Kerri Drootin is the contagiously passionate Emmy-nominated music supervisor, who has brought her kaleidoscopic knowledge and unrelenting work ethic to bear on hit television shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, Forever, The Office, Parks & Recreation, A.P. Bio, Psych, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Bates Motel, and Falling Water. As a child of the MTV era, Kerri’s affinity for hidden gems and the obscure began in her youth, inspiring her to pursue a degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA and take a job at the Rhino Record Store in Westwood. These foundational experiences led to her first opportunity in the music industry, assisting Bill Bishop in the Film and TV licensing department at Warner Bros. Since 2002, Kerri has worked in-house at NBCUniversal as a Director of Music Supervision and Licensing, crafting iconic musical moments and offering a platform for the wildly diverse cast of artists she champions. In 2017, Kerri garnered a nomination from the Television Academy in the newly debuted Outstanding Music Supervision Emmy category for her work with Zach Cowie on Netflix’s Master of None. In our illuminating exchange, Kerri reveals the obstacles she will overcome to secure the perfect soundtrack and showcases her ongoing love affair with vinyl.
I understand that you grew up playing drums and went on to attend UCLA, majoring in ethnomusicology and minoring in women’s studies. What initially sparked your interest in music and what were the defining records of your childhood?
Growing up in LA, you spend a lot of time in the car, and I think the fact that my mom always had the radio on while we were driving around must have helped. It was always classic rock — KLOS. I’m very well versed in radio classic rock! I also grew up on A LOT of MTV. I always had it on. In fact, my bat mitzvah theme was MTV. Each table was a different MTV show; my table was the Just Say Julie table.
When I was in 6th grade, in 1989, I saw a girl that I was friendly with walking around campus with drumsticks and a practice pad and something in me just clicked. I started taking lessons right away, joined the school orchestra and started playing in bands in high school, mostly all-girl bands.
I was born on Long Island, and I’m Jewish, so I loved Billy Joel from an early age. I feel like Billy Joel is my birthright. Haha. Glass Houses was my album though. I think It’s Still Rock N Roll To Me was my first song obsession. Of course, I was obsessed with Madonna, but Cyndi Lauper was my number one during elementary school. The first CD I ever got was The Black Crowes’ Shake Your Moneymaker, but in junior high, I was also super into hard rock (Guns N’ Roses) and hair metal (Motley Crue, Poison, etc.).
Possibly the most important album of my childhood though was Smell The Magic by L7. I read an article about them in the LA Times, probably in 8th or 9th grade, and at the time, I had no idea that there were all-girl bands playing heavy shit. I was so blown away and stoked. I felt like the universe just opened up for me. I spent the next year or so trying to find this album in a record store, and I couldn’t! It drove me crazy, but I was determined. I eventually came across it in Tower Records in Woodland Hills and was so jazzed. The album lived up to my internal hype. High school for me was all about punk, riot grrrl, and the Grateful Dead, concurrently in equal proportions.
What events led to your discovery of music supervision as a craft and profession? Were there any influential figures in your life who provided guidance that was instrumental to your success? What would you consider to be your breakthrough project?
I graduated from UCLA in ’99 and thought that I probably would continue studying ethnomusicology and get my M.A., but at the advice of my department head, I decided to take a year off and enter the workforce. I think he knew that I probably shouldn’t end up a scholar — I’m not the best writer. I knew that I wanted to be in the music business at some level and did not want to be in A&R, which was the only profession in music that I had heard of at the time.
I started interviewing for any and every entry-level music gig and ended up landing as an assistant in the film and TV music licensing department for Warner Bros. We covered Warner, Elektra, Atlantic, Rhino, Mute, and others. I LOVED it! It all made sense to me. I’m an only child and spent most of my life playing drums, listening to music and watching TV — it just clicked. This was where I should be. This is everything I know and love, all wrapped up into a career path! I was fortunate to work with an amazing group of people over there including my boss, Bill Bishop who is an amazing human being and a walking encyclopedia of obscure musical knowledge.
I just didn’t know that this field existed until I fell into it. I spent two and a half years at Warner but realized that I wanted to be on the other side, as a music supervisor, helping to make the creative decisions. One of the first shows that I got to work on as a music supervisor was Psych. I learned so much by working on that show. That’s really where I learned the tools of the trade. Everybody on that production was so warm, easy going, and supportive. I think that [Psych], along with The Office, were really my breakthrough projects. The Office was early on in my career too, and that led to so many other amazing opportunities like Parks & Rec, Master of None, Forever, The Good Place, and a new one coming out later this season by Mike Schur called Abby’s.
