on Rollo & Grady in which we interview the biggest and brightest music supervisors in the film and television business.
This month we spoke with Thomas Golubic, supervisor for The Walking Dead, Rubicon, and my personal favorite: Breaking Bad. Golubic, along with his business partner at the time, Gary Calamar (True Blood), revolutionized the use of indie music in television through his and Calamar’s work on the HBO drama, Six Feet Under. The duo, both DJs at KCRW, placed songs on the show by Thievery Corporation, Wilco, Quantic, Ryan Adams, PJ Harvey, Bob Mould, and Interpol, to name a few.
Thomas next parlayed his talents to work on one of the most exciting dramas on television: Breaking Bad. He continued his streak of quality placements using TV On The Radio, Timber Timbre, Beastie Boys, The Walkmen, Gnarls Barkley, Calexico, and Darondo.
During our conversation, Thomas spoke openly about the challenges music supervisors face today. He also offered excellent advice on how to break into the business. Lastly, he discussed the importance of music blogs and the Hype Machine as key resources for finding new music.
R&G: How did you get your start in the music business?
TG: I came at it from radio, actually. I was a journalist for a long time and went to film school and essentially was working as a journalist for most of my career. When I got tired of writing, I was living here in Los Angeles trying to figure out my next steps forward. At the time, I listened to a radio station that’s here in Los Angeles called KCRW, 89.9 FM, and it’s a very unique and engaging radio station. They were having a fund drive and I was broke. I wasn’t able to volunteer any money, so I volunteered to help them put together their website. I started volunteering in the music library and when the DJs weren’t playing music, I started playing music as well and just enjoying their huge, wonderful library of music. Chris Douridas, a DJ there, heard me playing and asked me if I wanted to put a demo together. That’s how it all began.
R&G: What’s your day-to-day job entail? Can you take me through the music selection process? Use Breaking Bad or even Six Feet Under as an example.
TG: Well, every project’s different. Generally speaking, music supervisors get the scripts very early. For season 4 of Breaking Bad, for example, we met with the writers, talked a little bit about the characters and where their stories were going and some of the circumstances that might be music appropriate. A next step is that I’ll start to prepare mix tapes for them that will give them some ideas to play with; hopefully they’ll fall in love with the music. Sometimes, a writer will actually take a specific song and write it into the scene. Sometimes, the editors will cut an entire sequence to a song. It always behooves you to strategize early, throw the ideas early, and then get people to fall in love with them and hopefully integrate them into the scenes more seamlessly. Basically I’ll start off by reading the script. I’ll break down the scenes. I’ll do a little bit of brainstorming based upon the script, sequences in which I can imagine music: Maybe there’s a bar sequence or someone’s in the car driving, or maybe somebody is singing along to a sequence, a situation that you have to clear ahead of time before it even is shot. Once the episode has been assembled and I know what I’m planning on doing, we get together. This applies to film as well. You do a music spot with the editor, the director and the key creative personnel in the room. You essentially lead the process through and try to establish where music should be and what the quality of the music should be. Frequently, the music supervisor is the one that hires the composer, so you’ve already hired a composer on board. They’re in the room as well. Everyone is collectively trying to come up with the right solutions as to what role music will play in that particular project. If it’s a film, you’re establishing what role music will play in those two hours. If it’s a television series, you’re doing the same thing but you probably already have a blueprint in place. In the case of television, it’s more about interpreting that blueprint in each particular episode. You have to figure out where the music comes in and out, what its personality is, and what the music should actually be doing.
R&G: When you are reading scripts do you think about budgets and how much money you can afford to spend licensing music for an episode?
TG: Yeah, you have to. For instance, with Six Feet Under, we had a proper music budget, so we were able to be quite creative. We were able to reach out and acquire brand new music or any music we thought was exciting. Generally speaking, we were able to find a way to afford what we wanted or navigate clearance with a few exceptions. Breaking Bad has an inadequate source music budget and has from the get go. This makes it very difficult. In reality, I can’t just go through my collection of music and pitch things, because frequently what I want to use is either unaffordable or will pose some other problem that’s going to stop us from being able to utilize it. This show, then, is a very different beast. Breaking Bad is much more challenging as far as being able to find exciting and dynamic music while working with crappy budgets.
R&G: Is that because it’s on a cable network channel [AMC]?
TG: AMC doesn’t own it, so AMC’s not so much responsible. It’s Sony Pictures Television that owns it, and they’re the ones that establish the budget.
R&G: With the success of Breaking Bad and the increased ratings, will they allocate you more money to spend on music per episode?
TG: It hasn’t made a damn bit of difference.
R&G: Is it like, “If you can make do with the current budget, then you can make it work next season.”
