August 30, 2010

The musical brilliance of Friday Night Lights

Liza Richardson photo by Salvador Farfan

Back in the freshness of springtime, I came clean before you all with my newfound affection for the TV show Friday Night Lights. Shy as I was about falling for any sort of TV drama, I was converted (to the cult of Tim Riggins, thank you) over Thanksgiving last year, when a friend loaned me all the seasons I’d missed and I gorged myself not only on the solid plotlines and character acting, but also/mainly the absolutely impeccable music.

Within the first few episodes I heard not only the arcane opening track from my favorite Ryan Adams album, but a Daniel Johnston cover, the Avett Brothers, a rare acoustic mix of a great Killers song, and plenty of new artists who sent me googling lyrical snippets. Oh, and don’t forget, the show is liberally laced with music from the terrific Explosions In The Sky. Just get right out of town – this was fantastic [listen].

I decided then and there that I completely loved whoever this kindred spirit was out there, picking all the music as if they had crawled inside my own head, my own record collection. When I found out it was a kickass female doing this music supervisor’s job (in a mostly male-dominated industry), I loved it even more.

Said kickass female music supervisor for the Friday Night Lights series is one Liza Richardson, longtime DJ at the inimitable KCRW radio station in Southern California. She also works on music in films (The Kids Are All Right and Eat, Pray, Love are two recent projects she was involved in), was invited to be the first DJ at the Academy Awards, and even got to do one of those cool Apple commercials. Her musical tastes run in all the same veins mine do, and I was excited to talk with her about her job, how she stumbled into it, and what she loves about soundtracking all those wrenching small-town Texas moments.



Fuel/Friends: Do you specifically emphasize regional or local music in setting the West Texas feel? (the Gourds, Explosions in the Sky) or are you going for an overall atmosphere of folks (American Catapult, AA Bondy, or Ryan Adams) who aren’t from Texas, but feel like they could be?

Liza Richardson: I do try to focus on Texas music, I mean I went to college at SMU in Dallas and I was in radio for four years after college in Dallas – that’s where I learned to DJ, that’s where I started really learning about music and I’ve brought that to my work with Friday Night Lights, happily. But there’s so much music like Townes Van Zandt and Roky Erickson, two examples of musicians that I’m fanatical about but have never been able to convince everyone about. Song selection is a process, and I’m not the boss — I present ideas and they get chosen by editors and directors. So I really do try, but ultimately it’s up to them and they’re gonna pick what feels good and what feels right for the show. There’s a wider audience than Texas.

But I was successful at getting artists like Butch Hancock, Uncle Walt’s Band, and Jimmy Dale Gilmore who are great Texas artists, who aren’t widely known outside of Texas but are great Texas unsung heroes. I think Texans appreciate when I am able to get all these cool Texas artists in, and and it’s a good feeling. For example, we used the Kashmere Stage Band, which is this cool recent reissue from the Seventies. We used that at a pep rally where you heard like an exciting big band thing, and it was actually this high school band from the 1970s from Houston. Stuff like that is so cool for me.

F/F: Have you ever seen any negative effects from a song or artist you’ve highlighted –like a “flash in the pan” phenomenon– or is any exposure usually good exposure?

LR: Do you mean where I had a regret for putting it in? The only regrets I have are songs I don’t put in (laughs). Sometimes songs get on the show that have been used a million times before on other shows. But that’s the music supervisor’s curse, I guess. I mean it’s not so bad, sometimes I need to get over that. But all music supervisors want to be distinctive and creative, but you have to always remember what’s best for the show. I mean, for example, using “Political Scientist” by Ryan Adams was my idea, and fit perfectly. You recognize that song but not many would.

F/F: Is it kind of like every show using Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” perhaps? There seems to sometimes be a challenge to find something that resonates emotionally but feels fresh.

LR: Thank you! Yes! Exactly, like that. Or Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World.”

F/F: What do you perceive to be the differences between DJing and music supervising?

LR: Ooh, totally different. Not much in common with each other at all. When I am DJing, I’m not thinking about the big picture, I am thinking about how much this song rocks on the radio. But with music supervision, there might be songs I don’t personally like so much, that I would never play on my show, but they work great as part of this show. It’s two totally different ways of thinking. DJing is the most ephemeral, but then I also always say TV is ephemeral compared to film, because television moves quickly and you have a new episode each week. There’s a different level of creative commitment.

F/F: Do the characters ever suggest music? Have the show’s writers ever worked around a specific song you found and wanted to use?

One time for Landry’s band, Crucifictorius, when Devin was auditioning and Landry was down and out about Tyra, she suggested they needed some Flaming Lips, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Well, that was written into the script and it was a really good idea and it stuck. A lot of songs that are written into the script might not make it – things change, budgets change, so I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to afford that Flaming Lips song. But happily, it all worked out. I had lined up other songs as alternatives, like I had something worked out with The Pixies, which doesn’t seem like it would be less money but it was. I had the challenge of finding other bands with that anthemic indie feel, where I could work with publishers and get a deal that we could agree to.

