Setting the Mood: an Interview with Music

Supervisor Anna Romanoff

Is an “I love you” really an “I love you” if it isn’t accompanied by a carefully curated Spotify playlist? A playlist that not only expresses a suitor’s devotion, but simultaneously flexes their music taste? Music can often replicate emotions better than words themselves. Thus, filmmakers rely on music supervisors to select songs to create a sense of emotional realism. I had the privilege to interview music supervisor Anna Romanoff. Romanoff’s resume already boasts an impressive catalog  of accomplishments after just six years in the industry. Most notably, Romanoff worked on American Horror Stories, American Crime Story, Pose, Pam & Tommy, Bombshell, The Americans, The Politician, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

ES: What do your responsibilities as a music supervisor entail?

AR: The job varies from project to project. A good way to think about it is that you’re the music department head on a production across all phases of a project, whether it’s development during production and post production. The music supervisor is the person who is at the top of all things music, guiding everything through each process in a way where everything is approved creatively, legally, and on budget. 

ES: Can you describe the directions you are given and your process in song selection?

AR: At the point where we’re putting in music, there’s no on-camera tie. We’re doing the whole thing in post production. Usually, we send ideas before the cut has really come together. In that sense, we don’t have a clip that we can watch and then play something back to. We’re really just basing it off of the script. What most supervisors think about as they’re sending songs for a scene would be the pacing and the energy of the scene based off of the script. Does a male or female vocal make more sense for the context in the script? What genre? What are we lyrically trying to communicate? On the flip side, once an episode has come together, sometimes we’re just replacing something. For those times, we’re often given a lot more guidance of “this is what I don’t like about what’s currently in there, please send options that achieve this instead.”

ES: Different shows and movies cater to different audiences. Likely, you are not always part of that target audience. How do you tap into the music tastes of the intended audiences?

AR: Some shows try to hit a very specific target demographic, and the music matters. A lot of movies and shows try to hit a younger, contemporary, pop-leaning audience. In those cases, we try to find relevant up-and-coming artists and songs that are big or just hit a certain tone that seems trendy. I work on a fair amount of period pieces, and we’re looking to find the music that tells the story the best, versus hitting a target demographic. If the music matches the story and the demographic of the show, then the music will translate well. 

ES: Can you describe  the music discovery process?

AR: My music discovery process is pretty similar to any other person who’s interested in music: word of mouth, Spotify, what starts to pierce the culture. If you’re a music fan, it tends to reach you somehow. You absorb it through your social network. Artists, labels, and publishers reach out to us constantly. I probably get 20 to 30 emails a day from labels and publishers sending us new music. We don’t have time to listen to everything. However, the more times you see an artist’s name come up in a subject line, then, “oh, maybe that person is starting to make a name for themselves.” There are 40 or 50 labels and publishers that are out there that control 90% of recorded music. I probably email with all of them on a weekly basis, if not, multiple times a day. The sync department at a label or a publisher sends out music to supervisors.

ES: What advice can you give to someone interested in pursuing music supervision or music publishing?

AR: If you want to work for a publisher or a label, interning at one of those companies is probably the best way to get into the industry. In the entertainment industry, a lot of people’s paths start out as an assistant. That’s how most of the people I know have done it. I started out as an assistant to a lawyer and then ended up doing clearance for her. I did that for three years before I transitioned to music supervision. By the time I made the switch, I knew a lot of people in the sync world. Those jobs are really competitive because there aren’t a ton of music supervisors out there. There aren’t even a ton of labels and publishers out there. Starting with any job you can get that is somewhat tangential is a good stepping stone to get closer to where you want to go, rather than holding out for a music supervisor or Warner Music Group position. Working for a small sync agent based in the town that you live in and then trying to segue that into a job that is based in LA or New York, would be a lot easier than trying to break in right away. It really comes down to luck and the right time and place. Be as prepared, knowledgeable, and competent as you can be whenever you are offered any opportunity to show the people you’re working for that you are a value to their team. Whatever opportunity you’re in, make the most of it even if this isn’t what you want to do. Soak up everything you can from this part of it. Once you feel there’s nothing more to learn, move on to the next thing. Don’t think that any piece of it is beneath you or isn’t relevant to what you’re ultimately trying to do.

