Barry Cole is the bold, influential music supervisor and founder of Spot Music, who has contributed his talents to a broad diversity of elite films and television shows including The Chi, American Psycho, The New Edition Story, Super Troopers, Brown Sugar, The Mind of a Chef, and All The Pretty Horses. Throughout his far-ranging career in entertainment, Barry has executed numerous projects in the realms of media production, soundtrack A&R, and music publishing. In 2003, Barry and Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, were nominated for a "Best Compilation for Visual Media" award at the Grammys for their meticulous work on Marley, the authorized documentary of beloved music icon and social activist, Bob Marley. Barry's limitless knowledge of obscure music and insatiable curiosity for technological innovation position him as one of the most valuable, forward-thinking experts in the business. In our thought provoking conversation, Barry reveals how he cultivated a disciplined devotion to his craft and offers perspectives on the new music industry.
I understand you worked for the legendary concert promoter, Bill Graham and participated in DJ battles during your formative years, then attended Dartmouth College as a Film major with a minor in English. What career path were you initially interested in pursuing? How did you find yourself working as a music supervisor?
I grew up doing a lot of the things that Northern California kids do when you aren't old enough to do adult things. I grew up skateboarding, DJing, playing basketball and volleyball. The thing that always resonated with me was working with others to improve my skills, especially in team sports. When I was in grade school, a cousin from Chicago came to live with us while he attended Cal [U.C. Berkeley]. He exposed me to a lot of great music. I was in still grade school, so the things he was exposing me to were blowing my mind. He got me my broadcast license from KALX when I was 14 and a job at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley as a backstage production assistant. Bill Graham was programming and promoting the Greek and multiple venues around the Bay Area. Even as young as I was at the time, it was hard not to acknowledge and feel the weight of what Bill was able to do, bringing people together through music. It’s what I wanted to do. Every so often, I would see him backstage multitasking. I saw some incredible shows and soaked up all sorts of interesting information while running a lot of mindless errands. I remember getting to be a gofer for a New Edition show back in the day. It came full circle when I worked on the BET biopic for them decades later. I DJ’d parties on campus and worked at the radio station, WDCR as a DJ and Program Director.
When I graduated from Dartmouth, I was fortunate to get a job in the development department at 40 Acres and a Mule, Spike Lee's production company in Brooklyn. There was an alum of my college that was running the development department, so that was my start in film after school. I ended up reading a lot of scripts and learned how to do coverage. Spike also had me doing errands. I even ended up doing some poster design for him. When Spike started production on Crooklyn, he hired me in the Art Department as a P.A. I'd arrived from Dartmouth with a Mac Plus and computer skills that were advanced for the time. The computer language Basic was developed at Dartmouth and although I didn’t know it until after graduating, Dartmouth was a testing ground for the internet (email, messaging, file sharing etc.) When I went to school my freshman year, it was a requirement to buy a Mac Plus because each of the dorm rooms had a phone jack that you plugged your computer into. It sounds so normal now, but it was so foreign back then. Before you knew it, we're sending messages and emails to friends in other dorms, we’re playing networked games and we're going online and getting our course assignments, uploading and printing to a remote location on campus and/or sending files directly to professors.
By the time I got out of school, it still wasn't common to have your own computer and software to create graphics. Because of these skills, Spike put me in the art department for Crooklyn to work under Wynn Thomas and Chris Schriver, two longtime collaborators of his. I believe his intention was that I would take to art directing and production design, then go on to work with them. While it was exciting to consider, it just wasn’t the right fit. Meanwhile, I was spending my days at 40 Acres and a Mule, but at night, I was DJing to pay rent. I still had these two different lives that I hadn't really brought together and it wasn't until after working with Spike for a year and reached a point where I could stay on as an intern or I could go and find a job. I ended up taking an internship for a production company that was in pre-production on a film called New Jersey Drive, directed by Nick Gomez, which Spike executive produced.
