Amanda Krieg Thomas
Amanda Krieg Thomas is the whip-smart wonder woman behind a broad diversity of television favorites, such as American Crime Story, Claws, American Horror Story, Feud: Bette and Joan, 9-1-1, and many more. After completing her collegiate program at Northwestern, Amanda relocated west to pursue screenwriting only to stumble upon the magical profession of music supervision. Working her way up the ranks, she was mentored by other high-powered female figures in the field, Tracy McKnight, and Julia Michels, eventually leading her to a coveted position at Neophonic Music & Media. In our far-ranging discussion, Amanda prepares for the grand reveal of The Americans bittersweet final season and the completion of her long-anticipated book.
I read that you attended Northwestern University and then relocated to Los Angeles to work as an assistant to a music attorney at Lionsgate. Several jobs later, you entered the field of music supervision. Can you tell us about your initial attraction to the entertainment industry and shed some light on your journey to eventually pursue a career in music supervision?
I think everybody has a similar story in the sense that we all found our way to music supervision in starkly different ways. At Northwestern, I was a theater major and in the Creative Writing for the Media program. That included playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing, which motivated me to consider Los Angeles. Prior to my senior year, I interned in L.A. at Lionsgate in the Film Acquisitions department. Until that point, I had thought film producers were basically bankers. It was eye-opening to see that the role was so much more; the combination of business and creative really drew me. So, I packed my car and drove across the country with my best friend. I had no job lined up, nothing at all. When I arrived, I canvassed the town, which mostly involved sending dozens of cold emails to Northwestern alumni. I wanted something in development, production, acquisitions, writing, really anything relating to that field.
Through my internship relationships, I ended up getting a job as a paid intern at Lionsgate, moving around from department to department wherever help was needed. Every day, I would pay attention to the internal jobs and see what was opening up in the company. I could mount a musical theater production, but I knew nothing about making movies. I knew I needed to learn about the process and get settled somewhere. When I saw a job open up to assist the company’s music attorney, I said to myself, “Well, music is really important to movies and there must be some sort of legal transaction to get a song in a film. If I can learn about this, then maybe I can pivot into a different role from there.”
I applied and God bless Lenny Wohl for taking a chance on me. I was a 22-year-old with no legal or entertainment industry experience and he gave me the opportunity to work on his desk. I tried to absorb everything I could. I was reading composer and music supervisor contracts. At the time, we were licensing out tracks from the Lionsgate publishing catalog, so I was exposed to the clearance process too. I even took a UCLA Extension class in publishing to give me even more insight. Ultimately, I still planned to leave music and transition into a producer role for film or television, and after a year, it started to feel like time. I interviewed for and was offered another job at the company. Before I accepted it though, I was approached by Tracy McKnight, who had recently joined the team as Head of Film Music. She asked if I would be interested in being her assistant. I’m a completionist by nature, so I decided to stay and learn more about the creative side of this music thing. I worked with Tracy for a year and a half and then under Russell Ziecker in the TV department.
A few months into working for Tracy, I vividly remember being in her office, working on a search for a film. She stopped and said, “The director keeps throwing out funny ideas, but we have to think about this in the context of the scene. What would the character really be listening to?” That was a lightbulb moment for me. Friends of mine could listen to a song and immediately know it would be a hit. That terrified me. I was never a music nerd in that way. At that moment, I realized being a music supervisor is not necessarily knowing what’s cool or what’s going to be on the radio - it’s knowing how to tell a story with music. The concept of storytelling resonated with me from my writing background. And I’ve always loved storytelling with music in the medium of musical theater. From that point on, I knew I wanted to become a music supervisor.
After three years at Lionsgate, I took a job at Reveille (now Endemol Shine North America), which focused on reality television. I really wanted to get my hands dirty and learn parts of the job that can be missed at a big studio. There were only three people on the music team - myself, Daryl Berg, and Alec Sharpe. I dove in and started working on shows like The Biggest Loser and MasterChef.
I learned a ton, but a year later, a friend who worked at Format approached me and said "I don't know if you are looking for a new gig but Julia Michels is looking for support. Would you be interested?" Since one of the main ways to learn to be an independent music supervisor is to be apprenticed under one, I knew I had to go for it. I took a big leap and left a comfortable corporate gig to work for Julia in her home office.
During your time at Format Entertainment, you worked as a music coordinator on popular films, such as Pitch Perfect, The Other Woman, Beyond The Lights, and more. What did you learn from the transition from working on hit reality television shows at Reveille to films with high budget soundtracks?
Both jobs involved many spreadsheets, song research, and clearances. I was generally facilitating the process in whatever way I could. Once I made the transition to studio films, I was quickly exposed to a whole different ballgame.
