Historicizing Music Supervision

Curator's Note

Heralding music supervisors as the “new A&R men” and media placements as the “new radio” seemed appropriate when writers for the trades and music industry executives expressed an almost religious faith that licensing could save the industry. Thinking about music licensing in a historical sense puts the "irrational exuberance" (Shiller, 2006) surrounding music licensing in the late 1990s and early 2000s into perspective. Faced with the proliferation of P2P services and before the rise of iTunes and digital distribution, music licensing became a kind of golden calf - a strategy hyped as one that could save the industry but that turned out to be illusory.  Today, trade press quips aside, most parties in the music industry view music licensing as an element in a portfolio of strategies that work to make money off of music while acknowledging fundamental changes to music commerce brought about by the heightened connectivity of audiences via social media and P2P networks that necessitate new ways of interacting with individual end users and with industrial purchasers of content (who, in the case of television and gaming firms, are rethinking their business models due to the same technological and cultural shifts that have fundamentally altered the distribution of music).  Thinking about the big picture allows us to think through the rise, fall, and reassessment of genres such as the music game and the evolution of licensing negotiations.  It also allows us to move beyond assessments of singular programs, networks, or games to see how music licensing changes over time as a textual and industrial phenomenon that affects the operations and outputs of the media industries as well as how we experience and analyze narratives and representations.

Music supervisors have become listeners attuned to the data stream that is contemporary music, but they have also become listeners with a view.  We cannot talk about their labor without addressing the seismic shifts (both good and bad) within music industries and how music supervisors are implicated in broader economic and sociocultural shifts that affect media work and business norms in specific industrial sectors. 



Thank you, Ben, for finishing our "Labor in the Media Industries" week with such a strong post.  I appreciate your call for a more historical view of music licensing and the importance of placing contemporary trends within their historical context.

One aspect of music licensing you bring up is the "music game," which I assume means things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.  Your post also made me think of the "cover genre" of music that drives a show like Glee and leads to boatloads of iTunes sales.  Similarly, shows like American Idol, The Voice, and the upcoming X Factor also rely on covers.  I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the position of such shows within the "big picture" of the music industry that you mention.

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