Rudy Chung is the vibrant music supervisor behind Silicon Valley, Rapture, Andre The Giant, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Social Animals, Seoul Searching, Eat With Me, Waiting For Lightning, and Netflix and ESPN’s upcoming Michael Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance. On the fast track to becoming a lawyer, Rudy took a sharp right turn to pursue a career in the music industry. In a rare turn of events, he was hired by Jason Alexander and quickly worked his way up the ranks from assistant to coordinator to music supervisor. Presently, Rudy and Jason are equal partners in their music supervision enterprise, Hit The Ground Running and Pusher Music, a trailer music house propelled by a diverse collective of independent artists including DJ Shadow, Run The Jewels, Safari Riot, Death Grips, AC Slater, Brodinski, and David Lynch. In our far ranging discussion, Rudy reveals the tenacity it took to break into his chosen field and how falling on hard times led to a fruitful second business.
Let's start from the beginning. Can you tell us about your background and how you first fell in love with music? Who were the artists that shaped your taste profile during your teenage years?
I fell in love with music at a very young age. I grew up being classically trained, playing cello all the way through orchestra in high school. I was first chair, and I played in all of the musicals our school produced. I’m the youngest of four children. My brothers, in particular, were eight and six years older than me. They were the ones to introduce me to all the music they were listening to. Some of my earliest memories of listening to music were in the car. I heard everything from Kraftwerk to New Order, XTC, The Cure to Sinead O’Connor. That’s how I got into a lot of alternative and electronic music. It really affected me.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
College was when I had my first music industry job. I was studying in Philadelphia and working at a club there called Trocadero Theatre. It’s a small venue, about 500 capacity, that was booking a lot of punk and ska shows at the time — a little hip-hop and rock too. I worked in the club a few days a week and did street promotion, hanging up posters and distributing flyers.
I was also writing for MTV.com, which was a pretty new website at the time. While I was in college, I spent one summer in Chicago, doing concert reviews and band interviews. Those were the jobs that really got me thinking I should work in music. I was a pre-law major in college, so I thought I could go to law school and go on to become a music or entertainment lawyer. After I graduated, I took the LSAT, and I gave myself a few years to explore the possibility of working in music. I drove out to L.A. with no job, no apartment, no anything. I only knew a couple of people that lived out here. I thought I’d try to work for a couple of years before heading to law school. That’s how I got to where I am today.
I understand that you started as a music coordinator on forensic dramas, such as Cold Case and CSI: Miami. How did you find your way to the field of music supervision in the first place?
For about four years, I was working at a music non-profit, doing a lot of grant writing and fundraising for the company. It wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term, but it gave me a salary. I was able to get an apartment and look for internships that were more related to what I wanted to do. In a weird, very serendipitous turn of events, I also happened to be volunteering at the KCRW radio station. This was in the early ‘00s, so I was assisting Jason Bentley for his show, Metropolis and Anne Litt on Weekend Becomes Eclectic. That was where I found out that music supervision existed as a job. At the time, there was a lot less media coverage about the profession. No one was talking about it, but all the DJs at KCRW were doing it on the side. I was like, "Wow. That sounds incredible. That sounds exactly like what I want to do."
I asked some of the DJs if I could intern or become their assistant. They were all very gracious and said, "We wish we could hire you, but we just don't have the means to pay you for this kind of work." Around the same time, I was introduced to Jason Alexander through a mutual friend. He was music supervising all the CSI shows, Without a Trace and Cold Case. I was his intern for a few months, and then his assistant left to do something completely different, so he hired me as his assistant and then as his coordinator. That's when I got thrown into the fire. There were four or five different TV shows going at the same time, so I was there to handle all of the licensing and worked as his coordinator for years.
Tell us more about Hitting The Ground Running Music Supervision. What are the core values and culture of your company? How did Jonathan Christiansen become a part of your team?
Jason started the company in ’01 with a partner, Debra Baum. As I was saying, he quickly hired me to be his coordinator. Jason is my business partner today at Hit The Ground Running and a company called Pusher, which we started about nine or ten years ago.
My relationship with Jason is unique in that he is both my mentor because he was the first one that I worked for in this business, and my business partner. I don't think there are that many people that can say that about people that they used to intern for. I think that's a testament to him as a mentor — how selfless he was in developing me and wanting to see me grow enough to the point where he wanted to be business partners with me. That was a huge vote of confidence from someone that I work with and still work with today.