ES: What are some experiences that especially stood out to you?

AR: I did Bad Moms, The Shape of Water, The Edge of Seventeen, and a ton of Marvel movies when I worked for a lawyer on clearance and licensing. For Pam and Tommy, I was music coordinating. That was a really cool one. It was a period piece, to a certain degree, but they were a little flexible with it. The 90s was such a fun time in music. It was also very stylized. Anytime you’re working on something that’s super stylized, there’s more flexibility to do out of the box stuff with music, as opposed to just what’s playing in the bar or on the car radio. With Ryan Murphy, it’s also a lot of period pieces. We stick very strictly to what would be period-appropriate in said date in said month. We won’t use anything that wasn’t recorded or released up until that time. A lot of productions like Halston, The Boys in the Band, or more prestigious projects, really put a premium on telling very grounded, authentic stories. They want them to feel very, very realistic. 

ES: Are you ever exposed to new music genres or songs from different time periods through your work?

AR: Constantly. I’ve learned so much about world music that I never knew. I worked on shows that use a ton of Chinese hip hop music. I’ve worked on shows that use Venezuelan music from the 60s. There’s a ton of world music that is way out of the realm of what I would listen to on my own. I find so many songs and artists through work. A huge part of the job is definitely music discovery and being open to whatever you need in whatever comes your way.

ES: Do you ever have to choose between what you believe is a better song versus a better song for that specific scene or scenario? 

AR: A “better” song is so subjective. There are songs that are not produced as well. To me, that is incredibly distracting. Even if a song lyrically hits perfectly, but not produced well as another song, then it’s not the right song for the scene. The best song is the song that would be right for the scene for what we do as a music supervisor. Usually, we’re picking between what I would consider “good” songs. Then, you’re just trying to find what works best for the scene. Probably what I would call a better song would be different than what the showrunner or music editor might.

ES: Do you try to incorporate songs that are special to you or the people in your life?

AR: Holding on strongly to the music that you personally want to get into a project will probably lead to more frustration than happiness. There are so many hurdles that music goes through before it ends up in a project. There are so many opinions that go into what ends up on a project. I tend to not really focus on trying to get in something that is personally meaningful to me, if it doesn’t connect with the rest of the team. Because then you’re just trying to force something that people aren’t going to be super receptive to. Personal music tastes and knowledge base of music will naturally influence what you send to producers and showrunners. What I want to get into a show personally and what matches the tone of the show often overlaps.

ES: How does the scale of a production and music availability impact your freedom in song selection?

AR: In picking songs, budget is definitely important. There’s unlimited music out there at all budget tiers, so there’s certainly a ton of great music available at lower budgets. If you have a very small budget on something, you can’t use a Beatles song or a Madonna song, so it limits you in that sense. There’s beyond budget things that limit what you would do. If you’re working on a period piece, then we would only use songs that have been at that point in time. To a certain extent, a director’s personal tastes will be a factor in how you choose the music that goes into something. The tone of the show and what you’re going for will also limit it. You’re always kind of just trying to find the right stuff that fits the project, which may not necessarily be what your own personal taste is.

ES: What are some soundtracks from movies or television shows that you didn’t work on but you really love?

AR: I’ve been watching Reservation Dogs on Hulu and the music is so good. I personally love the Euphoria soundtrack. I think Jen [Malone] did such a good job there. Growing up, big shows that influenced my music taste and also my understanding of this job were The OC, One Tree Hill, and the original Gossip Girl. Those teen-type of shows, where they’re really looking to be a music discovery engine for high school kids, musically connected with me growing up. I love Rob Lowry who does the new HBO Gossip Girl remake. It’s a nice parallel to the original one, which is a different style of music. They definitely still keep it very trendy in a cool way.

Eva Schooler (she/her) is an undeclared major from Syracuse, NY. Schooler can be reached for comment at