That’s an example of what I do all the time. I mean, there might be a karaoke scene where they want to sing “American Girl” by Tom Petty , but there’s no point in spending all that money for that one song. My job is to find something cheaper for karaoke that’s still funny or sweet or still fits. There’s tons of that.

F/F: It sounds like a treasure hunt but with a lot of negotiating.

LR: Yeah, on something like that it can be difficult to start creatively with trying to find the right song to fit the scene. I will often start by calling the publishers that I have relationships with and asking them to look at their catalog, telling them, “okay here is my budget,” and then having them come up with their ideas. That way, if I only have one day to do this I don’t get screwed. I take what they give me and then go with those ten ideas and go with whatever ideas I think are the best. It’s one way to do it. It’s called pre-clearing the songs. I know that every song I get from this publisher will be clearable, they already know that they don’t need artist approval, it will fit in my budget, there’s no negotiation. We have to consider all those things before we even get to licensing.

F/F: Has licensing gotten successively easier as the show has gone through four seasons and gathered more fans and a reputation for good music?

LR: Oh yes, definitely. People love the show, they’re convinced of the show’s quality. But it’s not a money show, songs get replaced when they make it to DVD. NBC can clear for different musical options per song – a two year term, a five year term, an all-media term, and then at some point they’ll figure out their licensing strategy, and which term they’re going to pick up. Friday Night Lights is a two-year term. So let’s say for a Bob Dylan song, perhaps for all-media it would cost $40,000, a two-year term on that is more like $4,000-$6,000. There are some artists like the Velvet Underground and they weren’t interested in the two year term. They were only interested in the full term, so they passed.

In the beginning when we first announced our two-year term, a lot of bands were all worried about where licensing was heading and how we were all doomed, but as we went along we realized that a lot of bands were fine with the two-year term because it wasn’t exploitative, we weren’t going to use their song forever. In a way it’s not a bad deal – they get great exposure. More and more young bands don’t mind that it’s a two-year term.

F/F: So the songs on the DVDs aren’t always the same ones in the first run of the show?

LR: Not always, no, unfortunately. In fact, I’m glad you saw the Ryan Adams clip – unfortunately they can’t afford to buy all of the music we put in the initial series, there’s no way. It would cost millions of dollars. In the actual show there’s a ton more music, but they replace it – there’s a company we use called Five Alarm Music, a production library music house, and they’re in charge of finding things that we like that will be okay, that will fit in as well as they can. In one season, we did really well at getting a lot of songs through to DVD, I can’t remember if it was season one or season two, where they kept a lot, but other seasons we’ve had to rip a lot out.

F/F: Is that hard for you? Is it like making a mix tape for someone and then finding out later that six songs were cut and replaced?

LR: Oh, it’s so heartbreaking. I mean, I don’t have to do the re-musicing, so I just try to forget about it. I get my final air copy of the season, and that’s what I have to keep! I find that the music still works, and honestly it’s just a great show so that comes through, always.

F/F: What music are you excited about these days? Are there artists that you’d love to use on the show?

LR: Hmm, okay, well here’s a couple – Band of Horses, New Pornographers, maybe The National, I think we should be using these artists. I think we should be using this artist named Jonathan Tyler, even though he may not be hip and cool, but maybe for the football stuff and the strip club – just straight up rock and roll. I’d like to use the Dead Weather, and there’s these guys called Kings Go Forth, they’re new but they sound very vintage R&B, party kind of vibe. I’d love to get that sort of music onto FNL.

F/F: I’ve talked to students when I’ve spoken at colleges who are interested in getting into music supervising. If this were Career Day, what would you say? Is there a recommended tactic, or is it true that everyone just seems to get into this in a different way?

LR: Yes, everybody has their own story for sure. If you’re in college, well – if someone is making a film, be the music supervisor on a friend’s film. I would also suggest trying to get an internship in radio or something in music – sometimes letters or resumes sent to me from strangers will impress me. It’s tricky, there are so many ways in. It’s not a high-paying job, so there’s turnover.

When I first started in music supervision, I was shocked at how my KCRW radio experience had nothing to do with anything in this world. I couldn’t get a job, even though I was pretty happy with what I’d accomplished in radio and KCRW is a fairly well-respected tastemaking station. I had to develop this as a whole new career, and just work my way up. I’ve been doing radio for over twenty years, and music supervision for only ten. For me at this point, radio is the greatest hobby in the world.

[top photo credit Salvador Farfan, Texas photo credit David Kozlowski]

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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