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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

Around 90 programs are on this year’s inaugural nomination ballot; in order to make the cut, shows were asked to upload a PDF of the complete cue sheets for the episode or special submitted, and clearly list all music cues with notes to indicate the specific contribution made to each cue.

It sounds like jumping through hoops, but perhaps that’s a reminder that a lot of the industry still doesn’t understand what music supervisors do.

“I think it’s just viewed as such an easy process,” Phillips said. “We get to pick the cool song that works with this picture. It’s so much more involved. And I do think there’s a certain art to it. It’s perhaps 2% of our job but every once in a while when you pick that one song that works with the picture there is magic that happens.”

One group that Phillips couldn’t convince to appear on “Snowfall” was The Eurythmics, who turned down the show’s request to use “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” in a pivotal scene.

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“We had this whole sequence with the Eurythmics,” Andron said. “It was epic, it was so good and they wouldn’t give it to us! So I said, ‘I’m going to write Annie Lennox a letter.’ I dug deep and I wrote it.”

Period shows like “Snowfall” are particularly challenging for music supervisors, as those songs don’t come cheap. “Snowfall” had 150 songs in 10 episodes – and Andron said the show spent between $350,000 and $400,000 just in its first episode.

“It’s a massive challenge,” Andron said. “You really want to try to help you set a time period. And music is a big part of the landscape of the show and the world we created.”

SNOWFALL "Pilot" Season 1, Episode 1 (Series Premiere, Airs Wednesday, July 5, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Malcolm Mays as Kevin, Damson Idris as Franklin, Isaiah John as Leon


Mark Davis/FX

Simien said he and his music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes, worked to stretch their dollars as far as they could. “It’s a constant struggle to find a balance between what’s artistically right and what sounds great… and what we can afford.”

Still, music clearance is a learning process for producers. Simien didn’t get his R. Kelly joke, but he did write a reference to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” into a script. It stuck – but at a cost.

“There’s a line in the first episode where someone says ‘ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa,’ and it cost $5000,” Simien said. “I thought that was kind of pricey. I had no idea that was a thing you could charge for!”

Said Richardson: “The writers never know. I’ll read a script and go, ‘That’s a $40,000 joke!'”

But for shows like “Dear White People,” Simien said music “is part of the soul of it. It’s like somewhere in the DNA… [Our music supervisor] is just one of those people who will just dig stuff up out of nowhere that no one has ever heard of and is the coolest person ever. I mean she’s constantly looking for the next Leon Bridges or the next Frank Ocean or the next Solange Knowles because we can’t afford those actual people!”

Sometimes, though, music on shows can also help out independent musicians who could really use the money. Phillips said she found an artist in Zambia who used his fee in order to buy a plot of land and he was able to double his farm. And Richardson said a musician in Hawaii she paid $5,000 for a track “was able to move his dad out of this horrible situation into an apartment. Stuff like that is pretty cool.”

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