You have served as the Director of Music Supervision and Licensing at NBC Universal since 2002. How do your responsibilities differ from a freelance music supervisor or an independent shop? What are the advantages of working under the umbrella of a major enterprise?
There are four of us who are in-house, in-show music supervisors in my department, not including my boss, Alicen Schneider, who was the first in-house music supervisor for NBC. She brought me over to this department and actually worked in the same department at Warner about seven years before I did. She spearheaded the whole creative side of our department and was the one that fought for us (in-house music supervisors) to get on-screen credits many years ago. She ultimately won that battle with the studio (studios almost never give credits to staff) because we do the same job as freelance music supervisors from start to finish. Getting an on-screen credit helped legitimize us to the producers and also to the community, which I do feel is needed.
I think we quietly get shade on occasion from people in the community regarding if we are “real” music supervisors. We are. We do the same exact job. We interview for our gigs, we work closely with the producers, we pitch, we research, we negotiate, we license. We also don’t have assistants. I love working in-house. I’m a creature of habit and like going to an office, and I love my co-workers. It’s comforting knowing there’s always going to be a paycheck and there will always be shows to work on. I’m not a natural hustler, so the thought of going freelance, and not necessarily knowing what the next show will be, stresses me out. I rarely even like leaving my house! I would prefer not to go out and hustle and schmooze.
Congratulations on the premiere of the sixth season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the only New York detective sitcom on television. Over the years, you have placed everyone from Future to Hall and Oates to Billy Joel to Backstreet Boys, using songs as a way to emphasize and reinforce onscreen humor. From the beginning, what is the selection criteria you have brought to bear on the music for this fast-paced series and what can we expect going forward? What are the logistics behind the musical moments performed by the cast and what is your role in seeing them through?
Thank you! I’m so excited that it’s back and on NBC! I really love working on comedies, and this show is so funny. The people on the production couldn’t be lovelier. I hope we go on for a bunch more seasons! Brooklyn Nine-Nine was always big into old school hip-hop, so I’ve cultivated so many high energy, the 80s – early 2000s hip-hop pitches for them for various chase and helicopter scenes, but after a while, I felt like I had to keep dipping into the same well. They usually want the song to be recognizable for these scenes, which is totally understandable. but there’s only so many songs that fit the bill, that have the intensity needed, that are also licensable. Hip hop gets tricky, something I’m sure you’ve heard a million times. Sometimes, a writer, or editor, or actor would come up with a great idea for a scene that I hadn’t thought of yet and I would quietly beat myself up for a second. I’d do the whole “Why didn’t I think of that?" thing and then I would try to clear it and find out that it wasn’t licensable — usually, a split issue or something like that. There was a reason I kept digging back into the same well!
In more recent seasons, I feel like we’ve been utilizing more classic rock hits and iconic tunes from other genres, so that’s been super helpful in widening up my pitches. A few months ago, my husband and I were up late one night and caught Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok video on TV, and since then, I’ve been sort of obsessed with getting it into this show somewhere.
The Good Place is a thought-provoking fantasy comedy that delves into the concept of the afterlife and draws significant influence from French existentialist, Jean Paul-Sartre’s famous work, No Exit. As the narrative progresses, we learn that the idyllic realm known as 'The Good Place' is, in fact, a psychological torture game. In its most recent season, the inhabitants are returned to earth for karmic redemption. It seems that your musical selections are designed to shape and influence the emotional response of your audience. Can you tell us about the thought process and creative considerations that go into musically illustrating this twisted adventure? Are the conflicting ideologies and diverse cultural backgrounds of the characters a determinant factor for you?
I’m such a big fan of this show, and I wish we used a bit more music in it. It just doesn’t totally call for it. We’ve had some great scenes here and there, but I think the trickiest ones are when we’re playing music “in the bad place” when it’s referenced that the music that’s playing in these scenes is just awful. These are the times where you really find out which artists have a sense of humor about themselves. A lot don’t! This came up in episode nine of season two, and it is always insanely time-consuming. In this episode, we used two different songs — each had to be played multiple times and then eventually both played at the same time over each other. The show writers usually like to come up with the songs themselves, which I totally get. I got SO many denials for the scenes where we used Puddle of Mudd’s She Hates Me. Puddle of Mudd was totally down though and was one of our top choices. I salute them.
