Reply To: Ask a Music Supervisor

Home Forums Workshop Demos & Critiques Ask a Music Supervisor Reply To: Ask a Music Supervisor

Jesse Harlin

All great questions, Kole. I’ll go one by one and try and answer them each for you.

“1) In that first 30s to 1 minute track, is there something you immediately listen for to help tell you, “Yes this guy/gal could fit the bill.” Perhaps the production, orchestration, unique textures, melody, etc. Maybe even a “checklist” of prerequisites?”

Yes. Absolutely. It’s not necessarily a list that I ever sat down and said “Now how should I judge these demos?” But, after listening to tons of demos while also being a composer who is always trying to better my own work, here are the things that have just become a mental checklist for me. First and foremost: production. Am I listening to a track that sounds like a professional product? Could I take this track and drop it into a game if need be? I wouldn’t ever, but the idea that their work is product ready is important. I’m not looking for a diamond I can polish. I’m looking for someone I can depend on out of the gate. Secondly, strength of melody writing. I strongly believe that music for media lives and dies by the strength of the themes attached to it. So, if a demo has AAA quality sounding production and a great sense of catchy, hummable, evocative, and memorable melodies, I will consider that composer seriously.

“2) Is there a specific order or “flow” you like demo reels to have? Ex: Upbeat/Fast Tracks first, Slow/intimate in the Middle, End with medium tempo”

No, though I mentioned this earlier: the only thing I would recommend is that you start your demo with a piece that establishes the volume level of the rest of your demo. You don’t ever want to have someone reaching to turn up or turn down your demo while listening to it.

“3) If almost no information is given about the project and Composers are just supposed to send in their Reels, do you find yourself pleasantly surprised (and thus hold them at an advantage over the other applicants) at the people who take the time/effort to research the potential project & then create a new reel based off that? Or do you just listen for quality (perhaps the items mentioned in #1 above) across the board?”

I always care when someone shows initiative and does their homework about something. I’d recommend trying to find out as much as you can because demos should almost always be what are called targeted demos. You don’t want to send material over to someone that isn’t applicable to what they do. I can’t tell you how many hip hop demos I had sent to me over at LucasArts – the world of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I just NEVER understood what they were thinking. There was never any chance that I’d need to license Dirty South tracks for Star Wars. So, I didn’t listen to them. Music Supervisors don’t have time to just listen to music for fun during work, so they won’t just sit down and listen to whatever you send them. They know what they’re looking for and will listen for that. So target your demo as best as you can in order to not have Music Supervisors just skipping inapplicable tracks.

“4) In an effort to understand the importance of applying to a listing immediately/quickly… Let’s say you get tons of Composer reel submissions for a project; approximately how many do you actually listen to before making your decision?”

Most, if not all, but that was usually because I was soliciting demos from people. I frequently would receive unsolicited demos and, if I wasn’t actively looking for a composer, they just went into a “listen to these later” stack on my desk and would pile up unlistened to. When I needed to find a composer, I’d talk to people I knew I could trust first, but then I’d also look at that stack and look at the websites of composers that people had recommended to me.

“5) If the submissions are done by e-mail, what dictates which e-mails you open & listen to? Do you just go in order of when they were sent or do you look for unique (but professional) subject lines?”

Again, I listened to most of what I was sent. But many companies have very specific rules about unsolicited demos. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to listen to a demo at LucasArts unless the person submitting it had signed a demo submission form. In reality, this almost never happened. I did, however, routinely use this as an excuse to not accept demos from people at GDC. New composers always wanted to hand me discs and if I didn’t feel like the conversation we’d had was going well or they didn’t seem professional or like they didn’t have enough experience, I’d trot out the “Oh, I’m so sorry. Lucasfilm doesn’t allow unsolicited demos and I’m not even allowed to take the disc from you.” Sometimes it might have even been as simple as I didn’t have anywhere to carry the disc and didn’t feel like walking around GDC all day with someone’s demo in my hand. So, if you hear that from someone, take them at face value because it’s probably true, but also know that there’s probably another reason they’re not taking your demo. Don’t take it personally, though. All of this is just business. The long and short of it, though, was that if I really wanted to hear someone’s demo, I found a way to listen to it.

“6) What is the best way to follow-up with a Music Supervisor to see if they’ve listened to your reel yet or if they’ve already made a decision? How frequent is too frequent (aka feels like spam)?”

Best way for me was via email. I don’t know what it is, but composers seem to really like to talk on the phone. Maybe’s it how much time they spend by themselves in their studios, but when you get a composer on the phone, a quick call can usually be a half an hour. So, following up about a demo is best over email. And how frequent is too frequent? Personally, any more than every two weeks if it’s for a project that you know exists and is actively being sourced. If it’s just randomly “Hey, have any work available?” type of emails? That’s an interesting question and one I’ve recently had a discussion about with a colleague of mine. My gut says every 3-4 months. His said every 6 months. His wife, who is in a similar sort of hiring role as a Music Supervisor, said every month. So, opinions may vary and it may simply be different from Music Supervisor to Music Supervisor. But I’d say once a month for cold calls as the most frequent, and even to me that seems like it would quickly become spam.

“7) If there are two main candidates, one with more experience than the other, but you think the one with less experience can nail the style, does anyone else above you ever get involved to overturn your decision? Or are the Music Supervisors/Audio Directors THE final word on hiring a Composer?”

Depends on the team, the project, the company, etc. At LucasArts, rarely did the decision ever go outside of me. Sometimes, though, there are projects that aren’t in your control like others are. Take Kinect Star Wars, for instance. It was a joint publishing situation between LucasArts and Microsoft, so I was originally brought in only as a Star Wars consultant. Hiring and staffing decisions were actually up to Microsoft. Then there was once a game where I actually got removed off of the project as its composer because of creative differences between me and the dev team, a decision made by our then VP of development. Those kinds of things were rare, but most of the time it was my call who wrote what score.

Then you have situations like SCEA and their music crew where their music guys are there to help aid in the process of finding a composer, but if the dev team comes to them and says “We really want to use this guy!” then the Music Supervisors there work with the dev team to make them happy. Or such is my understanding and I might have it wrong, but it’s something like that (Sorry, Sony guys, if I got that wrong). The big take away here is that companies are different from each other and handle things in a vast number of ways. I think as a general rule of thumb, though, the smaller the organization and the size of a company’s audio department, the more likely it is that the decision rests with a single person.

So, there you go. Happy to answer any other questions these answers might bring up. Great questions, Kole.