Liz Lawson is the spark of musical creativity behind the smash VH1 franchise, Black Ink Crew and its successful spin-off, Black Ink Crew Chicago. Starting out as a publicist in Athens, Georgia, Liz set out to create a greater platform for immensely talented independent artists hiding in the shadows. After re-locating to Los Angeles, she cut her teeth working under notable veteran supervisors, Gary Calamar and Carrie Hughes and later went on to establish her very own shop, Vinyl Rules Music Supervision. Up next, she will be lending her talents to the surprisingly romantic zombie comedy, Eat, Brains, Love. In our pleasant conversation, Liz shares her music research must-haves and her ultimate tips for the perfect pitch.
I read that you started your career as a journalist and publicist. What made you shift and gravitate towards music supervision as a career path?
My ultimate goal of getting into music has always been to give indie bands the exposure they really need. A lot of musicians are super talented, but I noticed that most of them don't have the connections or the business acumen to be able to put their music out there in a way that music supervisors and other industry people prefer. When I started as a journalist, I wanted to review music and get it in front of people, but I didn't love being the person that had to describe the music and potentially be critical of it. I enjoy music so much. Writing about it almost made it less enjoyable. I was thinking about it too much instead of being in the moment.
After that, I started thinking about other ways I could promote little bands. I was living in Atlanta at the time and had a good friend who lived in Athens, which obviously has a giant music scene. There are so many great musicians there and so many bands that really should have more of a fan base outside of Athens than they do. I was like “How can I help my friends get more exposure?”. I have a masters degree in communication and had a knowledge of publicity, so I ended up doing PR for four years. I was working with a lot of Atlanta and Athens based bands and the label, Orange Twin Records. That’s where Neutral Milk Hotel started. I really enjoyed it for a long time and then it just started becoming a grind. I missed the creative side of things. I love writing, but when you're drafting a press release, it's not exactly the most creative thing you can work on.
About seven years ago, I moved out to Los Angeles. My now husband had a bunch of friends working in entertainment. A friend of his who works in post-production suggested I look into music supervision. He was like “You love film and TV. You love music. It sort of seems like the perfect thing for you." Music supervision is one of those careers that doesn’t come to mind when you don’t live in L.A. I vaguely knew about it, but I never imagined it could be my job. I thought “What’s my favorite TV show music-wise?”. It was Six Feet Under. So, I looked up the music supervisor and both Gary Calamar and Thomas Golubić popped up. I researched Gary and thought he seemed cool especially because he was a KCRW DJ. I sent him this crazy e-mail totally cold. I did my research, figured out his background, and thought about what he might respond to. He is the nicest person. He responded and really gave me my first opportunity.
You had the opportunity to work with esteemed five-time Grammy nominated music supervisor, Gary Calamar (True Blood, Dexter, House). What were the most valuable skills you cultivated during that experience?
I worked as an assistant and an intern to him and his then coordinator/ occasional co-supervisor, Alyson Vidoli. At the time, they were working on True Blood, Dexter, and House. It was a dream first gig. I was very spoiled from the beginning, I was like, "This is so great and fun. These shows are awesome and they have huge budgets." I learned the business end of things and expanded on the creative part. Being able to spot for film and TV is a skill you can develop, but it’s also sort of an innate thing. You get better at identifying when something works and when it doesn’t.
I also worked with another supervisor named Carrie Hughes as her music coordinator. Under both of them, I learned so much about the paperwork. While working for Gary, I learned what a cue sheet was. I would put together the cue sheets and research on ASCAP, BMI and the other performing rights organization websites to figure out who the writers and the publishers were on each song. I’d figure out who owned the master and put together all that information. It was such an eye-opening experience.
Given my background, working with bands on the publicity side, I obviously knew there were writers on songs, but learning about the minutia of music publishing was really fascinating. With Carrie, I handled a lot of the clearance on her shows and it was really high intensity. Such a high number of clearances per show. At the time, she worked on a lot of MTV shows.
