Rob Lowry is an indisputably skilled assassin in the music supervision field and one of the friendliest people in Los Angeles. Owner and operator of Sweater Weather Music. Guild of Music Supervisors award nominee for Clea Duvall's The Intervention. Self-proclaimed unabashed defender of pop music. In seven short years, this Philly-born jack of all trades has set the mood for dynamic network television shows, indie films that have shown at Sundance, and advertisements for world class luxury brands. Over a delightful vegan lunch at SQIRL, Rob opened up about his dynamic career evolution and revealed some of the tricks up his sleeve.
What was your motivation for breaking into the world of music supervision?
I watched Almost Famous in the eighth grade and it was the first thing I saw that made me think "Wow, I want to do that. I need to do that." Growing up, I was interested in directing for a while. I took a lot of filmmaking classes through middle school, high school, and college, making what ultimately were silent films. I put music to them and quickly began realizing that I was just using visuals as a device to tell a story through music. It was really an ends to a means. It was just a love of music and film, figuring out how I could marry the two.
After I moved here, I started as a production assistant on Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. I eventually became the show runner's second assistant. It's funny because I had this naiveté and this lack of inhibition in the sense that I walked in and told everyone, "I want to be a music supervisor," giving mixed CDs to the writers. Looking back on it now, I'm like, "Who did I think I was?". I was probably 22 or 23 and everyone was really kind and supportive.
Eventually, one of the editors on Friday Night Lights was working on a film called The Kitchen during hiatus and approached me like, "There's no money, but I can introduce you to the director." That was my first music supervision opportunity. It was all about putting that idea out into the universe to anyone who would listen and be building those relationships.
You went to Albright College, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. What was your focus during your time there and what events led to your relocation to California?
I was a double major, elementary education and journalism with plans to become a teacher. I was a junior in college, running track when I had to have my second knee surgery. I was holed up in bed and I couldn't move. I'd had a blood clot, and I was having an existential crisis. I was like, "I need to get the fuck out of Pennsylvania." I applied for an internship at a record label in Long Beach. I spent three months out here at this record label living in a two-bedroom apartment with 13 other kids.
That summer out here was a movie. It was the most romantic. I fell in love with a girl. I made friends with these people who are still my best friends to this day. We all came from everywhere, from Denver and Singapore and Atlanta, all over the place and it was a really unique, magical experience. I was like, "I'm never going back." But I had to go back to teach second grade to get my degree. After I graduated, I moved out here five days later. It's been nine years now.
How did you develop your expansive knowledge of music? Was it a passion you inherited?
From an early age, I was exposed to a wide range of music. I grew up in Philly. My dad's a musician and a big fan of the Beatles, Springsteen, and Jim Croce. My first loves that I discovered myself were Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey. I loved R&B. There was this classic rock, pop songwriter stuff. Then there was this modern R&B love.
Each project gives me the opportunity to dig deep. I did a Lebanese short film, using music from Jordanian artists. While I am resourceful and have a wide range of knowledge, I still have passion, curiosity, and inspiration.
The thing is, there's so much music readily available to us and more being released every day. At the same time, there is a long history of music that you've never heard from the '60s or the '40s. You're always looking back while looking forward. It can be overwhelming, but it's also exciting.
How did the creation of your own enterprise, Sweater Weather Music, transpire? What is the best part of being your own boss?
The creation of Sweater Weather happened before I was even supervising, right around the time I started working on The Kitchen. I thought "Should I do it under my name? Should I have a company?" I started looking at how other supervisors operated. When I was younger, a big influence for me was Alexandra Patsavas and Chop Shop. Thomas Golubic has Super Music Vision. I was like, "I think maybe I'll use a name."
Sweater Weather was always an idea that I loved and originally considered for a music blog. Just the name, being from the East Coast, fall is my favorite season, just the romanticism associated with all of that. To me, I hear that and I see myself. You see the leaves changing. You hear music that reminds you of autumn. It was a really warm feeling. It made sense for this idea that I wanted to represent or portray. I've done a lot of different things, but I tend to gravitate towards the more emotional types of projects.
I just hired Casey Newlin as a coordinator so it's just us. I've always been a self-starter. It's funny because I am my own boss and I'm not because I'm answering to a million people all the time, right? On a TV show, it's very collaborative, which I love. But I'm working with the editors, with the music editor, the composer, the show runner, the studio, the network, the producers. There are a lot of people involved.
I like setting my own schedule even though as your own boss, you work all the time. Weekends and nights, it's part of being a music supervisor. You love the music, but it's also considered work because you can't hear music without putting it into a box. It's hard to separate yourself from that.
Who are some of the best live acts you've seen in recent years? Have any of those experiences resulted in you synching their music?
Off the top of my head, some of my favorite live shows of the last few years were Bon Iver at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, Kelly from WET playing a solo showcase in my living room, The National at the Troubadour, Frank Ocean at FYF, Majical Cloudz at Hollywood Forever Masonic Lodge, Chairlift at the Echoplex, Bully at the Echo...
As far as all-time favorite experiences, seeing Brian Wilson with my dad at the Hollywood Bowl and taking my mom to Van Morrison there as well, would be at the top of the list.
Seeing live music is a great way to discover new artists/songs... It certainly opens the door to synch in the sense that you become familiar with an artist you may not have known before. So, I don't know that I can trace seeing a performance directly to a synch, but there are certainly times where you hear an artist's new song for the first time live and feel like, "Oh, this is special, this could work somewhere".