Jonathan has been on our team for ten years now. He's a music supervisor here. Back when we were music supervising Entourage, it happened to be Jonathan's favorite show at the time. He sent an e-mail out of the blue and was like, "Hey, I'd love to intern for your company." I was like, "Where are you based?" He said, "I'm in Boston." I'm like, "All right, cool." At the time, our internships at Hit the Ground Running were unpaid. That has changed, but back then, I told him, "Hey, this is an unpaid gig, at least initially. You're in Boston, so it’s probably not something worth moving out for, but if you're ever in L.A., give us a call." And then, literally seven or eight days later, he called me and said, "I'm in LA." He just packed his car, drove from Boston to LA, and said he was ready to intern.
We’re very proud of the fact that our whole team has been with us long term. The culture of our company is that we're basically a family. We're ten or eleven people now, running both Hit the Ground Running and Pusher. Jonathan has been here ten years, we have Michelle, who's been here for about eight years, and Marielle, seven years. We're very proud to have had our core crew with us for a long time. For some of these guys, it's their first real job in the music business. All Jason and I can do is try to support them enough and make it hard for them to leave. We are very proud of the fact that we find a lot of young people, who are starting out and maybe haven’t had a real opportunity or a shot. We just go with our gut.
You are a founding partner of Pusher, which has reinvented the wheel of traditional trailer music with a roster that boasts Run The Jewels, David Lynch, Moby, and DJ Shadow to name a few. What was the motivation behind its establishment?
In a nutshell, it's a sync agency, and we mainly focus on trailers and promos. Back in ’08, there was a big writers' strike in Hollywood, and all our supervision business was crushed for that year. There were no films or TV shows being made that year. I think the economic losses of the City of Los Angeles was staggering. It equated to billions of dollars. All the ancillary businesses, dry cleaners, restaurants, and coffee shops went out of business because people weren't spending money. No one was really making money.
Jason and I got crushed, so we thought to ourselves, "Well, what else can we do? How can we future proof ourselves?”. We had about eleven months without any work. Knowing that the business of music supervision was likely going to come back, we started Pusher. We didn't want to start a sync agency that did everything — commercials, film, and TV, trailers, video games. We didn't want to spread ourselves too thin. We looked at the relationships we had with artists, bands, producers, and composers, we felt that trailers could be a good specialization. Almost ten years later, we haven't deviated from that at all.
We're very fortunate to be able to work with artists, both signed and unsigned. We're very fortunate to represent some of our favorite independent labels — artists on Mute, Sacred Bones, Tri Angle Records, Erased Tapes. I think what our artists appreciate about us is that we're so specific about what we do. We're not asking to represent their music for all media. Our day-to-day core business is just knocking on the doors of people that make trailers. I think artists, even some of the most established ones like Moby, Nils Frahm, and DJ Shadow, can appreciate that we're just trying to do one thing and do it well.
Under the umbrella of Pusher, which projects have been your most significant to date?
At the very, very beginning of our business, we custom scored the theatrical trailer to Inception. It was a huge deal to us and opened up a lot of doors. When the client asked us if we wanted to custom score something, we didn't know what that entailed. We didn't know what we were doing, but we put up a few of our artists. They picked one of them, Zack Hemsey, a producer out of New York who was an unknown independent artist at the time. He was barely 20 and making jingles for commercials. His buddy, who was acting as his manager, sent us a CD of this hip-hop album he produced, hoping it would get placed in our music supervision projects. It had a distinct voice, and it really stood out to me, so I asked him to work with us on our new venture. He said yes, and that’s what started everything.
That trailer put us on the map. That campaign was under such secrecy. We didn’t even know what film it was that we were working on. They gave very basic guidelines and references. We had to score it blindly. It ended up being a pretty seminal trailer and went on to win a bunch of awards. It was our first, so it was definitely an auspicious start for Pusher. That trailer started the whole phenomenon of using a big, heavy brass sustained note. It’s funny because it’s been mocked and it’s been referenced and copied countless times since then.
Right after we finished Inception, the same client asked us to score another trailer, which was for the Ben Affleck directed film, The Town. Zack did those two projects back-to-back. He is still what we would consider one of our signature artists. I’m still very proud of that trailer. I think the composition is very strong and it also set the tone for our company. To this day, ten years later, the bespoke composition in production is still a big part of our business.
These days, the field is incredibly crowded. There are more companies and tons of talented producers working in this space all around the world, but I enjoy that aspect of it. I feel like the competition breeds innovation, it breeds creativity. There are certain campaigns that we're very lucky to be asked to throw our hat in the ring for. Some of those campaigns are things that we, at our office, are like, "This should be us. We feel we have the right artists to do this and we want to win." It is hyper-competitive, but we like that about it.
In recent years, the trailer world has been heavily saturated with dark, moody renderings of well-known songs. What do you think of this approach? What are other trends you identify?