As an intern, I was basically getting coffee and picking up laundry for the director and producers. One day, the director came in, he was frustrated because he was shooting a film about carjackers in Newark, New Jersey and he didn't have any music to shoot to. So, being a club and radio DJ, I was able to call up record labels and get new releases sent to the production office. When the producer saw that I'd gotten a big stack of music for free, the first thing he said was, "You should be the music supervisor.” For a moment, I was like, "That sounds awesome”, but I had no idea what that was. Through that film, he gave me the opportunity to help interview and hire the music supervisor under whom I would train to research and license music. Before the film was over, they asked if I would run the music department for their production company. Within five years time, I supervised 30 films for The Shooting Gallery and was able to see the pitfalls, see the areas that needed focus, and figure out how to work with producers and directors to achieve a mutual goal. I learned to work with a budget and a schedule and how to deliver great music at the same time.
What music gives you goosebumps or inspires a visceral reaction?
I call it “Soul Music”. It's any music that penetrates the soul. The DJ in me gets goosebumps when I find the perfect blend of two songs to make a great mix and the music supervisor in me always gets chills from well placed music to go with a visual. Back in 2005, 2006, when I was managing the Blue Mountain Publishing catalog, I worked with an artist named Baaba Maal from Senegal. We spent a period of time in Philadelphia working with The Roots. The unreleased sessions were a magical meeting of traditional and contemporary. It was that nexus where two musical forces with different frequencies of expression come together to express feeling through song. Baaba’s unique vocal style coupled with Philadelphia’s best musicians created something greater than the sum of its parts. It's the places where different kinds of music meet that touches my soul.
I'm a fan of all music, especially music from Jamaica (ska, reggae, and dub). The history of dub goes back to when 7-inch records (45’s) were the reigning format. One story about how dub came about is that label owners asked “Why put two songs on one record when we're only getting paid for one song? Why not let the producer make another version of the same song to put on the B-side?”. These versions, mostly instrumental, would highlight the bass and drum tracks and add effects. That became the template for what we know as the remix and those effects are now found in almost every kind of music.
My gateway to Jamaican music was the artist, Prince Buster. In grade school, the same cousin who I mentioned earlier gave me a cassette tape with Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police on one side and The Specials' first album on the other side. I wore that tape out. The Specials' first album is still, in my opinion, some of the best work Elvis Costello ever produced. It wasn't until I got to college that I discovered that many of those songs on The Special's album were Prince Buster songs. I was fortunate to have been able to meet and work with him on the film Legends Of Ska.
Lena Waithe's brainchild, The Chi examines real-life experiences in South Side Chicago through the lens of young black men of varying ages. How did you begin the musical curation of this series? Were there any specific references or inspirations that led your music search?
Before I had even seen a script, we started with a mood tape that was based on the conversations I had with Rick Famuyiwa, who was director of the first episode. We talked about Chicago and its' musical contributions spanning decades. Then I curated a few playlists of songs and instrumental music. The show has three generations of characters but we knew that they weren't likely to all listen to the same music.
At its core, the show is about Chicago, so we knew we wanted to focus and shine a light on musical contributions from Chicago based-artists and songs that referenced Chicago. Growing up, I spent a lot of time digging in record stores. Music supervision is like an excuse to go and find something specific. Once I started looking into the past, it was like, “Oh yeah, Curtis Mayfield was from Chicago. Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers, they were from Chicago." Then you begin to trace this lineage. Artists like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Oscar Brown Jr., Little Walter. So many amazing musicians and not all in the same genre. Then you’ve got contemporary music where you've got Chance, Common, Kanye, Cudi, Lil Durk, King Louis and Lil’ Bibby. These are all pioneering artists of styles of music that are inherent to the region itself.
The mood tape was the initial research for myself and the directors. That resource ended up being shared with the show's creators, the producers, and the writers for inspiration. Once you get to what is beneath the surface, it begins to take more shape. I started discovering more independent acts and labels, both contemporary and classic. I learned more about what helped shape the sound of Chicago music. When you're at the beginning of the project, the scope is super wide and you can afford to do that. Once you get into production, start dealing with spotting sessions, and start making sure you can clear the best music for a particular episode or a particular scene, it starts to get a little bit more involved. That's where I work to have the research and the application find a happy place in the middle.
When we couldn't afford a platinum artist from Chicago with a known song that's been popular for 20 or 30 years, we had to find something that would clear within our budget. That started a lot more conversations with more labels and more publishers to find options that could be cleared on budget and schedule. It’s hard to create a signature sound when you are licensing the same songs that everyone knows and expects. Thankfully, we were able to access a good balance of known and unknown songs to create a unique sonic landscape for The Chi.