The other spot called for a Christmas tune and a lot of the popular Christmas songs would NOT be down with a use like this, but luckily, Dr. Elmo was super into the idea of letting us use Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer. He even sang this song to me on my voicemail, and I will save the recording forever. The alternate song for this one was something by Mannheim Steamroller, and while they were incredibly friendly and ultimately approved the use, I don’t think they really wanted it to happen. I think they were maybe too nice to say “no!”.
A scene like this came up again in the first episode of season three, and I got so many denials. This time, almost every song that the writers came up with was quickly denied. I spoke on the phone about it to my friend, who pitched music for BMG, Carla Downs, and she said, “You know, Richard Marx has a really great sense of humor, and I think he would be into this.” I remembered that he actually came to our office years ago to play for us and he was such a great dude. He was 100% on board with making fun of himself. I’m so glad he let us use Right Here Waiting. It worked perfectly.
In 2017, you were nominated for an Emmy along with Zach Cowie for your work on Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None. The exploration of Italian music in season two is expertly curated and sublime. Can you tell us about the detective work and behind the scenes strategy that went into assembling such a robust, complementary soundtrack?
Thanks for the kind words! The research on this season was such a doozy! Luckily, we were working on musical ideas way early on in the process, even when the show was just getting written, so we actually had a lot of time to dig into these songs and find the rights holders. Honestly, it’s really a luxury that has never happened on any other show I’ve worked on. So often we’re up against the gun and if that would have been the case on this season, a lot of these songs would not have been able to be included. I spent so much time going back and forth with labels and artists in Italy, translating English into Italian on Google Translate. I always wonder how accurate it was!
The Mina tracks were the first ones we zeroed in on, and those took some time to piece together, but ultimately, I think we were able to eventually clear all of the ones that they wanted. Peer Music was very helpful with those. The gnarliest clearance I have ever done though was in episode #209 — Lucio Battisti’s Amarsi Un Po, which was used as the end credit theme for this episode. This song was so important to Zach and Aziz, and it literally took me six months to clear. This cleared right at our mix deadline. I had already sent alts, and we had a backup ready to go. Again, it was a blessing we had so much time. From all of the internet sleuthing I did, Lucio was a revered Italian artist, people say he’s kind of like the Italian Bob Dylan, but from what I read, he had never let his music get licensed before, which seemed to be a bone of contention between his estate and his former co-writer’s estate. I also, for the life of me, could not track down who owned the publishing on this particular song.
I asked every publisher. I bugged everybody in town, multiple times. I realized that his widow most likely was the person that I needed to get in touch with, but she was for all intents and purposes, un-track-down-able. At some point on this journey, I realized that Universal Publishing Italy had a bulk of his catalog but not this particular song. My friend in the L.A. office of Universal Publishing, Lori Rosolino, was kind enough to get me in touch with a lovely man in their Italian office named Giancarlo Losciale. I pleaded my case to him, and he somehow was able to get my quote request in front of Lucio’s widow, who has the best name I’ve ever heard — Grazia Letizia Veronese. After six months of trying to track this song and this woman down, I woke up one morning to an e-mail from her and she gave her approval including letting us title the episode Amarsi Un Po. She basically said, “Next time, just reach out to me directly. It would be so much easier!’ and I told her she had no idea how tough she was to track down! If only!!!
In your career, you’ve had the good fortune of supervising numerous long-standing hit series including The Office, Psych, and Parks and Recreation. What are your methods for establishing a cohesive and familiar musical identity that evolves over the course of many seasons? To date, what have been some of the most iconic and culturally relevant syncs you’ve achieved in your career?
I’ve been so incredibly lucky to get to work on the shows that I have. Personally, these are some of my favorite shows of all-time, shows that I would have been a huge fan of even if I wasn’t working on them. Each show is different. Sometimes, the producers will have a solid idea of what kind of sound they want for their show or for certain characters, and sometimes, they really develop over time. Shows evolve, characters evolve.
For a show like Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, that I music supervised with my co-worker, Stacy Wallen-Mccarthy, we knew very early on that they wanted songs with ‘sassy’ female vocals and that they had a voracious appetite for music. Before each season, we were able to load them up with bins and bins of songs that they could pull from as they edited because this series was pretty much wall-to-wall music. Almost all of the songs were indie because we weren’t working with a huge budget. I find that often times, comedies are more on a case-by-case basis regarding what songs you pitch since you’re often selling a joke with music — though there’s often a musical vibe established for the show and you work within that.
