Meet top music supervisor Ciara Elwis
In this piece via Spotify For Artists music supervisor and Spotify alum Hilary Hughes delves into her quest for the perfect soundtrack for the HBO Max show ‘I May Destroy You,’ and the close relationship between playlists and songs in helping to tell stories on screen.
Guest post by Hilary Hughes of Spotify for Artists
The Spotify alum explains her pursuit of the perfect soundtrack for ‘I May Destroy You’ and the connections between playlists and the songs that help tell your favorite stories on screen.
When Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You enthralled and devastated viewers in the summer of 2020, the series was hailed for its phenomenal performances (especially the star-turn of Coel, the series’ creator, co-director, and lead actress) and the vibrant world it built for Coel’s character, Arabella, a writer who survives and processes a traumatic sexual assault in East London. It was also rightfully praised for its soundtrack, which worked hits from Nicki Minaj, Daft Punk, Janelle Monáe, Rosalía, and more into a mix that also featured the modern jazz of English acts like The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet.
Coel has an incredible ear, and many of the songs were written into the script — Arabella takes on Minaj’s “Truffle Butter” at karaoke in the series premiere — but the ones that weren’t came from Ciara Elwis and Matt Biffa, a pair of savvy music supervisors from London’s Air-Edel. The search for the right tune has been a constant focus for Elwis going back to her college days: while studying at the University of Edinburgh, she got her first music gig when she signed on to be the Spotify brand manager at the University of Edinburgh, which involved curating playlists for events on campus and working sponsored events.
Since graduation, she’s programmed the soundtracks for The Duchess, This Way Up, Afterlife, and other films and TV projects through her work with Air-Edel, but I May Destroy You stands out as a particularly challenging, and compelling, endeavor: the show had no score, which gave Elwis and Biffa ample opportunities to draw from Coel’s rich source material and support the story with a soundtrack that both sounded like a perfect fit for Arabella’s AirPods and a vehicle for her story. Below, Elwis unpacks her process and what role playlisting plays in her job as a music supervisor.
Given that your career in the music industry began with a gig with Spotify, do you consider there to be a connection between your previous playlisting work and music supervision?
100 percent. It’s something I still do on a daily basis for work, so 100 percent, it’s linked. What we do is essentially organize ideas around a theme; our theme is this specific visual we’ve got to find ideas for. It’s probably more fluid with genre than a lot of playlists might be, it’s still a very similar concept, and certainly something I first started working on when I was doing the Edinburgh [Spotify] job. I put it all together, but that was a lot of research-based stuff for me because that wasn’t a lot of stuff I was already listening to. It’s similar to what I do now, it’s just a different approach to what kind of music you’re putting in.
If you were to give a nuts and bolts definition for music supervision, what would it be?
I would say that we are responsible for all the music that goes into a piece of film or TV, but that it is a curated role, rather than a creation role. We don’t do the composition; we don’t write any of these pieces of music. We curate the music that exists in there, and we do that with the help of the producer and directors to create the world that they want us to create for them… I think a huge part of the job that people don’t realize is that, regardless of how good a track can sound, we need clearance to be able to make sure that it goes in: you can’t just pitch stuff blindly without knowing who owns it. A set process has to happen when you’ve found the perfect song to actually make sure that you don’t get sued if you use it for doing it.
In some cases, you have a really vivid world, as we did with I May Destroy You. Something I loved about it was how it painted a portrait of East London and how authentic the soundtrack to me. What made I May Destroy You a dream project, on that front?
The way the music was approached was quite different from other stuff we had worked on, which is always really interesting. With this, it’s very curated to East London, that whole scene, but that’s because we were sticking very close to what Michaela said was and wasn’t right. That doesn’t mean that every single song she’d heard of before, but it meant that every single song, we would try and see if it would fit with this world we were trying to create. With this project, we were playing against the classic thing of making people feel a certain way by playing a sad song, or underscoring a tense moment with a tense piece of underscoring. A lot of the time the music plays the characters instead, and often plays against what you’re seeing on screen, which I think is much more challenging in some ways to approach — it could be anything, but it couldn’t be everything. It was wide open, but only certain things felt authentic. There were a lot of conversations between ourselves and Michaela, and the editors, and also the director, about why a certain piece of music might be alright for a sequence. It’s a dream from our perspective as well to have a piece of art like this, which has so much of a reliance on the music without there being any score, because every single musical cue was something we either had to clear or source, whereas usually you would have a piece of score. As much as there are some incredible scores out there and I love working with composers, it is an interesting approach to look at things differently and be like, “Well, we’re responsible for everything here, and we can’t just be lazy and say, oh, this is a little bit of tense underbed.” You have to think, when you’re teasing out a piece of music, much more carefully about what every single little bit of music is doing.
What role does playlisting play in musical discovery for you now? Has Spotify helped you find new stuff?