TG: Exactly. I don’t mean to besmirch the studios. Unfortunately, though, they generally are not interested in creative things. They’re not interested in something being great. They’re interested in saving money. They’re all into giving you as little as they can get away with; then when you complain enough they’ll maybe re-look at it. Since we’ve been relatively successful at putting great music into the show, they’ve been really inflexible about adjusting those numbers. I certainly hope that for Season 4, they’re going to rethink that, but it’s an unfortunate state of affairs, to be honest.
R&G: You placed big name bands in episodes: TV On the Radio and Gnarls Barkley. Are there artists that are fans of the show and are willing to discount their fees for the program?
TG: Yeah, those are relationships. Gnarls Barkley was the first season, so they weren’t really on the everyone’s radar. I had done other projects with Danger Mouse and some of the other people in the project, so they were already aware of my back history and the licensing companies that were involved were just very generous with us. Sometimes, you use your own credibility to help make things happen, even though ultimately you’re paying an extremely discounted rate for something that’s really special and unique.
R&G: How do you find music for your library?
TG: We listen to everything, so as far as listening to music, there’s no type of music that we don’t explore. There’s no genre of music that we don’t try to get to know better and understand and research. It really is true eclectism. KCRW is known as being a very eclectic radio station and I think the reason a lot of DJs come out of that is that as a music supervisor, you have to be a master of quite a number of trades, especially with respect to music. You need to be able to have a comfort level with country music. You need to have a comfort level with rock music, with pop, electronic, with jazz, with soul. Everything. Since every project is different, every project has different needs, so in many ways, we consume music pretty voraciously, but I think also we get to be very critical too. Nobody wants to see a music supervisor reviewing music. It’s a little bit of a peek into the sausage factory. We tend to blaze through music, and the longer you do this job, the faster you get at it. You know within literally a few bars if something is amateur-level or if it’s professional, if something interesting is going on, and if the production quality is of a certain standard or quality. You get pretty quick at it. I will listen to several songs on any record, but I very rarely listen to the entire record and then dismiss it. If I listen to the whole record, I’m already intrigued.
R&G: What’s the best way for an independent artist to submit music to you?
TG: Generally speaking, we are so overwhelmed that going to us directly is generally not a good idea. We get sent so many emails every single day that it gets to the point that if we don’t know who you are or what the context is, we’re probably not going to put the time into researching it. I think the smartest way in general is for people to reach out to licensing representatives, because licensing representatives will do specific searches based on specific criteria we will send out to them, and they themselves become filters. They are able to delineate whether something’s not affordable, and whether something is licensable, which is a very important thing. A lot of times I’ll have a songwriter come out of the blue and say, “Hey, I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad. I’d love to have my music in the show,” and if I like the music, I might go back to them and say, “Well, do you own it?” They’ll say, “What do you mean?” and I say, “Did you write the song?” “Well, I wrote it with my cousin.” “Do you have a publishing entity?” The person will then say, “I don’t know what that is.” “Well, I can’t really license it if we don’t know ownership or have any publishing set-up. Was there anybody else who worked on it?” “Yeah, I had some friends who played the instruments.” “Did you pay them?” “No.” “Do they own part of the song?’ “I don’t know.” That process, which is sort of an amateur’s education level, is tricky for us, because we can’t really help artists into making stuff licensable. It has to be prepared, looked through, and made sure. This is particularly the case for electronic and hip hop, because those are generally sample-based genres, and if somebody doesn’t understand that you can’t just take somebody else’s copyright, jam it into your song, and represent it as your own, you can have a lot of problems. Most supervisors have wasted hours and hours of time with people who just haven’t educated themselves correctly. Again, the key thing I think is for people to reach out to licensing companies, largely because they’re excellent vetters of information, and they can guide an artist through the process. If somebody is talented, licensing companies can make sure that the artist’s music is licensable and that it’s been prepared for a professional environment. When you’re making music, it’s obviously an artistic expression; it’s a beautiful thing. When you’re getting it into a public and commercial space, it has a whole different connotation. HBO and AMC are multimillion-dollar corporations. They can’t afford to have a lawsuit happen because I didn’t do my research.
R&G: What’s your best advice for someone who’s trying to get into the business as a music supervisor without previous experience?