I wish my memory were better regarding favorite scenes… The Cramps are one of my favorite bands of all time, and I was so stoked to place People Ain’t No Good in a montage scene of A.P. Bio early in season one. I thought it worked so well and was crossing my fingers that Mike O’Brien, the EP [Executive Producer], would pick that one and he did. Honestly, that rarely happens. Almost always your personal favorite track in a pitch is not the one that gets picked by the producers.
One of my favorite moments in Parks & Rec was when Get On Your Feet by Gloria Estefan plays as the gang has to go out on the ice to give an award and they keep falling. I wish I could take credit for coming up with that one, but it was written into the script. It was such a treat to get to work on episode #6022 of Parks & Rec where they had the Pawnee/Eagleton Unity Concert episode. My husband and I got to go on set for the day and just mix in with the crowd — it was filmed in the Sepulveda Basin area of the valley. We were hoping for Yo La Tengo to play more of Sister Christian, but it really was only a few seconds. Being a small part of the Mouse Rat original songs is pretty special too. Fun fact, Alan Yang [ co-creator of Master of None] was a writer on that show and wrote most, if not all, of the Mouse Rat songs.
The Office series finale was quite a feat for me. There is so much music in that episode. I had a lot of fun pitching music for the bachelor party/bridal party strip scenes. We ended up with S&M by Rihanna in one of them, only after Britney Spears denied! I was stoked to finally get a placement for Motorhead by Motorhead (a personal favorite) in there, and licensing an actual Creed song from Creed was obviously pretty cool. We also had Motley Crue, Hall & Oates, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and an orchestral cover of Sweet Child of Mine for the ‘walking down the aisle' scene. None of this was smooth and easy — or cheap! When everything finally shook out, and all of the music was fully cleared, I added the costs together and I totally panicked because I thought there was no way we could afford this. I called my post producer almost in tears, and she said that she had a feeling that they could go nuts with music in the series finale. She checked her budget, and somehow, she had the foresight to literally put hundreds of thousands of dollars aside in the music budget for this episode. We probably laughed at our good fortune for a good 30 minutes. Such kismet. I still love her for that.
In recent years, we’ve seen artists become increasingly aware of the financial benefits and social value of having their music placed in multimedia. How do you think the rising profile of sync licensing has affected popular music and the material you are being pitched?
I think it’s great that smaller artists can make some money off of licensing to help with tours, and recording, and just being a band in this day and age. I also really love that all of these deep, older indie catalogs are coming out into the light and getting represented for licensing. I keep hearing uplifting stories of musicians who are now senior citizens getting to hear their music used and getting paid for something they haven’t seen money from in decades. It’s also so beneficial for the music supervisors and the productions they work on to be able to dig into treasure troves of legit recordings. They’re usually affordable and easy to clear too. Bank Robber represents the Numero catalog, which is so deep and good. Jeff Freundlich has Fervor Records which covers so much ground too. He really was a front runner on this side of licensing.
Since music placements are so important to artists and labels right now, I definitely feel like we get pitched a fair share of what some of us like to call “synch rock”. You know, stuff that sounds like it should get placed if you need an affordable Black Keys alt or something like that. I get it. That stuff is totally needed, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell if the band you’re getting pitched is a real band or if they just put together some “synch friendly” sounding music. Sometimes, it feels inauthentic, but people need to make a living. It’s hard. I get it. We get sent a lot of playlists too, that cover certain genres or musical feelings that come up a lot when we look for music — so many ‘female empowerment’ playlists. In fact, I’ve decided that if I ever become a DJ, my name is going to be DJ Female Empowerment Playlist.
What is the most unique way someone has pitched you their music?
The most unique, or at least memorable, way that somebody pitched me music was in an envelope that was all handwritten and had a bag of pop rocks in it. This was many years ago, not too long after 9/11, so security on our lot was extra heightened! Somehow, the mail room couldn’t determine the contents of the envelope, so it was handed over to the head of security for all of Universal. He took it across the street and opened it there because he wasn’t sure if it could possibly be a bomb or poison! It was a whole thing!
What are the greatest obstacles you’ve ever overcome to clear a specific song?
Of course, as I mentioned, Master of None is always challenging to clear and license. Zach Cowie, my co-music supervisor on Master of None and Forever, has such a deep knowledge, so he’s often pulling ideas from defunct record labels that just went silent, and old private press releases. The uses always come out so good, and Zach’s such a pleasant and appreciative dude in general, that it’s worth all of the tears and the frustration. Haha.