I do use Discover Weekly. It’s quite helpful for work because I do a lot of listening for work on Spotify when I’m listening for new stuff, but then it will be like, “You listened to XYZ recently, we found C that you might find interesting,” and sometimes it will pick up some really great gems, which is always really good. The other thing I sometimes do, especially for party playlists and stuff like that, is to just have a look at other peoples’ playlists on Spotify. If you ask any five people what their definition of a banger is, then everyone would probably have a different answer, so I always find that quite interesting — almost like I’m looking at character taste playlists. If we’re saying, “What would this character be listening to?” then I’ll listen through loads of other peoples’ playlists on Spotify, just by typing in something generic, so you usually come up with loads of peoples’ playlists that come up public, like a little mosey through what everyone else feels like listening to. It’s always really interesting, even if it just gives you an idea of a song you’ve already heard of. I think how other people see music, and how other people interpret what music is for what occasions, is obviously really important for what we do.
What’s something an artist would need to do to make sure their music is as accessible as possible for a music supervisor?
A lot of people have sync agents, which is a huge thing now. There’s loads of companies we work with in the States, and also the U.K., who just pitch out music for labels and publishers. If they already have representation, it’s something that their label or publisher can look through. A lot of times, labels and publishers have their own sync arm as well, so it kind of is their responsibility to contact us. I must get 25 emails a day from labels or publishers with music, and I do listen to that music when I get around to it. If you’ve got an email address of a supervisor, then I would 100% recommend sending them yourself maybe on a monthly basis of different stuff you’ve done that are new and interesting, especially with genre, vague genre ideas, maybe a little bit about what the song is about in there. One of the main things I do when I’m looking for something specific is just searching my emails and picking out anyone who’s been like, “I’ve written this song about X.” Those will come up in my search. It’s always worth doing that. But sync agents are a big one I would recommend doing; if not, you can contact people directly. I get stuff on Instagram all the time. Some great stuff comes through there. I’m always open to listening to stuff regardless of where it’s being sent from. I think getting new music in front of supervisors is the best thing you can do, especially if you send a nice, polite, interested email… I want to say one other thing that’s super boring, but super important: rights ownership. If you’ve written a song with someone, decide what the publishing is going to be right away. If I find a song on Spotify I really like, and I go and check on the rights. If it’s got 70% copyright control (meaning that copyright is retained by the writer and not assigned to a third-party publisher, i.e. the song has no publisher), I’m just not going to pitch it. So sorting out who owns your rights and registering them with a publisher, or publishing them yourself as soon as possible, is so important… It happens all the time: I’ll find something I really, really love, and then it will be copyright control, and then, I think having your contact details out there is really important. If you’re an artist, having an email that you check regularly on Instagram is actually really, really important, because I contacted people through Instagram for I May Destroy You, and some of them didn’t come back, and then their music didn’t go in the show. I know this is quite boring, but from our point of view, it’s really important for us to get peoples’ music on TV shows.
When it comes to working with different directors and writers, is it rare to have someone like Michaela who’s really invested in the music, or musically savvy?
I would say it’s probably about 50/50. Sometimes we’re really left to our own devices; sometimes people have very varied ideas or thoughts of the music they want. It might be the director wants a certain thing, the producer wants another thing, the editor would have a different idea, and then one of the many parts of our job is essentially negotiating between all the different parties and trying to find something that will tick everyone’s boxes — which is obviously one of the bigger struggles of the job, I would say, trying to take three different ideas of what the music should be and put them into the one thing that everyone can agree on. Michaela was obviously really involved, but I think the reason for that was this was her personal story, so a lot of the music did have to flow from her, because a lot of the music was scripted, and it was part of the essence of the show from the beginning. From our perspective, it’s always a great thing when people are really involved in the musical choices. It just drives us to do better, to be honest. She’d come up with something, and our job would be to go off and find something like that that was right by what she wanted. We’d get to introduce the editors and director and even Michaela I guess to music that they’d never heard before that we love. It was a great problem to have.
What do you think is the most common misconception about music supervision? What’s something that musicians come to you, or labels don’t seem to understand about what you do and how you operate on these projects?
I think probably the main thing is we don’t hold all the cards. We are facilitators to the powers that be, essentially… I think there’s this misconception by artists that we make all the decisions, and if we like their song, they’ll automatically get a sync. I would love to say that’s the case, but it’s just absolutely not. There’s so many reasons why an amazing song will never be synced. Sometimes it might not be what the producer wants, it might not be what the director wants in terms of tone, but also it might be something about the way the lyrics are mixed. One thing we deal with quite a lot is having music that’s on a similar pitch to speaking voice: it’s a real issue because then it’s very difficult — you can’t have a person on TV speaking over the song, because they’ll sort of rub up against each other wrong. Even really small things like that, there might be really, really good reasons for why the song’s not going to get pitched, and we can’t make all those decisions.
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