From your perspective, what particular syncs from the show stand out as truly symbolic of Chicago's cultural vibrancy and gritty edge? Were there any notable artists that you discovered during the creative process?
In the first episode, there are a few tracks that represent Chicago music, past and present. We wanted something that would point to Chicago's status, past and present, and where all those things come together. First, we chose the song for the opening of the pilot, which is "All We Got," by Chance the Rapper. it's a song from Chance's mixtape, but then when you dig a little deeper, you realize that there’s a full gospel choir and that Kanye West programmed the drums for and is on the song. It speaks to Chicago getting more bright and brilliant as the talent continues to evolve. It shows something very important and relevant to the way Chicago music is being produced these days and how people are working together to unite the new school and newer schools of music. Chance, Kanye a gospel choir and a group of amazing musicians, who you hear more of throughout the series because they also are pillars of the Chicago music community.
Being able to open with that song, our goal was to make Coogie's aura shine as bright as possible, so the audience would really feel it when his life was lost. I remember stopping to call Rick when I got to the part where Coogie is shot in the script. "You've got to be kidding me. You can’t kill Coogie!”. We needed the right song to make people connect to him in such a short period of time, so they would still be connected to him when we got to the tenth episode. Everything happens as a ripple effect of his death caused by another death and it unfolds throughout the season. It was amazing after the first episode aired last year, I saw people had written things like “RIP Coogie” on bus stops. That was a sign that his character resonated.
Shortly before Coogie is shot, he is seen riding his bike and selling sneakers to the song “Yesterday” by Noname who I did not know of before working on the show. This song further works to shine a light and give optimism, but also foreshadows Coogie’s fate.
The cue that functions as the stabilizer was the on-camera performance of a song called "Precious Lord Take My Hand," which was performed at Coogie’s memorial by Kiara Lanier. As a supervisor, when you see a memorial in the script that calls for a spiritual song, it requires a lot of thought about what it might be and who’s going to sing it. It becomes an interesting dialogue to have with the director about what is the essence of the scene is and how we can accomplish that with the music. We landed on the song that was sung at Dr. Martin Luther King’s memorial. Rick chose for it to be a young female artist to deliver the goodbye to the character that was basically our young King from the show. I still get chills watching the scene.
Shortly after that scene, Coogie’s brother, Brandon, not knowing what to do with himself, goes back into the restaurant to work and vent out some of that energy. As he gets through the night, it winds down and he's talking to one of his bosses. The song playing in the background, right as his boss says, “Sorry to hear about your brother”, is “Brother Where Are You” by another important Chicago artist, Oscar Brown Jr. The song traces back to the 70’s and the version we used is a remix. We used these haunting, really grounding vocals, emphasizing the refrain, ”Brother Where Are You?" while Brandon is trying to deal with the first wave of grief, mourning the loss of his brother. That scene ends with Brandon standing at the memorial outside of the store where Coogie was shot.
The first episode features about 15 songs, all of which are amazing. Structurally, I think those specific songs highlight Chicago’s cultural vibrancy. Other notable Chicago acts include Alex Wiley, The Cool Kids, Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, Mick Jenkins, Rich Gains and TheMind.
In this series, there is a pattern of stark contrast between touching relatable moments and tragic, violent events. What are the challenges of balancing the two seamlessly? In your opinion, do you think lyrical themes play on the emotions of the characters and engage the audience on a deeper level?
When lyrical themes work, they can be great, but they aren’t always something we have as an agenda. Our mission for the pilot and the entire first season was authenticity. We didn't want people in a party all dancing to different music. We didn't want a song playing from a street or from a store or from a house that just did not seem realistic for that character. So, we struck a balance between what was available for the budget and the schedule and what was best for the scene itself.
At the beginning of each episode, we would do a spotting session, marking all of the scenes for licensed music and score. We had songs that we put in as placeholders and if we didn’t have a song selected, we’d note what the intention behind the song would be. By watching the entire episode from beginning to end with directors, producers, and editors, you uncover a subtext about what the episode is about and how music will work with or against the grain. Although you’re breaking everything down scene by scene, you’re getting direction for the episode as a whole. This process influences your approach to finding songs and alternates for those particular scenes.