TG: Anybody who’s starting out in any field, but certainly in music supervision, should look for colleagues who are in positions similar to their own. So, for example, if you want to become a music supervisor, and you’re in, let’s say, school, and you’re taking business classes, go over to the film department and find out if anybody would like to have a music supervisor for their projects. That way, for instance, you can do some creative work and work with the director without having to necessarily worry about music clearances. Then if you have the good fortune to have a film that gets into a film festival of some sort, you can go through the process of trying to clear it for the film festival and educate yourself with your colleagues at the same time. I think that it’s a mistake when somebody who has no experience suddenly goes after a David Fincher film and says, “Hey, I love your movies and I’ve got great taste in music. Let me help you.” There is a total difference in the sophistication level of the business model at which a David Fincher film operates versus that at which a small movie that’s going to be a ten-minute short at a film festival operates. I think it’s always smart for people to look for things that are at a compatible or slightly higher level of sophistication and education than they are and navigate through that way. If you’re looking, for instance, to do your first film, find out if any friends are making movies, and see if you can help them. Offer your help for free. I think almost everybody out there is somewhat near a film school where you could find projects with which to help. Also you don’t need to be physically nearby. You can certainly do it by email. We live in a totally different universe now, where you can literally have an entire job done overseas. I think a key thing is to find people who are at the same level of inexperience and see if you can help them on their project, and learn as you go.
R&G: What about internships? Are supervisors hiring interns these days?
TG: Some are. I certainly have my fair share. I teach a class at UCLA Extension, which I think is a very good resource. A lot of universities have classes in Music Supervision. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to look into. It’s certainly worth looking into supervisors whose work you like. I think it’s important to do your research. One problem I have often is that people will send me random emails. They’ll tell me about how much they’d like to help me on Six Feet Under. That show hasn’t been on the air since 2005. If you haven’t done your research, and if you’re not reaching out to people that you have a personal connection to and in whose work you take real interest, you’re probably not going to be someone that they’re going to take very seriously. I think that the smart thing to do is to figure out what you really want to do, what type of projects you are attracted to, research who does those projects, and then send a very sincere email to them and say, “Look, I’d love to work with you, I’m interested in the field, and I’ve got a job bartending at night, which means that my days are free, and I can work as an intern.” You have to be financially self-sufficient. Most supervisors are paid very very poorly. It is one of the most poorly paid positions in the entire film industry. There is no guild. There is no union for us. We’re not in a situation where we’re able to bring on staff. Very rarely can a supervisor afford to have a full staff happening.
R&G: When you are searching for music, do you use music blogs or the Hype Machine?
TG: Absolutely. Hype Machine is great. Music blogs in general are great. In many ways, I find more music that way than I do through some of the resources I reach out to. They’re terrific. Technology has changed everything and I think that for people who are voracious about music, it’s very exciting to be able to go on a blog and let somebody else’s idiosyncratic tastes expose you to interesting things. I think it’s a great time to be a supervisor in many ways because it’s never been easier to hear great new music and hear it early.
R&G: What I find interesting running a blog – and I’m sure it’s the same way at KCRW – is that we receive submissions from indie artists in real-time. The Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes of the world come through blogs way before mainstream/traditional media picks up on their work. It’s fascinating.
TG: Yeah, it’s funny with KCRW, because we would hear things six months before anyone else did. Now, everyone gets it at the same time. Whether you’re working for a trailer company, a music supervisor, a radio station, or a blog, you are probably going to be on that short list that’s going to receive it pretty early on. Because a lot of people are releasing stuff independently, there isn’t any sort of marketing agenda. It isn’t like, “Oh, we can’t send it to you because it won’t be released for six months.” It’s going to be available pretty quickly, or they’re happy to leak it because they want to build some buzz.
R&G: On a personal level, what’s your best sync or the placement that you’re the most proud of?
TG: Oh, that’s impossible. It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. Probably the most professionally successful placement was Sia’s music in the very last episode of the Six Feet Under series. That was certainly a very big deal: A lot of people really noticed it and it was the most high profile use of the song. That said, I’m really fond of a lot of the placements that we’ve put into Breaking Bad recently. I loved the TV On the Radio use. I found it at 3 in the morning and thought, “My god, we’re never going to be able to afford this.” I felt that it was so perfect that I didn’t even want to pitch anything else. I just didn’t know what else could possibly work there. By some miracle, we were able to steal money from a few other episodes and got a little bit of an okay on some overages, and we negotiated as well as we could with TV On the Radio’s publishing company, and we made it happen. There’s a lot of work involved in making such things work out.
Another major one was the video that we put in Breaking Bad, which was the
“Narcocorrido.” That was a huge project. We literally knew only that we were going to create a “Narcocorrido,” which is basically a drug ballad, all about Heisenberg, so I kind of strategized for that whole thing, and instead of trying to bring one in or trying to knock it off ourselves, we brought in an artist who wrote the song and we had a translation done of Vince Gilligan’s lyrics. We did all sorts of fun stuff and then we brought this wonderful band in to perform it. We recorded it and then went out to the desert to shoot the music video, which was really fun. It came out really great. It was one of those What the Fuck moments in Breaking Bad. You open up this episode and there you’re watching this crazy “Narcocorrido” video, which is kind of exciting. That’s another one. Different films have really good moments. It’s hard to say or choose just one.
