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R. Kelly Refused to Let ‘Dear White People’ Make An ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ Joke, and Other Secrets of Music Supervision for TV

Music supervisors have finally been given their own Emmy category, and here's why recognizing their work is overdue.

"Dear White People"

“Dear White People”

Adam Rose/Netflix


Dear White People” creator Justin Simien has the perfect joke he’s dying to use on his Netflix series. But there’s just one problem: R. Kelly won’t let him.

“It was the best joke of the series,” Simien told IndieWire on a recent panel at the ATX Television Festival. “It was a play on the ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ song. Because there’s a character [on the show] that thinks he can fly. Guys, it was hilarious.”

The song, however, came with a hefty pricetag. But “on top of that, R. Kelly was like, ‘also, no,'” Simien said. He added, clearly joking, “It was the worst day of my life!”

Clearing music for TV and music may be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating aspects of production. Music supervisors have to balance the desire of showrunners who might have an idea for a song – even if the track might not actually fit – with songwriters who may turn the show down. Or perhaps the copyright holder can’t be found. And even if all of that is cleared, a song may be too expensive for the production.

READ MORE: TV Academy Adds Music Supervisor, Reality Casting Emmy Categories; Restructures Interactive Awards

“It’s not just picking music, it’s the clearance process, it’s all the paperwork,” said Liza Richardson, who has served as a music supervisor on shows such as “Friday Night Lights,” “The Leftovers” and “Hawaii Five-0.” “It’s dealing with the budget. It’s all of the personalities.”

Added Maggie Phillips, whose credits include “Fargo,” “Legion” and FX’s upcoming “Snowfall”: “It’s studios, it’s managing expectations. Having to talk to a certain rights owner for an hour once a week so that they will give us their song for a certain price.”

LEGION -- "Chapter 6" – Season 1, Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, March 15, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Dan Stevens as David Haller, Aubrey Plaza as Lenny "Cornflakes" Busker. CR: Michelle Faye/FX

Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza, “Legion”

Michelle Faye/FX

Music supervision, in other words, is a craft. And that’s why it’s finally being honored with its own category at this year’s Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Series episodes and specials will compete in the brand new Outstanding Music Supervision category, which honors “exceptional creative contributions to a program through the use of music including the narrative impact of lyric-based songs, both original or pre-existing, the use of instrumental source music, and on-camera musical performances.”

It’s been a long time coming. Music supervisors, led by Guild of Music Supervisors president John Houlihan, have spent years lobbying the Television Academy to create the category. They were first admitted into the organization in 2015, which was the beginning step. Then last fall, the Guild pitched its case for an Emmy category to the TV Academy’s board of governors.

“The central argument was that music supervision is a creative endeavor that significantly contributes to Television storytelling but, up until that point, they were not eligible for any award,” said TV Academy music governor Michael Levine. “The criteria – which emphasize creative as opposed to administrative contributions – were shaped by input from music supervisors, other music peer group members, governors from other peer groups, awards committee members, and the experience of Television Academy staff.”

The recognition is also heartening for a group that has to juggle multiple shows and projects at once in order to make a living. “We’re not exclusive to shows and we don’t get paid the way exclusive people get paid,” Phillips noted. “We’re paid per episode. And there’s no union that represents music supervisors. The pay is a little low, so we have to do multiple projects. It’s hard. I love it though and it’s what I do.”

Up next: Sweet dreams aren’t made of this: The Eurythmics objects to having their song in a show about drugs.

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