How did the composer for The Chi, Patrick Warren play into this process?
Patrick is a master and lucky for us, he has experience creating arrangements for a number of prominent artists. Being able to bring that sensibility onto a scoring stage was a huge help.
We didn't have Patrick in the very beginning. By the time we were looking at our musical needs, it was difficult to figure out how we were going to fit all the songs and remain on budget. One of the things on Patrick's menu, aside from creating incidental music that fit the environment, was to help us out in some of the places where we couldn't afford a song, but still needed music for mood. He was able to deliver the quality and authenticity needed whether it required instrumentation or some pretty great drum programming, This allowed the scenes to play as intended while the score sonically marries all of the elements together. Patrick and his team are amazing!
You were nominated for a Grammy alongside the founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell for your contribution to Marley, the revered biopic Bob Marley. How did you initially become involved with the project? What was the most intriguing thing you learned after steeping yourself in the life work of one of music's most influential figures?
I was fortunate to be asked by a colleague to manage the Blue Mountain Music Catalog for the U.S., which was inclusive of the Bob Marley catalog. Once again, with every project, it's a great excuse to dig deep and see what's really going on there. There were a couple of things that I realized. I realized that there were still a number of bootlegs of Bob material that were coming out of which the family, nor publishing, were being paid. There were also unreleased projects that needed attention. For instance, while I was there, I worked on Bob Marley In Dub, Vol. 1, which was an actual, official collection of Bob dubs to help counterbalance a lot of the unofficial releases that were out there. I also worked on the Live in Pittsburgh release which was Bob's last show. Those projects really came about by exploring his catalog, finding out what was legitimate and what wasn’t. Along the way, I met some incredible people including Dennis Thompson, who was Bob's sound engineer for all of his live shows. He had recorded every show. Turns out, there was so much more material that hadn’t seen the light because no one had really shaken the tree. It was great to be able to work with him. He was the reason we were able to put together the Pittsburgh show because the official recording was cut short and didn’t include the encore. Dennis is still very active and has great stories and great ears. I believe he is currently out with Alicia Keys.
There were different avenues and different connections that allowed us to complete projects that had been in the works for some time. It was a really good feeling. At that time, there was a lot of talk and financing coming together for a Bob Marley documentary. There was a general knowledge that a Bob documentary doesn't come along every day. Because I had been managing the publishing catalog and was knee deep in research, I was asked to be a research consultant for the film. Being a part of it allowed me to do an even deeper dive. That was when I realized myself that from seeing a picture of Bob or watching a video of him, I was able to know the date and year simply based on what he was wearing. It was interesting to see where a lot of the ties were and see where a lot of ownership was, see where some of the blocks were, and of course, work with the team to help create an amazing documentary. The one thing that I will say is that there were two films but the public only saw one. In the process of it all, I did a lot of travel and conducted a lot of research. A film was created from that, but it ended up being shelved and an entirely new film was made based on all the research and all the material that was there. The producers wanted to have ultimate confidence in what was released and as you can see from the final result, this was achieved.
Kevin McDonald's finished project is absolutely stunning. He showed dimensions of Bob that, I believe, only work to expand his legacy for coming generations. It answered a lot of questions. Being able to do the research, make the contacts, unearth these versions, and fill in some of the gaps in the timeline for that project was just an absolute joy. Being nominated for a Grammy for Best Soundtrack alongside another legend, Chris Blackwell was an honor. We lost to Woody Allen. Go figure.
Where did you end up traveling to conduct research for the film? What were some of the most interesting stories you uncovered?
The project led me to small country towns in the U.K., Italy as well as apartments in Hell’s Kitchen and studios in Jamaica. It was all about finding “rumored” material and having the knowledge to verify if something was authentic.
One example was the Zimbabwe Independence Day concert. That was footage that was shot on the day Mobutu was taking over Zimbabwe. A lot of celebrities were there for the event, even Prince Charles. Bob and the Wailers played. What wasn’t shared or well known about that day was that there were two concerts as a result of one being tear-gassed to control the crowd. The footage was incredible to discover.
