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Making Noise with Music Supervisor Michael Perlmutter

Making Noise with Music Supervisor Michael Perlmutter



Michael Perlmutter gives the president’s address at Canadian Sync Awards, 2022, at El Mocambo — photo provided.

Michael Perlmutter dreamed of playing tennis professionally or perhaps soccer. Spending his life in the music business was not on his radar, let alone a curious career of listening to music and finding just the right snippet for the right scene of a TV show or film. He certainly didn’t know that was called “sync placement” and that the job was that of a “music supervisor.” And yet, that’s what he has ended up doing for the past 26 years in Toronto.

As founder of his own music supervision company, Instinct Entertainment — joined by a staff of two, Danica Bansie and Akash Iyer — his credits include TV shows Fellow Travelers (Showtime), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), Orphan Black Echoes (AMC), Altered Carbon (Netflix), Circuit Breakers (Apple TV+), Queer As Folk (Showtime), Vikings (History), Pretty Hard Cases (CBC), Degrassi (CTV/Family Channel), and such films as Bride Hard (dir. Simon West; Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Stephen Dorff); Arbitrage (dir. Nick Jarecki; Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon), Crisis (dir. Nick Jarecki; Gary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly); The Baker (dir. Jonathan Sobol; Ron Perlman, Elias Koteas, Harvey Keitel, Emma Ho) and more.

In 2016, he helped launch The Guild of Music Supervisors, Canada (GMSC) and become its first president. “The purpose of the GMSC is threefold: to create awareness amongst production executives of this increasingly significant role in the production of all filmed media projects; to educate emerging Supervisors and create community; and share knowledge amongst colleagues in Canada and work on industry issues, challenges and changing landscapes together to foster solutions for all parties.”

Following the example of the guild in America, the GMSC also created The Canadian Sync Awards, in partnership with Canadian Music Week (CMW). Now in its fourth year, the 2024 celebration will take place on June 3, at the Westin Harbour Castle, and include performances by pagan-pop singer Nyssa, hip hop artist SadBoi, and pop singer Ari Hicks. Sixteen awards will be handed out, in addition to The Huey, given to a rising star in the field, in memory of music supervisor David Hayman.  Montreal artist/composer Patrick Watson, who has amassed more than 200 syncs, and scored for film and TV, including Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days and Everything Will Be Fine, will receive the inaugural Impact Award.

In this career-spanning interview, Perlmutter talks to Karen Bliss about the best way to land a sync, what his job entails, why Canada needed a guild, building relationships with directors, and why he didn’t supervise the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s become easier the past decade, but contacts for music supervisors are still hard to find, especially in America. You have to know their name then search for them. There are directories online, but not sure how up to date they are. Is it typically one person working by themselves at home, who doesn’t want unsolicited material?

It’s a very interesting observation. I don’t want to speak about how other supervisors work. Everyone has their own protocols and processes. We talk a lot about that with artists and record labels and publishers, mainly independents, who are trying to get to supervisors.

Canada now has a guild, bringing you all together.

What we’ve done — because there are 30 of us now — on our guild website, if you scroll over each of our names, there is a link to something about us. Could be our website, could be our Instagram, could be our IMDB page. So, there’s a way to get to us.

Do you want to be contacted by artists, management, people you don’t know?

My company’s policy is we want to hear from everybody. We have an email address on our website that you can submit music to. I can’t speak for everybody else.

Part of the challenge is, much like a record label — except most music supervision companies are one to three people and record companies are many more —  if people took unsolicited submissions, there would be thousands of emails a week from artists, which are almost impossible to get to. Yes, music is our resource. Without the music, we wouldn’t have a job. But we have to have some type of filter, whether that’s through our contacts or sync agencies or people we meet at CMW or when we travel to conferences. That’s one of the reasons we go do that. We just have to be judicious in how we’re dealing with our days and nights with clients and with the amount of music that’s out there.

How many songs are we talking, roughly, for a series?

I recently worked on Fellow Travellers and there was music from the 50s through the 80s over the eight episodes. There must have been 70 songs or something like that. I worked on Degrassi for so many years and we used an extraordinary amount of independent music and, once in a while, we would pop in a Lady Gaga song or an Iron Wine song when we found a little bit of money.