I think a lot of people would love the creative side of music supervision, but many of them wouldn’t love the clearance end. There are supervisors that purely do the creative, but those are very rarely the people that are just starting out. When you're breaking in, you’re not necessarily granted much creative input. I was lucky enough to contribute creatively with both Carrie and Gary, which was awesome, but most of the job is learning how to clear song and essentially, grind. You can find a cool song, but if you can't get the rights or if it's too expensive, then it's kind of a moot point.
Congratulations on entering the sixth season of Black Ink Crew. The show chronicles the wild social dynamics of the people working in a tattoo parlor in Harlem. You have synched everything from OneRepublic to AloeBlacc. How would you describe the criteria you look for when crafting this musical landscape? How has the sound of the show evolved over time?
In the very first season of the show, we almost strictly used hip hop artists. We wanted it to sound like New York and have that urban vibe be there. The first cue of the first episode was a Macklemore song. I recently ran into a guy who used to work at Rhino and handled the business on his behalf. We used the song literally two weeks before the price of their music went from a few thousand dollars to tenfold what they were charging before.
Over the years, the sound has really opened up. We've used everything from indie rock to big pop hits. All with the purpose of staying within that top 40 category. I would say nothing strays too far from that mainstream sound, but being able to use different genres has really helped the show reach more people. VH1 has been great in terms of supporting the show as it’s gone on. They're really helpful in negotiating some deals for us. That’s how we're able to use such high profile artists. At the end of major scenes, they’ll have an ad card on the screen to display the name of the song and where you can find it. It’s really great promotion for the artists.
What have been your most memorable syncs to date from Black Ink Crew and Black Ink Chicago?
Macklemore was very memorable. We have used his music multiple times because the producers loved him and even wanted to use him in a promo for the show. He is one of the first artists I synched that blew up in a major, major way after the fact. It was great because the guys over at Rhino acknowledged that we’d been big supporters from the beginning. They allowed us to use “Thrift Shop” and “Make The Money” at a lower rate even after they could have technically charged way more than they did. Seeing his career take off in that way was awesome. It was neat to be there on the ground level.
In Black Ink Chicago, there was an indie band called Ellenberg that pitched. I fell in love with their song, “Dust”. It was used in this very emotional scene. It meant something to me, so when you see those songs find a good home, it makes your job worthwhile.
Creatively, what are the most significant differences between supervising reality television shows vs. scripted films and series?
Oh man. I think one of the biggest differences is that reality television has maybe two minutes of silence per hour long episode. The music is constant in these shows. You have to put together bins of licensable music, but bins of instrumental cues. Viacom, for example, has a lot of overall gratis deals with music libraries. At the beginning of each season, not only am I looking for songs to license, but also for cues that can be used prominently and in the background of the show. I would say it’s almost like there’s another layer of work that goes into it.
I’d say that reality shows generally lower budgets than scripted work. You are challenged to learn who has those cues you need. You have to find really good music from up and coming bands, who will license to you for a few thousand dollars instead of $20,000. You’re not able to tap major labels. You’re making relationships with people who own boutique publishing companies and independent labels that deal with those kinds of artists. It's pretty cool. I've gotten so many great bands pitched to me and learned about so many interesting indie acts this way.
Another huge difference is that with reality, you’re dealing with people’s lives that are being displayed on the screen. I try to keep in mind that what's being shown is a reflection of real people, you know? I think that puts another level of responsibility on the producers and everyone who's working on the show. It’s up to us to try to do our best job and respect the fact that they're people playing themselves on TV.
What was your experience like working on Get A Job, starring Miles Teller and Anna Kendrick? Many of the syncs have an upbeat alternative indie vibe with electronic elements. Was this a conscious decision to emphasize particular themes?
That movie was crazy. The director, Dylan Kidd is awesome. I love him, he’s a friend. He had actually shot that film about four years before it came out. I don’t know exactly what happened, but there were some politics that went on behind the scenes and it sort of got shelved. When Lionsgate and CBS Films did a deal together, Lionsgate saw it and was like, “Whoa, you guys you have this film and it has these incredible people starring in it. We need to put this out."