I learned so much from talking to the filmmakers and the folks that were there, just hearing more about these shows. There was a show that Bob played at Harvard Stadium with Dick Gregory and Eddie Palmieri. It was put together by a student activist group from UMass. I was inspired by hearing the stories about how these events came together. It’s absolutely incredible how music can inspire so much energy, uniting all kinds of people. That special energy and love of music surrounded just about everything Bob did and all of the ground he covered.
What is your favorite Bob Marley song of all-time?
That's tough. It almost changes day by day. Today, I will pick "Selassie is the Chapel" because it is a Bob song that I heard when I thought I had heard all of the Bob songs. It is a song that wasn't issued in the U.S. for a long time (before everything was available online). It is something that wasn’t popularized in America. People listened to the standard compilations but this hinted at an entirely different stage and sound within Bob’s body of work.
It was the last song in the Bob Marley documentary, which played over Bob's funeral. It’s just one of those songs that transports you to a different time. It’s very intimate, just Bob and a guitar with angelic voices of the I-Threes on background vocals. It’s just beautiful.
What has been the hardest lesson you've learned as a music supervisor? In retrospect, which of your projects stand out as being the most creatively fulfilling and transformative?
I would say that the thing I’m still learning in some cases is that there is a certain amount of work that a music supervisor needs to do to assess whether or not a job is even right for them. For example, if the expectations are super high, but the budget’s super low. Then who gets caught in the middle of that? There’s an educational component that comes with being a music supervisor. If the expectations are unreasonable and you can’t clear the right music, it becomes a problem. All of a sudden, it’s the supervisor’s fault.
It took me a little bit of time to figure this out. I started interviewing the folks while they were interviewing me to make sure that we could be on the same page and build a working relationship. I’ve been doing this for some time, so I’ve got a strategy now. I can’t just throw music in during post-production and call it done. I need to know the moving parts of the project and have an idea of what we’re working with in order to come out with the best output possible within the given parameters.
The majority of your business has run out of New York. What are the unique advantages of the environment you work in?
My recent projects have had me working in London, The Congo, The Bahamas, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. I’ve really found that now, I can go wherever the work is. My brother once said the business of L.A. is Hollywood, and the entertainment of L.A. is Hollywood. The entertainment of New York is Broadway and the business of New York is Wall Street. There’s a lot of diversity and always a fierce and innovative community of filmmakers making breakout films. I can’t say that the conversations and the meetings that I have here are entirely different than those that I have in Los Angeles, or Chicago, or London now that the internet has connected us all and given us the ability to work in collaboration on-site or remotely. I love New York, but I feel most at home in California.
The tech community in New York has also been inspiring. While I was at Blue Mountain, Spotify opened its first US office out of our space with only 2 employees. I got to see tech shift, the market shift from a unique point of view. I'm now making efforts to help to educate artists and rights holders on monetizing their music through licensing and emerging revenue streams. I believe that if rights holders knew that the difference between making $0 and receiving license fees and perpetual royalties is having songs registered, publishing splits established and correct metadata; Artists and musicians could earn a better living.
I started learning development and programming in order to start building music solutions and tools to help to create more of an ecosystem, where rights holders can monetize their content, but content producers can also find quality work that they can be accessed affordably and cleared quickly. The diversity of industries so close together in New York creates great energy and even greater possibilities.
I've been working on augmented and virtual reality production in an effort to reimagine how we experience music. For me, all these things have a common thread that goes back to Bill Graham. Let’s bring people together through music and art. Let's spread more music. At the same time, as the industries have evolved, there've been so many shifts in business models and formats, that nobody actually stopped to educate artists and managers. It’s a “who moved my cheese?” situation. It used to be iTunes, but Apple doesn't even sell music anymore. It moved to streaming and playlists. So, now that's the new cheese. With each of these shifts, we still expect artists to create their best work ever. The thing is, they're not always plugged into the streams that will compensate them, so they can’t always put enough gas in their tank to be as productive or creative as they would like to be.
Being able to present and speak at augmented reality meet-ups in NY, being able to address independent filmmakers in places like the IFP Film Labs, and being exposed to the projects being developed by New York-based production companies has continually yielded some amazing results on projects on which I am proud to have my name. One project that sticks out is Alive Inside, which is a documentary directed by Michael Rossato Bennett that promotes music therapy for Alzheimer's and Dementia patients. If there was ever a film that summarized why it is that I've chosen to work in music this is the project. It made me realize that at any given time we may lose the use of our faculties and music has the power to help bring us back.