I think it's just a part of the creative landscape. We are certainly a part of that. We released three volumes of covers over the years. Of course, there was definitely a moment where it felt like almost every trailer was using a cover —certainly, some of those executions were better than others. I think there is some fatigue involved, but to me, an original piece of music, a remix, a cover, as long as it's inspired, and as long as it's done the right way and used the right way, there's definitely room for it. Remixes are an even bigger thing now — taking the acapella and the original stems, then ‘trailerizing’ them.
All creative things can come and go. Maybe they won't entirely go away forever ever, but there are trends, and there are things that become en vogue. We've seen an interesting shift with hip-hop becoming the most popular genre of music in America, if not, the world. Now, we see campaigns, that would have previously shied away from using hip-hop, actively seek it out. Things are always changing. These marketing departments now understand the value of hip-hop and how all demographics are listening to hip-hop, so it’s normalized marketing very mainstream films with a big piece of rap. Fortunately, hip-hop is something that we love. We have been working in that world for many, many years. Since the beginning, Pusher has represented artists and producers in the world of hip-hop, so we clearly like this trend.
Your musical curation has provided an intriguing counterpoint to the nerd zeitgeist of Silicon Valley over the past five seasons. Can you explain the decision to make hip-hop a centerpiece of the soundtrack? How would you personally describe the musical energy of the show and how it has evolved?
As with any project, film or TV program that we are a part of, Silicon Valley is a hugely collaborative project. It's never one singular vision that we bring to a project. We’re talking to editors, the screenwriters, the producers, the directors. When we initially got brought on to Silicon Valley, we got hired right at the beginning of the series, and we met Mike Judge and Alec Berg, who are our showrunners.
In the beginning, we put together tonal ideas, which we often do — a palette of sounds, instrumentals, and songs to see if we’re all on the same page. There is almost always a push and pull when you’re getting started on honing in a sound and direction, but Silicon Valley was just one of those dream projects where everyone seemed to be operating on the same wavelength. We sent over the first volumes of music and got positive feedback on specific songs and instrumentals.
Part of it has to do with the nature of the show. We knew this was a show about brilliant nerds. Playing things that were too indie or too cool didn’t feel right. We wanted to play on the idea that these nerds are trying to change the world. The technology industry is set up to transform the way business is done. We felt there was something pretty badass about that. That, in tandem with knowing how Mike Judge has used music in the past, there wasn't ever a specific conversation about using hip-hop, but it was certainly included in the initial volumes of ideas we sent. And it worked.
I will say that we've made a deliberate attempt not to have it be a purely hip-hop soundtrack. We've certainly used a lot of artists to end episodes and in big moments that are not hip-hop. We'd never want to feel like it's a formula and not have the opportunity to be able to surprise the audience with different song choices. It's clearly a flavor of the show and a sound of the show, but it's not the entirety of the show.
One of the great things with the editors on this show, and with Mike and Alec, is that they're very open to using off-kilter instrumentals from producers and bands to score some of the offbeat moments of the show. We have an amazing composer, Jeff Cardoni, that works on the show, but we also have the room to place some of these instrumentals in these spots, which add a different sound to it. We pride ourselves on using a lot of weird music in the show, even our main title is weird.
Over the years, you have premiered many unreleased, exclusive tracks during the end credits of Silicon Valley. What have been some of the most memorable or personally meaningful songs you've synched on the show?
Oh, man, that's hard. Certainly one of the things that we're proud of is the main title music. It is an artist called Tobacco who has a pretty small, but very devoted following. Having that song as our main title is something that we're really proud of because it reflects the quirkiness, the swagger, the style, and the substance of the show. It's not a very long main title sequence, but it's a placement resonates with us. It was great to use an independent artist that we've admired for a while. It was a gratifying moment.
Overall, I think it was season four when we released our official soundtrack album. We were fortunate to work on Silicon Valley and bring together a bunch of artists who created original music for the show. We premiered all these tracks in the season from people like Danny Brown, Hudson Mohawke, and Wu-Tang Clan.
You recently worked on Rapture, an all-encompassing hip hop documentary series for Netflix, which examined the lives of Nas, T.I., 2Chainz, Logic, and others. How were you originally brought onboard the project?
We got hired by the production company, Mass Appeal. Mass Appeal is a record label. It's also a magazine. It's like a cultural hub in New York City that has gotten very prolific in film and TV production. We've known and worked with Mass Appeal over the years and licensed some of their artists. They were our soundtrack partner on the Silicon Valley soundtrack. When they told us about this show they were producing for Netflix, it just seemed like a very natural fit. We have extensive experience with on-camera performances with licensing hip-hop, which can be a nightmare with samples and side artists and all that stuff. It's something that we're very well-versed in.