For one, films tend to move much slower than television (both scripted and unscripted). You could be working on the same 10 - 20 song spots for over a year or longer! In my personal experience, in unscripted television, I rarely got the chance spend any time really crafting a music moment or trying different songs in a scene. That changed once I started at Format. I saw how a song could be great on its own but not work at all when paired with the visuals. That experience was also my first time not being on the corporate side. I saw how a music supervisor functioned as part of a production team, interacting with picture editors, music editors, composers, and directors...as well as the all-important relationship between a music supervisor and the studio. While no project is devoid of its unique politics, when you’re dealing with million dollar budgets the stakes are definitely heightened.
All of that said, Julia was not only a role model as a music supervisor but as a female business owner, a mother, and a partner. It was a formative experience in many ways.
You are presently working at Neophonic Music and Media Team. In recent years, you have worked very closely with PJ Bloom, music supervisor turned Senior VP of Film & Television Music and Soundtracks at Warner Bros, whom you cite as a mentor. What makes you such a great team? What are the main similarities and differences between the two of you?
Two weeks after my relationship with Format ended, a friend let me know about a job at Neophonic. The timing really was crazy. I met with Evyen Klean and PJ Bloom. Neophonic is a very collaborative environment, and the role was as to work with the entire team - Evyen, PJ and music supervisors, Jennifer Reeve and Janet Lopez. At the time, PJ needed the most direct support. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to another role like that, but they sold me. I couldn’t pass up another opportunity to learn from such icons in the field. The rest is history.
It’s hard to say exactly what makes me and PJ work so well together. I’ve had great relationships and learned valuable lessons from every person I've worked with. While the field and job titles are the same, everyone in our business operates differently and has their own approach. There isn’t really one “right” way and I’ve been able to forge my own style out of everything I’ve learned.
One of the many things I’ve taken from PJ is to trust myself and make decisions with confidence. If something isn’t connecting or doesn’t work, it’s ok - you move on to the next. PJ’s been doing this job for years, and in addition to being knowledgeable, he's extremely intuitive. Conversely, I’m a double and triple checker of every tiny detail. I embrace that about myself but I also know it can paralyze me. So, between PJ confidently barreling forward and my cautiousness, we've found a very complementary middle ground partnership.
As far as similarities, our communication styles, both on a personal and professional level, synched up quickly. We spoke the same language. We have a similar sense of humor and are both clear and direct. It also helped that I came into the company with seven years of experience under my belt. Most of the team were hired as assistants and worked their way up to being the badass music supervisors they are now. I was actually the first Neophonic team member to come in with existing Music Supervisor experience, so there was an expectation (and trust) that I knew what I was doing. I settled quickly into the team and the way Neophonic approaches music supervision - and it paid off!
Almost a year ago, PJ moved on to run the Film & TV and Soundtrack Department at Warner Bros. Records. During the transition, he was my biggest champion. PJ vouched for me with his longtime producer and director relationships and suggested I take the lead going forward on all the projects we worked on together. It was an amazingly seamless transition and he continues to be a huge supporter and mentor, and now, a good friend.
Who are the main musical artists you listened to during your formative years? What music tastes have you developed most recently on the job?
My formative years were dominated by pop music, show tunes, and soundtracks...though I didn’t really realize their influence on me until later on. A few years after moving to L.A. I was visiting my home in Connecticut and started looking closer at my CD collection. I realized that more than half of what I listened to were soundtracks. Now & Then, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Empire Records were all super influential for me. Musical theater has also always been a great love of mine. The Last Five Years, Parade, Aida...those soundtracks really stuck with me as well. While I’m not as current with the scene as I once was, I still have friends working in theater in New York or Chicago so I try to keep up to date at least via social media.
Now, I try to be aware of as wide a spectrum of music as possible. I work on many shows set in specific time periods, such as Pose, The Americans, and American Crime Story or that use music from all over the map like Claws, so I’m constantly going down rabbit holes of different times, locations, and genres. Everything from 1970's Chilean music to late 1980's house music or early 1980's dark wave. The research is half the fun. Conversely, shows like Claws, 9-1-1, and the forthcoming series, Reverie on NBC use a good amount of contemporary music, so I’m always keeping my ear out for new music that fits the sound of those. More often than not, my music tastes wind up being shaped by whatever shows I’m listening for at the moment. I guess maybe I’m a “method" music supervisor?
American Crime Story: Versace focuses on the tragic assassination of the iconic Italian fashion designer, Gianni Versace. The show features a scintillating blend of ornate classical music, late 80's/early 90's nightclub favorites by Lisa Stansfield and La Bouche, and a dash of jazz. What was the inspiration behind these selections and was it intentional for the music to play such a dominant and telling role in the storytelling?
