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Interview with DAN LIEBERSTEIN, music supervisor for TV show Sex and the City - Mar 18, 2002

"You need to pay attention to the way we use music in the show, and pitch me what I really need."

picture Based in New York and currently working on the TV show Sex and the City, Dan Lieberstein is an independent film and television music supervisor.

How did you get started in the film, TV and music business, and how did you become a music supervisor?

I started quite a while back as a music editor, and as such I have worked on hundreds of projects: television, feature films, just about everything you could name. I have a degree in Music and was a professional musician by the age of 14. I put myself through college by earning money as a drummer, playing in various bands. I eventually tired of being out on the road, so I went looking for a job, and I wanted something that involved music. I didnít even know that such a thing as a music editor existed, but I just went around, knocking on doors, and I was offered a very low-paying job at a production house called Ross Gaffney in New York that did commercials and industrial films. From music editing I went on to become a music supervisor.

What qualities are needed to be a successful music supervisor for TV shows?

I wouldnít single out TV shows, because I think you need the same for everything. A lot of people think itís just about knowing music or having a vast trivial knowledge of music, but I donít think itís that at all. I think itís about developing a real sensitivity to the music that will support the emotion of the scene and help it make its point, music that helps the film come alive and touch the audience.

What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a music supervisor?

I think what makes me a good music supervisor is all the years I spent as a music editor. No one taught me: at Ross Gaffney I learnt by just doing film after film after film. Thatís where I cut my teeth. Those industrial films use music wall to wall. So, by the time youíve spent 3 years doing it, youíve got a pretty good idea of what editing and picking music for film involves.

What are the creative challenges when selecting music for a TV show?

The biggest challenge is finding music to support the emotion of the scene. The music must also help the transition from scene to scene, help the pace of the film, and add something to the story - those are all gigantic creative challenges.

Who are the people you work with when deciding what music will be used?

It changes from job to job, but most of the time itís the picture editor and the director, or, in the case of television, the executive producer.

What resources do you use to find music for the shows you are working on?

I have a huge music library. Iím sitting here looking at about 5000 CDs. I have many relationships in the music industry, so if I have a scene where I need an artist or some type of music that I feel I donít have enough of, I just call somebody and ask them. Generally, that means publishers and record labels.

Is the Internet something you use when it comes to finding artists and music?

Yes. I would say that the Internet is a very valuable resource for expanding on an idea, once you have it. If you go to a site like the All Music Guide and look up Journey, then it will say underneath, ďIf you like Journey, you might also like these 10 bands,Ē and then you go, ďOh, yeah, I forgot about that band,Ē and you have a look at them.

How should a publisher or a record label go about to try to place a song of theirs on a show that youíre working on?

They should contact me to find out what Iím looking for. If itís specifically for Sex and the City, they need to watch the show and understand what it is weíre doing with the show. The most common mistake people make is pitching me material that is really more about their idea of the show than the way music is used in it. They know what the show is like, or theyíve seen it a couple of times, and theyíre pitching me love songs, or songs about people wanting to meet people, or picking up people, or songs about sex. We never use stuff like that. They need to pay attention to the way we use music in the show, and pitch me what I really need.

Is it possible for an unsigned act to get his or her songs featured on a show?

Itís not easy, but definitely possible, if they pay close enough attention to what Iím really using.

How often do you feature music from unsigned artists?

On Sex and the City, fairly often. There are a few artists that Iíve developed a relationship with, who are making the kind of music that I can really use and are sending me that. So I have sort of a stable of artists that I use a lot. The major thing is that Iím always looking for great instrumentals that are written as instrumentals. Thatís another mistake people make, people hear that Iím looking for instrumentals and they think they can just take the vocal track off their song and send me that. But you can instantly hear that itís not an instrumental, that itís just a background track. And that doesnít work. A great instrumental is a piece of music that was written to be music, and not to be the background to a vocal.

Do you receive unsolicited material?

I receive more than I would like to, but I eventually listen to everything. I do use quite a bit of material from unsigned artists, but I would caution people that the unsolicited, unsigned artists I use are one in five hundred.

As artists can break by having their songs featured on a show, would you consider a joint venture with a record label, featuring an artist of theirs continuously on a show?

I couldnít do that. As an independent, I would consider that a major conflict of interest. Back in the old days, they would have called that payola!

How much is paid in licensing fees when it comes to music in TV shows, and what are these figures based on?

I donít want to get into the specifics of licensing fees. But I will say this:

A. Because weíre a huge hit show, people think I have more money to spend than I actually do. I have to be very careful with my budget. Television shows have very small budgets compared to big hit feature films. So putting a song or a piece of music on my show is not going to be a windfall in terms of money.
B. The fees vary widely depending on who you are, and itís all negotiable. One of the reasons I use so many independent, unsigned artists is to be able to meet my budget. So the fees are reasonable, but not what I would call extremely generous. However, itís a win-win situation for me and for the artist. I get good music at a reasonable rate, and the artist gets his or her music on Sex and the City, which means a lot to him/her.

If you order a song from a writer or producer, what input do you have on the writing and production?

I almost never order songs. I have writers whose music I like and who I think write the style of music that I can use on Sex and the City. I encourage them to send me more, I listen to it and I use it when and if the time comes. I rarely commission anyone. In television, everything happens so fast that I have to have the music handy, and I have to already be familiar with it, so that when the opportunity comes it can all happen very quickly.

How easy or difficult is it to obtain sync and master licences?

If youíre talking about the handful of independent artists I work with, they own the sync and master. If youíre talking about music that I clear from major labels, that varies. If a record label has a contract with an artist, and the artist has to give their approval, it can take a very long time. Sometimes Iíve had to drop songs that I wanted to use because it was too much trouble finding the artist to get approval. There have been a couple of instances where I wanted to use some music from France, but wasnít able to because the French publishing companies took so long to get back to me with the clearance. But I would say that 80% of what I clear from major labels, I clear within 5 business days.

What are the differences between choosing songs for TV shows and feature films?

I donít think there are any.

How often do you release a soundtrack album for a TV show?

Thatís totally up for grabs. I donít think there are any rules. Weíre working on a soundtrack for Sex and the City, which will be released in June on Sony.

Is the possibility of a soundtrack release something you keep in mind when you start working on the music for a show?

For a feature film, always. For television, no, because you usually have to wait a year or two to find out whether or not youíve really got a big hit on your hands.

How many songs are generally needed for one episode of Sex and the City?

I use between 12 to 15 pieces of music per episode. We donít have a composer, and when I say Iím using 12 to 15 pieces of music, perhaps only one or two are songs with lyrics.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

There have been a lot of good moments. When I worked as a sound editor, I was part of the team who worked on Reds, which was nominated for an Academy Award for sound editing. I think that was the first year they gave an Academy Award for sound editing. We didnít win, but we were nominated, so that was very good. Iíve worked with some great directors, which I have enjoyed tremendously, including Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. I also worked as music supervisor and producer on a show called The Equalizer, which was a big hit. Iíve also enjoyed working closely with Stewart Copeland from The Police, who is a very nice guy. More recently, Iíve done a few movies with Rachel Portman, who is an Academy Award-winning music composer, and sheís delightful, I love working with her. Iíve done a lot of interesting things and have really enjoyed a great many of them.

This is my 5th year with Sex and the City and I love working on this show; I love the people I work with. They really appreciate what I do; they appreciate the music and they use it well. Itís a very satisfying show to work on.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

My hope is that Iíll be doing more music supervising, and that Iíll be working on more feature films as a music supervisor.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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