I was brought on along with Jonathan Sadoff, the composer in early January of 2016. Dylan, the director, was like, "You guys we have about a month to get this done." We were like, “What?!”. It was a really cool experience. Dylan was like, "We wanna use these songs that you really would hear in a coffee shop in L.A. We need songs that they really would be listening to." The music became a very essential part of the film and that indie vibe was very purposeful. The story centers around young hip kids living in Echo Park. We thought about what would they listen to and that's what directed our brains and ears.
You recently worked on Eat, Brains, Love, a comedic and endearing zombie road trip film. How did you first become involved and what can you tell us about the musical identity of the project?
We started post not that long ago and I haven’t seen any full cuts yet. The director and editor are hard at work on it together. The film is going to be really cool and has a great cast. The director did the nineties horror film, Idle Hands. It’s based on a novel of the same name, which I’ve read. The voice of the book and the script have a very similar tongue in cheek take on a very gory subject matter. They aren’t going light on the zombie-ness of the film. It’s going to be quite bloody.
I think we’re going to end up with a dark yet quirky sound. One song, in particular, I brought on really early. I jumped on the phone before they even started filming because the script has a moment where one of the characters is singing and ends up lip-syncing on screen. It’s the only thing we’ve officially cleared so far, but the vibe we are going for is dark, sultry, and not taking itself too seriously. The sound of the film is definitely a little bit self-aware.
Do you still listen to music for pleasure?
Yes! Although, I have definitely been in the car after work and just turned off the radio because I’m like “no more”. It depends on what I've been working on. I recently put together a playlist of Latin and Cuban hip hop for some producers and I started falling in love with a lot of the artists I found during that search. Working inspires me to keep listening. Discovering new genres that I don’t know much about helps me come back from being burnt out and get excited all over again. On Black Ink Crew, we have a scene that takes place in Korea, so I ended up finding a Korean hip hop artist named Dumbfoundead, who is fantastic. I love digging in and searching through stuff to find really cool artists.
How and where do you typically conduct your music research?
Where do I find music? Really everywhere. There are a lot of indie boutique publishers and labels and publishers that I work with. If I have the budget for it, I will obviously look to the majors. Those are good resources to begin with. I’ll send out a search request to people saying "This is my budget and this is what I need.”, which usually results in some great stuff. I also like to go and find some stuff on my own as well. Spotify is a great resource. Hype Machine is great, which is a conglomerate of all music blogs from around the internet. They rank songs by popularity and I’ve found some really great bands via the site. I also look to music blogs that I love like Indie Shuffle for emerging material. If I have a very minimal budget, I’ll go on CDBaby. You have to take the time to dig, but sometimes, it pays off.
Where do you find the best "library music" to flesh out projects with smaller budgets? Are there any specific resources you'd like to recommend or companies that you particularly love to collaborate with?
There are some really great music libraries out there. Extreme is like one of the biggest ones and they do some great hip hop stuff. We use a lot of their vocals on Black Ink Crew because they bring in real artists to their studios. They have people like Snoop Dogg and other really high profile artists writing for them. They make extra bucks just by contributing to libraries. They have a couple albums by Xzibit. You're like, "Wait, what? This is a library track? How is that even possible?"
We use so many on Black Ink Crew, it's hard to pinpoint the very best. Audio Network has some great vocals for sure. I always like working with their stuff. The people who work for music libraries are some of the nicest people. They're really gracious and very on top of sending their music. I'm looking for something specific and send it out to a few people, the response time is so fast. Overall, I feel like there's real passion for what they're doing.
I recently worked on this docu-series about the NBA player, Chris Paul. ESPN has an overall deal with West One Music Group. Before this, I hadn’t been aware of them. They started off in the U.K. and it is starting to spread out in L.A. now. Their material is super high quality. They work with a lot of big composers and they also have some great hip hop vocals.
In your opinion, what are the most important do's and don't's of pitching your material to a music supervisor?