Some people bitch and moan about clearing hip-hop. We actually love clearing hip-hop. We like the challenge it presents and the problem-solving that we have to do. So, they hired us to oversee the music and the licensing of Rapture. It was a massive, massive undertaking — very intense licensing wise. We had scenes in the studio with producers making beats with samples on repeat. There were songs placed in the show that were so new, even the artists' labels didn't know they existed. It was a huge, complex project, but one that was ultimately gratifying. We were very happy with how it turned out. Fingers crossed, it gets brought back for season two.
As a long-time champion for rap as an art form, was there an episode of Rapture that you were particularly inspired by?
Ironically, the episode I was most inspired by was the Just Blaze episode. He is a producer, and the only non-MC featured in the series. I think it’s because I pay a lot of attention to producers. I listen to a lot of their work. I admire them as songwriters, as producers, and how they work with artists. Not enough people understand how they work and I think that episode did a cool job of giving us a peek into the life of a producer. They all have different roles, and no one really understands those roles or gets to see them very often, particularly people that don't work in music.
The fans and people outside the industry might know their favorite songs, but have very little idea as to how those songs are made, recorded, and conceived. There is such an incredible range of talent out there in the production world. I would give anything to see them in a studio with an artist. To pull back the curtain on that shit is what truly fascinates me.
Who have been the most significant mentors and collaborators in your career as a music supervisor? Is there a piece of advice that has guided your professional approach?
I would definitely say Jason, just because he is quite literally my mentor. He took me in and taught me everything there is to know about how music licensing, labels and publishers work, but also about the many intangibles. I teach a class at UCLA on music supervision, and that is a significant part of the curriculum. People know that music supervision is about listening to a lot of music, helping find songs, doing all the clearances, and negotiating the fees, but there are a lot of intangibles that are necessary to understand. You need to be able to take a meeting with a filmmaker or director and be able to articulate your creative thoughts in a clear way. You need to be political in decision-making while still having the best ideas for each project.
There are a lot of sensitivities. There are hundreds and hundreds of people working together in film and TV production towards the same case. Being able to be in a room with different types of people as diverse as a music editor to a composer to a scriptwriter comes from learning on the job. Jason gave me the real experience needed to be a music supervisor. He brought me along to meetings, made me privy to e-mail chains and phone calls. This job is more than the nuts and bolts of licensing, which is of course hugely important. The skills of problem-solving, putting out fires, and remaining calm in incredibly stressful situations — those are the things most people aren't prepared for when they get into it. I was fortunate to have a mentor that showed me the ropes every day.
Teaching this class is a very eye-opening experience. It actually helps me. They say, if you write or speak about something, it really reinforces your intimate knowledge of it. I have been able to really formulate my own thoughts and opinions of how the process of music supervision works.
From the standpoint of lessons learned, if you reflect on your professional life, do you have any revelations or regrets you can share with us?
It's a hard question because I consider myself very fortunate in that I get to do the job that I'm doing now — it really is a dream job. I fell into this at a pretty young age and have been doing this for fourteen years or so. I am thankful that there weren’t any hiccups in the road. As soon as I learned about this profession, I worked towards it.
The kids coming up now have a lot more resources - people, in general, are more aware. There is more exposure to music in film and TV and the role of a music supervisor. There’s a Guild of Music Supervisors. Classes are being taught at colleges. It’s now an Emmy category. All the reading materials for my class are links to popular articles from places like the New York Times, Vice, Forbes Magazine. That shit didn’t exist seven, eight years ago.
People always ask me about the best way to get started, and there isn’t a right answer. If you look at all of the other supervisors that are working right now, everyone has a different story of how they fell into it. A lot of it has to do with the right timing, putting yourself out there, and being prepared to do whatever is asked of you, however inglorious that is. That's the common thread of all my friends who are doing this now.
My last point is that it's such a crazy, exciting time for music supervisors. There's more shit that's being made now than ever before. One of the things that I love working on is non-fiction programming. Thanks to Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and these premium channels, there's so much incredible programming in this category that I get to work on, which wasn't such a big part of the job ten years ago. This year alone, I got to work on Andre the Giant for HBO, and I worked on a new Michael Jordan documentary series for Netflix and ESPN. These are dream gigs. These are things that I'd be watching on my couch — I get to work on them. I’m amazed by this variety of emerging content. Anyone who’s in our line of work can stay busy and be happy doing this job. That’s a very positive thing to be able to say of the state of affairs right now.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Extending gratitude to Rudy Chung.