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Meet the music supervisors who give ‘Fargo,’ ‘Legion’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ their signature sound

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Music supervisors Maggie Phillips and Thomas Golubic.
Michelle Lanz/KPCC
Music supervisors Maggie Phillips and Thomas Golubic.

From the outside looking in, the job of a music supervisor seems really glamorous and fun, but it's actually one of the most misunderstood jobs in entertainment.

From the outside looking in, the job of a music supervisor seems really glamorous and fun. You get to collaborate with directors, producers and composers to choose songs that are pivotal in movies and TV shows.

But it's actually one of the most misunderstood job in the entertainment industry. 

"Because it says 'music by, in the credits and then the composer's name, I know that a lot of people ask the composer, How did you find that song? Why did you select it?" says music supervisor Maggie Phillips. "I'd say, outside the industry, not many people know what a music supervisor is or [that] we even exist, and what we actually do."

There's a lot more that goes on behind the scenes: managing expectations, building and maintaining relationships with musicians, publishers and producers, developing an encyclopedic mind for music, legal knowledge, etc. 

And even though music in film and TV has been a vital part of the entertainment ecosystem for years, one could argue that music’s place within the story is more important than ever. It can make or break a scene and even has the ability to launch a new artist’s career.

In fact this year — for the very first time — the TV Academy will recognize music supervision at the Emmy Awards.

Two people who may have Emmy nominations in their future are Phillips (mentioned above) and Thomas Golubic. She's the music supervisor for “Fargo” and “Legion.” He worked on “Breaking Bad” and is currently on "Better Call Saul.” He was also part of the campaign to get the TV Academy to create the music supervisor’s category.

When the pair recently stopped by The Frame, Golubic started by talking about what this new Emmy category means to the art of music supervision.

Thomas Golubic: We, as a music supervisor community, have for a long time been struggling for recognition and salary. And it's a job that has become increasingly more important in film and television production. Its a job which has been also increasingly competitive, and at the same time there hasn't been any Emmy acknowledgment of what we do. We will get main title credit in certain films, single card credit on occasion on a television series, but it's a struggle every time to have that. Even though our contribution may be as much as the costume designer or the cinematographer in some respects, depending on the job. Sometimes, music supervisors are doing more than the composer in a sense, or they're the head of the music department so they're bringing all the elements together. I think all of those different reasons were key to being able to go to the TV academy and petition to become members, because we weren't allowed to vote, we were not allowed to be Academy members. We were able to have that accomplished recently and then the next stage was being able to present a case for having an Emmy for music supervision, which was luckily successful and we're very excited about it. 

Interview Highlights:

On the purpose of a music supervisor in TV and film:

TG: We're visual storytellers ... who use music as our storytelling tool, as opposed to previous conceptions that we were an arm of the music industry and we were here to place music for the sake of the income of the artist. We don't really do that, our job is to think like filmmakers and present ideas to help propel the story in a compelling way. 

Maggie Phillips: And to think like different filmmakers for each project. We have a different aesthetic and a different world that we're choosing music for. 

On their complicated relationship with music for pleasure:

MP: I can't listen to a song now without thinking about where I could use it, how much it would cost, has it been used before. I have to listen to classical, and now even that's become a loaded listening situation. I listen to books-on-tape now for pleasure. Every once in a while I'll find myself enjoying an album and forgetting about what's involved. 

Golubic on working with "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan to place "Crystal Blue Persuasion" on an episode: 

It's a typical "Breaking Bad" montage where everything is very carefully choreographed. Every show is carefully planned, every edit is gently massaged. What's wonderful about that project is we do take music very seriously and you get a chance to really build a sequence out of one song, knowing ahead of time that this is how we're going to build this and then allowing every element really fall into place. 

Phillips on how she ended up collaborating with Noah Hawley on "Fargo" and "Legion":

We started on "Fargo" season two, and I went in as a fan of the show, because season one was brilliant. I was nervous to be working with Noah. He's such a genius and knows what he wants and how he wants it. We spoke early enough in the process about what he wanted and what he envisioned for this season to give me time to really investigate and research the different paths that we were going to move forward with for season two. So I had time to really dig deep and bring to Noah probably way too much music, many many playlists from which we got to pick throughout the season. I started to learn how he thought, what he wants, what he likes, how he likes to use music. And he started trusting me with understanding what he wants. You start a new relationship and it takes a little while to develop that trust for each other. Now, with season three of "Fargo" and "Legion," there's a quick translation process. I can watch something and kind of know what I'm going to have to be listening for. 

On using Bobby Womak's version of California Dreamin on "Fargo"

MP: I think what's beautiful about songs like that, "California Dreaming" is one of my all time favorites and is such a special song. The melody is so beautiful and there are so many different versions, there's Bobby Womack that we used, there's an Eddy Hazel, there's a Lee Moses that I'm actually using in another one of my shows and there's The Mamas and the Papas. What we can do is put a song that is accessible and everyone knows it, but we put it in in a different way with a different sound. It's a way to engage the viewers and make them feel like part of the experience, but also it's a new experience. We used that in the last episode, episode 10 of "Fargo" season 2, and it was for the character played by Kirsten Dunst, Peggy, who for the entire season was dreaming of Hollywood. 

TG: That song is such a powerful song, it's like Summertime. It's one of those songs that has so many variations. The melody is so compelling, it's such a beautiful dance between joy and sadness, it's a question of where you lean. When you hear somebody find a really unique approach to a song, it can be a really compelling way of recontextualizing that song, allowing the lyrics which has a certain familiarity coming from it and a certain association coming with it, being shifted a little bit because of the interpretation; either what language it's being done in or instrumentation's being used or how it's engineered or how lush the strings might be. One of the nice things we have is we have so many different options to play with and when you have really beautiful classic songs, sometimes the most exciting solution is one that may not be that familiar to the audience.

On the difference between music supervising "Fargo" and "Legion":

MP: Legion is a totally different world than Fargo. With Legion we started with no constraint, and in a way that was more challenging because there weren't any parameters. Legion is an extremely complicated show, and I think it takes a lot of patience and time, we ask a lot of the viewer when they're watching that show, so we used music for an extended period of time, it wasn't like the typical 20 or 30 seconds. In a few instances we used the entire song and it gave the viewer a chance to sit back and relax and process what they've experienced and then get back into the show. 

On whether there are songs on "Legion" that you'll probably never hear on any other TV show ever again:

MP: We used a Jane's Addiction song in the beginning in the first episode, I don't hear a lot of Jane's Addiction on TV. I don't know about a song that you would never hear on television again. With Legion we used a lot of British Invasion songs. Songs that were expensive, so you're not going hear on TV very often. I would say that happens more in Fargo. Like in Fargo season 3, in episode 3 we used some Tuvan throat singing, I don't think you're going to hear that on TV anytime soon.

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