Ryan Murphy is a huge music fan so music is important to the storytelling in all of his shows. The overall sound of the show is truly his vision and from there, all of us - producers, editors, etc. - collaborate to serve that. In the case of Versace, there were two key tenets that guided the process.
First, on all of the period set shows, authenticity is extremely important. If a scene is set in Fall 1992, we take care not to use songs released after that point. For The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it was very focused on events within a few year span. This season, we are jumping around in time. We travel to 1987 and 1990, 1997 and 1992 (and some years in between). To some degree, we had to show that in the song selections.
Equally, if not more importantly, this season is much more of a “deep dive” into character than the O.J. season. Ryan, along with executive producer, Alexis Martin Woodall sought to approach the music through the lens of Andrew Cunanan, the killer, and his experience of life. Where would go and what music would he be exposed to? What would have been listening to as a child? We thought about what was playing in clubs at that time. We wanted to be accurate as to what was popular back then and put people in the shoes of a younger gay man in California. The fact that most of the songs are highly recognizable also provides a point of connection with the character - a position you may not want to find yourself in with a serial killer. The buoyant “Easy Lover” by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey plays as Andrew dances while a wealthy older man is in bed nearly suffocating.
In a cameo, Aimee Mann performs “Drive” by The Cars. It was for a moment where David Madson, who we know gets murdered shortly thereafter, decides not to escape in order to comfort a crying Andrew. Even the songs in the clubs like “Be My Lover” by La Bouche or “A Little Bit of Ecstasy” by Jocelyn Enriquez were selected with Andrew’s psyche in mind. Every moment of, “Oh, I love that song!” is immediately followed by, “Oh man, am I relating to this guy?” That’s one of the main questions the show asks: What role did we as a society play in allowing this bright young man with so much potential to murder an icon?
The sixth and final season of The Americans is just around the corner. The show has been described as one of the very best on television. Set in the time of the Reagan administration, the sound of the show combines 80's pop songs with a very tense, Russian tinged score by Nathan Barr. What are your feelings about this fantastic run coming to an end? Can you tell us about what to expect musically this coming season?
It has been a great run and I’m so fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to work on it. It’s truly special. The creators, Joe Fields and Joe Weisberg are passionate and empowering. They demand excellence but in the most supportive way. That’s what makes the show brilliant.
Since the beginning, everyone on the team has been committed to making the best show possible. While there is a bit of an air of “Wow this is the end,” the mission has always been to find the best song for the best moment and that hasn’t changed for season 6. We’re all working as meticulously as ever to make this a memorable finale, plus PJ and I are still collaborating on the last season, so it really feels the same!
I can’t give anything away about the music because it’ll expose too much of what’s to come. You can definitely expect that we will, as they say, “leave it all on the field.” The journey is ending after all.
The soundtrack of Claws incorporates a lot of fresh hip hop, modern urban pop, and songs with a bit of Latin flair to communicate the feeling of Florida. Can you tell us about a bit more about the discussions that ultimately dictated the sound of the show?
That tone was established by PJ in the pilot. I became involved after the show was picked up. From episode 2 onward, we were partners. The producers, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Janine Sherman Barrois, and Eliot Laurence, wanted a very stylized, vibrant, and unique feeling to come through the music. A sound unlike what you typically hear on TV or expect from an “urban” show. When you have characters that are so outrageous, you have to follow suit musically. It’s always a challenge to hit the right note, but so fun getting there. How out there can we get while still staying in the world of the show? Opera, country, soul, tango, doo-wop...it’s all on the table. Last season, we had a murder intercut with a choreographed dance sequence set to “Lady Marmalade” by Patti Labelle. I can’t wait for people to see what we have in store for season 2.
From the start of your career in music supervision until now, what has been your most challenging and game-changing experience working on a film or television show?
There are two experiences that really stand out. The first was right after I left working for Julia. I supervised a movie for American Girl. The brand was very dear to my heart because I had the dolls when I was a kid. These days, they debut a new “Girl of the Year” doll every year. There is a backstory, merchandise, a movie, and everything. I had mental support from the folks at Format, but it was my first time going it alone on a movie where there was an actual budget, lawyers, a real production company, etc. It wasn’t an easy one! I had to get an original song created in a span of a week for a big dance sequence. I had to find songs that were French but performed in English that couldn't be about love for a band to perform on camera. And all on a budget. It was the first time I was thrown into dealing with those types of challenges without someone working above me. I think it turned out great. The original song was perfect. It was written and performed by Toby Lightman, who is amazing. I look back on that proudly because though it was so hard at the time, the result was amazing.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story was also a game changer for me. The season was starting as PJ was transitioning into Warner Bros. Records and right off the bat, there were on camera performances. The Aimee Mann appearance mentioned earlier in episode four. Then there was an on-camera polka band in episode five and of course, tons of needle drops in all the episodes. In an apprenticeship industry, there really comes a time to spread your wings. I remember P.J. telling me, “This is what needs to happen. This is your time to level up.” He was 100% right.