Number one is to make sure you have clean versions. You must know if your pitching to a supervisor who's working on a show that's on a normal network, not on a premium channel. Generally speaking, they are going to need the clean version. If you send it with an F bomb or something of that nature, they either won’t use it or will have to go back to you and ask for clean versions. It’s annoying because people pitching music should know that we aren’t allowed to use songs featuring profanity on VH1.
Another big thing is making sure that the music you send doesn't come with a link that expires. I think a lot of music supervisors, myself included, get sent so much music. I have a folder in my email that's just music to download, which has upwards of tens of thousands of songs in it right now. I usually just keep them there and listen when I am looking for that specific genre. Recently, I was looking for country music and did a search through my e-mail. If you find something and then go back to the link and it’s expired, you think “never mind” and move on.
Your music needs to be ready to be heard at any given moment. You never know when somebody’s gonna go back to an e-mail that you sent in 2015 and be like, “Oh, I wanna listen to this." I search through my e-mail on a daily basis to download specific stuff. I love when the sender includes details like the genre of music or sound alike artists in the body of the e-mail. Though, if the music isn’t there anymore, you’ll most likely lose those opportunities. A lot of labels and publishers use Disco now, which works great. I've been using Box for a long time. I just like the cleanness of it. It’s very minimalistic. If you have an account with them, your links never expire and you can upload as much material as you want.
Being polite never hurts. That should be an obvious one but artists need to understand that everyone is very busy and you're just one of a lot of other people hitting them up to try to get their music heard. Every music supervisor I know is a very kind person. No one is deliberately trying to slight anyone else by not listening to their stuff, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day to listen to as much music as we receive. Being understanding and trying to make a personal connection is very important too. It’s really fantastic when artists have a chance to attend music supervisor panels at conferences and take a moment to meet them afterward.
The last thing is to just be reliable. If you send something to a music supervisor and you say it's going to clear for a certain amount, make sure it does. Make sure there aren't any writers that you have on your work that might be published by a major label. If somebody's coming to you with an indie film and all of a sudden, there's a writer on a major, that can create an issue and throw a wrench in the negotiation. Knowing who owns the music is one of the most important things to know.
I know it's hard for artists because you get into the studio and it's exciting. You write a song and you don't really think about who your co-writer is published by. Music is a creative thing, but it’s also a business. Artists who do their best to acclimate to the business side of things have a better chance of getting to good graces with a music supervisor. If you make our lives easy, we’ll come back to you time and time again.
Your company is called Vinyl Rules Music Supervision. What is the origin of that name? Can you tell us about your favorite places to shop for records?
Growing up, my dad had a lot of vinyl that I have since stolen a lot of. One of my earliest memories of him is playing The Beach Boys and all these other great artists on vinyl in our living room. I love vinyl. I have a lot that I’ve either shopped for or been gifted by publishers and people like that. I’ll look everywhere in music stores and even bookstores. There is something to be said for sorting through bins in person, but sometimes, I’ll get them off of Amazon because of the good prices.
Recently, I’ve thought about Landline with Jenny Slate from the nineties. There is this one scene where she goes into a music store with booths and just listens to different albums. I was like "Oh my god, that reminds me of myself so much." I used to just go out, explore, and buy random music wherever I was.
From your perspective, what's next for the field of music supervision in 2018?
2017 was such a great year for music supervisors. The Television Academy officially recognized the field of music supervision. In the past couple of years, music supervisors were able to become members but to have that evolve into a “Best Music Supervision” category at the EMMYs was huge.
In 2018, I think this growth and recognition will continue. It’s gonna keep getting better. I think scripted shows have done wonders for music supervisors in terms of providing the ability to sculpt an entire season or series of a show in a very creative way. Music supervision has always been a real job, but it’s something that is finally being deemed worthy of praise as any other big role in a film or television show. The Guild of Music Supervisors has done such a great job of slowly building that over the past seven or eight years.
Watch all-new episodes of VH1's Black Ink Crew on Wednesdays at 9/8c.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Liz Lawson and White Bear PR.