R&G: How about your favorite supervisors?
TG: We have a very warm camaraderie between each other and I think in general it’s one of the very few industries where there’s not a sense of cut-throatness between professionals, so I don’t like to play favorites. I think we’re all working as well as we can in a very difficult business, and my personal feeling is that there’s no need for us to create favorites and non-favorites. I think it’s a hard enough job on its own without having people create a hierarchy of who’s supposedly good and not good. Every project’s different and because the job itself has such a weird mix of creative needs, business needs, and political needs, you can’t really tell what great music supervision is. It’s a very invisible art in a lot of ways.
R&G: What’s your favorite soundtrack of all time.
TG: Again, it’s so hard to choose. There are tons. It changes. This week, I was obsessing over the soundtrack that Jack Nitzsche did for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s just a beautiful, wonderful score, and it’s a gorgeous film, and it was so nice to rehear it. I’ve been listening to some of the old scores by Roy Budd, who did Get Carter. There are great compilations. There are so many. I’d be hard pressed to come up with just one. I’d have to really think about that.
R&G: Tell me about the bands you’re listening to these days.
TG: Oh God. They’re all over the map. I’ll look at my iTunes. I’m really liking the new Cee-Lo record. I think it’s really fun and interesting on sort of a pop tip. Just starting to get to know the new Four Tet record, which sounds interesting. I don’t have a full opinion about it yet. What else has been really good this year? There was a band last year that I was a huge fan of, and I’m excited to see what they do next. They’re called Timber Timbre and we put one of their songs into Breaking Bad, in a sequence where Walt tries to break into his own house, and that worked really wonderfully. I really like what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did on the soundtrack to the Social Network. I think it’s a very compelling and interesting score, and once again censure brought really great work out of unconventional artists doing score. Those are the ones that come to mind right now.
R&G: Going back to Breaking Bad. What type of music would Saul [Bob Odenkirk] listen to?
TG: Oh, Saul? Ha ha. What would Saul listen to? He’s a politician. He’s always navigating somebody else’s needs. He’s a very tacky guy, so we have all of these wonderful patriotic themes for him. That’s a good question: What would Saul listen to? I have a feeling that Saul would listen to something that would make him feel good. He’s a little bit like the consigliere in “The Godfather.” I think he would probably like to have a Frank Sinatra tune or Dean Martin songs – sort of those classics that have a little bit of bravado to them, a little bit of Sammy Davis Jr., maybe. Big, old school, good time jazz standards. That’s my guess for Saul. I think Saul is one of those guys who doesn’t really have taste; he uses music to manipulate the people around him and the circumstances he finds himself in. I don’t know if he would actually listen to anything on his own.
R&G: Where do you see the music supervision business going in the next five to ten years?
TG: There are a few trends going on. Some are very positive. Some, I think, are a bit negative. Desperate financial circumstances for most music supervisors have been exacerbated by how the studios are treating supervisors in shrinking the budgets to the point of being negligible. A lot of supervisors are beginning to represent catalogs themselves and create their own licensing entities, which I personally think is a conflict of interest and is a really unfortunate development. It means that you can’t really trust that your supervisor is delivering you music that’s really great. It’s delivering music that they could potentially make some money from. I think that’s an unfortunate trend that’s happening and I hope that it comes to an end, but the studios have exacerbated that themselves: They are now purchasing entire libraries and very much putting pressure on supervisors to license from those libraries. There’s really a conflict of interest problem in the entire industry, and the studios are really the ones who I think have in many ways pushed that and created a circumstance where I think the ethical values of the job have been really compromised. I think supervisors are trying their best to survive, so I don’t really blame people for doing it, but I do think that you can’t be a virgin twice. On a more positive side, I think that supervisors are less and less the shills, as it were, of record labels, trying to push products out at people. About ten years ago, if a record label were on board to put a soundtrack out, they would really be putting a lot of pressure on the supervisor to use music from that label, and the supervisor would then put the pressure on the directors to greenlight those songs. I think that’s happening less and less and I think that people are getting more innovative with music. I personally feel like my projects are creatively loose and I have a blessed amount of authority in being able to throw weird ideas out and see how they get saluted. I think that’s happening more and more. There’s definitely a more brave creative energy happening in supervision right now. A lot of that is because I think directors are getting more brave and studios are getting more brave. At the same time, the budgets are getting smaller; in a way sometimes having a lower budget can give you interesting creative avenues, because you can’t afford that Bob Dylan song. Having less money to work with is a great difficulty and a great strain on one level, and on another level it forces people to be a little bit more creative, so it has positive and negative repercussions.
***Thomas has a side project, the Arbiters, a loose collective of artists creating mash-up remixes. The Arbiters recently created and produced a legal mash-up album. You can download it for free here.