In your opinion, when being pitched, what impresses a music supervisor time and time again?
Research always impresses. I get so many emails that say, “I see you are working on these show X, Y, and Z. I think this would be great for all of them!” and then they'll proceed to list shows that are totally disparate in terms of the sound. “Do you mean American Crime Story or 9-1-1 or Reverie? What am I listening to this for?”. I often get “dark” music sent for The Americans. It would not take long to find out that The Americans is set in a specific time period and we only use music from that time period in the show.
Personally, I want to know that the person cares enough to learn about the work we are doing before reaching out. If you demonstrate you did the research and are still sending the song, I’ll be much more likely to listen. Whenever I get emails like the above, I always want to write back, “You don’t have time for this! You should be focusing on other people for a greater chance of success.” You’re not going to get anywhere by blasting people half-assed boilerplate e-mails, listing a music supervisor’s IMDB credits. Tunefind makes it so easy to figure out what types of music specific shows are using. It’s a great service for so many reasons. If you really take the time to dig in and figure out what shows would be a good home for your songs, your success rate will be more likely to increase.
We also want to work with people who are polite and accommodating. Who doesn’t? For lack of a better phrase, people who “get it”. If you are cool, pitch relevant material, and handle your business professionally and in a timely way, we will come back to you. Yes, the music has to be great, but that’s really what we’re looking for from any new contacts. The second you send a follow up email to the effect of “I want to make sure you saw this” or “Just checking in to see what you think” or “I noticed you didn’t download this”, you’ve proven you don’t understand or care about the sheer volume of emails we’re dealing with on a daily basis. Dozens of music submissions every single day. I personally don’t download everything because I know it will get swallowed up in my Downloads folder. Instead, I save every email. Regardless of the system, in general, music supervisors are organized people. We do keep track of what’s sent to us and if we have an opportunity for you, we will reach out.
What are the most valuable relationships for a music supervisor to have for the purposes of music discovery?
All of them! Honestly, you never know what you’re going to need. Whenever I get an email from someone pitching a really unique catalog, my ears instantly perk up. Companies with “indie rock” number in the hundreds, but Tuvan throat singing is very specific. At this point, I’ve developed relationships with tiny companies who represent three artists to major labels who represent 30 and everything in between, so there is a broad spectrum of music sent my way every day. I get so much music that I never need to go further than my own inbox to encounter new music. It’s impossible to ever be caught up! Because of that, I actually really depend on social media to help guide where to even start. Twitter is hugely helpful to get a sense of what bands people (bloggers, publicists, journalists, fans, etc.) are talking about.
When we interviewed Rob Lowry, he informed us that you were writing a book on the subject of music supervision. Can you tell us more about your intentions for this project?
Yes! The book has been in progress for several years and I’m writing it with the help of my former colleague, Alec Sharpe. The concept is a very, very, very basic book that gives people tips and strategies to approach music supervisors. I hesitate to call it a book on pitching music because I have never worked in sales myself and that’s a whole separate expertise. As music supervisors, we are asked the same questions over and over again on panels, interviews, e-mails, etc. “How do I get you my music? How do you like your submissions delivered? How do I get on your search list? What makes you respond to an email” etc. Essentially, the book sets out to provide answers to those questions. It’s so close to being done and hopefully, will be out this year. Summer is the goal, but that’s fast approaching!
What are your passions and interests outside of music supervision? Since you mentioned being a foodie, where are your top 3 favorite places in Los Angeles to dine?
One of my main extracurricular focuses is trying to finish the book I mentioned. Occasionally, I still try to make time for writing my blog, Tadpole Audio, which is a little outdated but has been running on and off for the last seven years. Right now, there are two or three posts in progress. I mostly try to decompress, so I have the energy to tackle music supervising! Fitness, yoga, and meditation are all important to me and I’m fortunate in that I have a partner who embraces those activities as well! My husband is a TV writer on the kids’ television show, Henry Danger. Over the past few months especially, I’ve been working so many hours that spending time with him and conscious self-care mostly occupy the rest of my time. We go hiking, to the movies, road trips, and a lot of trying new food places!
Los Angeles is such an amazing and sprawling food city, so it’s incredibly hard to pick three. We also have some amazing food in our own neighborhood of Silverlake, so we usually stay local when we dine out. Botanica Restaurant & Market, Kismet, and Kettle Black are three favorites.
Tune into the final season premiere of The Americans on FX at 10 pm tonight.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Amanda Krieg-Thomas.