Dr. Dan Cohen had been working with patients and developed a practice that was very simple. Through working with a patient, he was able to determine what year it was when they were 18. Thanks to technology, now we can build a playlist of music from that year and the rest is very much like trying keys in a lock until you find the right one. When you get the right key and it opens that door, the response will knock you down. To watch someone on screen who has forgotten the name of their spouse who is sitting next to them is heartbreaking. Then a song comes on and you see that person stand up and start dancing and singing along. Then you see that stimulation brings back their spouse's name. There is an intangible power that we've not been able to bottle or prescribe.
Is there anything you can tell us about your work on The Quiet One, the upcoming documentary about Bill Wyman, a founding member of the Rolling Stones?
Bill Wyman is a legend and has kept an amazing document of his life in music with The Rolling Stones and as a solo artist. This movie is an introduction to some of Bob's collection made available for the first time through the film. It's nothing short of amazing and as with the Bob Marley documentary, it provides more dimension and narrative to music that has affected and continues to influence popular culture. I’m really happy he has chosen to make the project and humbled to be a part of the team. Once again, another example of the power of music to move and inspire.
If you were offered a luxury, all expenses paid vacation with one of your musical heroes, who would you choose and where would you go?
I would love to meet with Stevie Wonder at Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston. Bob and Stevie had a lot of respect for each other and had Bob not ascended in 1981, he and Stevie Wonder would have embarked on a US Tour together. Stevie’s song, "Master Blaster (Jammin’)" is an homage to Bob from Stevie. One of Bob’s sons is Stevie’s namesake. If I could, I would love to have the opportunity to hang out with Stevie at Bob’s Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston and learn more about Stevie and hear stories about his impressions of Bob. That would be incredible.
This question also reminds me of an amazing episode of A Mind of a Chef I worked on. It was the playlist potluck episode hosted by Danny Bowien, Anthony Bourdain, April Bloomfield, Inaki Aizpitarte, and Sean Brock. The concept was for chefs to throw a potluck based on their musical influences. We started collecting playlists from all the chefs and then invited artists to come to this little apartment on the Lower East Side where all the chefs were cooking in honor of the music. It was delicious, a lot of fun and now thinking back on it, a bit surreal. I got to introduce Anthony Bourdain and Karen O from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That felt like one of those moments. It inspired me a lot. I actually started cooking more after that and was turned on to some incredible food. I now can make a mean Ma Po Tofu. I believe situations like that can change you.
Another musical fantasy is to rent out the 9:30 Club in DC and have Bob Dorough sing vocals with Chuck Brown's band and afterward have everyone go to Ben's Chili Bowl for a hang. Bob Dorough was the only vocalist to ever appear on a Miles Davis album, but we know him because he was also the creative force who wrote and voiced many of the Schoolhouse Rock songs like “Three Is The Magic Number”. If you go back and you look at Bob's catalog, you’ll find that he was one of the most unique voices in the history of jazz. I discovered his incredible cover of "Midnight Sun".
Until that discovery, my favorite cover of "Midnight Sun" was Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, a DC Go-Go version of the classic. I always wanted to have the two of them come together and cover each other's versions of that song. Bob sings over Chuck’s version and Chuck sings over Bob’s version. So, if I could just put those things together, witness it, and then hang out with them, eating chili and fries, that would be pretty great. While I met and got to spend some time with both of them while they were here, I would have been excited to see them on a stage or in a studio together.
Another one would be to go back to the late ‘70’s / early 80’s when ska was forming it’s second wave in the UK. The group that we came to know as the Go Go’s were in the north, playing on the same bill with The English Beat, David Bowie, The Police, and Fun Boy Three (whose members would later form The Specials). I think of them all basically as kids just playing on the same bill, one night somewhere in the UK long ago. That’s one of those fantasy shows.
How much more time do we have? I could go on like this for a while.
Stream the entire first season of The Chi now on Showtime.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Barry Cole, Thomas Golubić, and the Guild of Music Supervisors.