We used When They Reminisce Over You by Pete Rock & CL Smooth as a main title use in Master of None season one, and the publisher said that they hadn’t been able to track down their approval party in over a decade, but my contact did mention the name of the guy we needed to track down. Zach and I got on the phone together and just started internet digging. We saw that this guy had worked with Heavy D among many others, of course, and then I remembered that there’s a distant relative on my husband’s side, Tony Drootin, who also used to work with Heavy D. He posted a really heartfelt tribute to Heavy D on Facebook when he passed. Tony has run a bunch of recording studios in N.Y. over the years, and many of them were studios of choice for hip hop artists. I hit Tony up on Facebook Messenger and asked if he had any idea who this guy was that we were looking for and if he had any contact info. He was like “Yeah, I just saw him last week!” We got the approval contact and the publisher in touch, and it was cleared like an hour later. It’s helpful that I married into a musical family!
As a long-time record collector, what are your most prized possessions? Who are your most recent musical discoveries that we should all be paying attention to?
While attending UCLA, I worked part-time at Rhino Record Store in Westwood, which may have been the coolest job ever. I always say that I learned as much there as I did in college regarding music. Working at Rhino and just being a sponge there, and being able to collect records affordably has helped me so much with my career. My husband, Todd and I started dating during this time. On our first date, he actually picked me up at 11 pm from Rhino on a Saturday night after my shift, and we stayed up talking and listening to records all night. Luckily, he’s a record collector too and has actually been working as a record dealer for the last 12 years. His company is called LP Guru, and he specializes in finding amazing sounding pressings of albums for his clients, currently mostly focusing on classic rock and jazz. So, I’m lucky to have thousands and thousands of records in our house at all times that sound SO good.
We have just a stellar sounding RL pressing of Led Zeppelin II that gets broken out quite frequently. He likes to play that one for clients and friends. He recently found a stunning copy of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John that we have been playing a ton. We listened to Better Off Dead 3 times in a row the other night, and I could have gone for more. We’re fortunate to have a killer sound system and records to match. It makes for such a special listening experience.
I’m a huge sixties girl group fan, and I have the whole Girls in the Garage series on vinyl which I hold near and dear to my heart. Some of my favorite original pressings that I have are ’65 by The Shangri-Las and Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes by the Ronettes. I paid a pretty penny for both of these, but they’re totally worth it. You don’t come across those every day! I’ve got an original pressing of the ESG famous ESG 12” which I love so much. I’m also super proud of my Fania collection — all originals. My favorite of those is Acid by Ray Barretto, but Willie Colon’s albums are nothing to shake a stick at either. His album, Cosa Nuestra has one of my favorite album covers in our collection. All of these I actually found by digging in record stores! I also have a reissue of Philosophy Of The World by The Shaggs that I bought off of eBay about 18 years ago, and the seller offered to have it signed by Dot and Betty Wiggin since they were playing a concert in NY that week. Amazing!
Moving into 2019, will you be introducing new projects and initiatives into your repertoire? What is your overarching hope for the field of music supervision in the coming years?
NBCUniversal is such a behemoth, and there are always more and more shows getting produced for more and more platforms, that we’re not just music supervising your basic shows anymore. My co-worker, Oliver [Hild] is overseeing Snapchat and YouTube shows now. My co-worker, Stacy [Wallen McCarthy] is overseeing NBCU’s whole new Alternative Studio, while I’m recently overseeing all music needs for E! and Wilshire Studios. It’s crazy! There’s so much new stuff to learn, and we’re all just learning by doing — all the while, still music supervising and clearing our usual load of scripted shows. It’s daunting, but at least we’re all in this together.
I’m hard at work right now on season two of A.P. Bio which is just one of my very favorite shows to work on ever. The show is so funny and smart, and we get to use some of my all-time favorite music. On this show, more than any other, I have the opportunity to just go to my record shelves for inspiration. The show creator, Mike O’Brien and I are around the same age, and our musical tastes tend to align well. We use a lot of classic punk, 90’s indie rock, and vintage country especially female fronted country. It’s such a blast! I even got an L7 song from the album Smell The Magic in episode one of this upcoming season. We come back to air on March 7th!
Interviewer | Ruby Gartenberg
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Kerri Drootin and Elizabeth Cain at NBCUniversal.