What is your typical process after you've been hired for a new project? How do you dive in?
Every show's different. Every movie's different. Every director's different. Every editor's different. It's always a new experience. Nothing's ever the same. You pick up little pieces as you go along. It's like walking through a field of dandelions. Some stuff sticks, some falls off. Especially in TV, there are a lot of different cooks in the kitchen with varying opinions. A lot of what it means to be a music supervisor is getting on the same page with everyone and finding commonality, what the overlap in this Venn Diagram is, in terms of what everyone is responding to. With every one of those tiers, every one of those steps, we get closer and closer to the core of whatever the character of the music will be. It's a lot of playing with politics and people's expectations.
Do you have any tried and true strategies to maximize a lean music budget?
For a long time, that was my calling card. I think it's a good thing to be is resourceful and think outside of the box. Unfortunately, sometimes that's the snake eating its tail. For a long time, I got approached with projects, looking to license 15 songs with a budget of $5,000 or 10 songs for $10,000. No matter what you have, you're gonna figure out a way to make it work because there's no alternative, but your resources are more limited.
Whether you have $1,000 or $100,000, it's still a puzzle that you're hired to put together. I've hired friends to write original songs and thrown money their way. Had the composer collaborate with a vocalist to create melodic themes and give it a little bit more personality. At the end of the day, it's a very relationship-based business. Of course, you don't want to go to the well too many times, asking everyone for favors.
Luckily, there is an endless supply of music out there. So many amazing artists on Bandcamp and Soundcloud that own their masters and publishing that can license their songs for a couple hundred dollars. The caveat is that it takes time to dig through to find what's worth listening to.
What are the worst mistakes you can make as a music supervisor?
Oh man. I think pitching like, "Oh yeah, this song would work great here." And it being something that is never gonna clear ever. You need to know your budget and what your restrictions are.
I'll say this. Our job is to fulfill the director's vision. I've worked on projects that weren't necessarily where my taste lies and been in positions where I felt that the songs that were used weren't the best options, emotionally or otherwise. There have been situations, where I've gotten in pretty deep and felt like, "Oh, we don't agree on anything", but I've never fought with anyone and try not to bring ego into any situation because it is all very fluid and collaborative. In one instance that I remember very well, I sent an impassioned e-mail to everyone on the project regarding something I felt very strongly about, and no one ever wrote me back. After that, you know your place, you take a step back, and you say, "All right. They're gonna do what they're gonna do. And I'm gonna be a vessel to help them get that done to the best of my ability."
How did it feel to be nominated for a Guild of Music Supervision award for The Intervention? What was the most unique thing about the project?
It was an honor, especially for that specific project, which was an all-around incredible experience. It was Clea Duvall's first feature film as a writer/director, and she knocked it out of the park. Sara Quinn from Tegan and Sara — it was her first time scoring a film, and she nailed it. We ended up with an all-female vocalist soundtrack, which was really fun. That was, honestly, one of my favorite projects I've worked on recently. It was my first film that went to Sundance. That was exciting because I'd always wanted to go, but I was waiting until I had something there. To see it there and to be there with everyone that worked on it was awesome. That's always the best part — getting to see the response to what you've been working on for so long.
Within the context of a film or TV show, what do you think is the most difficult emotion to highlight with music and why?
Oh wow, that's a good one. I would say indecision can be complex to translate. One of the shows I'm working on now is The Bold Type, where one of the characters is questioning her sexuality for the first time in her life. It's been an interesting journey to understand what that feels like. Maybe it's confusion, but on some level, it isn't because she knows how she's feeling yet can't express it. Our composer, Lyle Workman is great, so it's been fun to explore that challenge. The show is very tonally difficult because it's a very positive show about friendship, which is a theme that can be hard to highlight.
Looking at human emotions like anger, happiness, and excitement, you can see what they look like, and you can feel what they feel like. Sometimes, it's a lot easier to highlight the more difficult corners of the human emotional spectrum. Your priority is to not confuse the situation for the viewer.
Over the course of your career thus far, who have you collaborated with who has offered you the most meaningful guidance or has helped you grow as a music supervisor?
There are people who have influenced different facets of my life. My friend, Joe Rudge has always been an amazing mentor. He has been a music supervisor for 15 years or so. When I was starting out, he was the person I called for help whenever I had no idea what I was being asked to do or what something was. He is incredible. Since then, we've co-supervised a couple of movies and TV shows together.
I worked on this film called Band of Robbers. Adam and Aaron Nee wrote it, directed it, produced it, starred in it, and edited it, they're brothers. Music-wise, that was probably the most eclectic thing I've ever worked on. They had such crazy, vast knowledge and very specific taste in music, so I was challenged in a whole new way.
Now, on the show, The Bold Type, it feels like a community. The show runner was previously a writer on Parenthood back when I was a PA. Seven years later, she reached out and said, "I want you to music supervise it". It's been great. I've been entrusted with a lot of decision making and it's been a collaborative, supportive experience with the editors.
The goal is to work on cool shit with people who inspire you. If you're doing that, I think you're doing something right.
Don't miss all new episodes of The Bold Type on Tuesdays at 9/8c on Freeform.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Rob Lowry.