How can an artist or whoever’s submitting a song make it easy for you? Do you want to know the tone and vibe and what the lyrics are about?

Excellent music. That’s really what we want. And when they’re sending it to us, the easiest thing is to create a platform for your music, where you can listen to it off of the website, whether it’s a Disco link, a SoundCloud link, et cetera.   

So it’s not helpful to know “This is a dark, moody song about murder” or “This is a happy love song”?

It would depend on two things. One is sometimes people just send us music without knowing what we’re working on, which is fine. So, when you do that, you can always explain, “This is the bastard child of Thom Yorke and Katy Perry” or “if you like…” in terms of what the music is about, absolutely. You can give us a line. Again, can’t speak for everybody, but 90% of our projects don’t have well-known songs. To the next point is, we don’t need a picture. We don’t need to know you have a million Spotify streams or a million Apple Music streams. We do need to know if you have a record label deal or a publishing deal.  Most of the time, when budgets allow or because budgets don’t allow, we need to use independent music. I think a lot of supervisors and even directors and producers are excited to find that unplugged gem.  

Many of the foreign Netflix series I’ll Shazam a song I like, or am curious about, and usually have never heard of the act, while Baby Reindeer has Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” and George Harrison’s If Not for You” and One Day has songs by Blur, the Pixies, Velvet Underground, so many. What is the fee range for a sync?

Every single show is different. There are some shows that have $100,000, $150,000 an episode for music, and there are some shows that have $5000 an episode.

In Canada, for you?

In Canada, an average fee for an independent artist for a TV series can be anywhere between $500 and $2000. Film, maybe a thousand to three or $4000. Again, there are so many factors involved. And then, sometimes it’s a negotiation. Some independent artists who are doing much better than others would probably command and demand more of a fee.

Michael Perlmutter and Marina Adam , Director, Ontario Music Office @ Canadian SyncAwards 2023

You’ve worked on many TV shows and films. What are you most proud of?

I worked on Queer As Folk for five seasons. I’m super proud of that show for a number of reasons, but from a music supervision point of view it was absolutely extraordinary because, number one, we had a little bit of a budget for five seasons and, number two, other than the show itself being the first gay soap opera in North America, musically we released, through Tommy Boy and/or BMG, five soundtracks and sold over half a million CDs total, which I’ve never done before. It was one of my first big gigs when I started out in 2001 and went to 2005. That soundtrack was extremely exciting and interesting.

Did one of your placements ever break an artist?

I don’t know if I’ve actually broken an artist. Some of the ones I’m most proud of, I honestly can’t remember the names, but some of them are on Degrassi. We did an open call, and we would send out a blast for music because we wanted music from all over the place. We wanted to listen to everything.

Does the director or showrunner tell you where the songs will go?

You have conversations with the producer and/or director, depending on if it’s a film or a TV show. Our role is to cover any music requirements of the project. Obviously, choose the songs, collaborate with the director. I highlight the word collaborate. It’s not a solo mission to make sure songs get into a picture. We’re there to execute the vision of the showrunner.

Is it in the script: “music here”?

There are sometimes songs listed in the script; there are sometimes just generic “music here.” And, if there are songs in the script, if we can afford them, great, but most of the time they’re placeholders just to show what the emotion of that scene or the energy of that scene might be like, or the tone or a lyrical quality.

Again, depending on the project, they will hire us and we will take on the role of doing anything music related, helping find songs, negotiating the rights to songs, helping find a composer if need be, doing all the administration of the licenses, the cue sheets, being on set if we need to, doing prerecords if we need to, if there’s a band that’s going to be performing karaoke scenes, various things like that.

 On Altered Carbon that I worked on, we pre-recorded Jihae in the studio, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in New York. And many film projects, I’ve gone out and looked for composers and pitched composers and talked to the producers about each of them and interviewed with them.

What does the artist need to do to ensure clearance?

If we want to use an independent artist’s song, we ask them if they own the song and own the recording. If they do own everything, then we deal directly with them. If there’s a co-writer, we have to speak to the co-writer or that artist might have a good relationship with the co-writer. And so, understanding the ownership of your copyright and your recording is really important.

You can come to CMW and check out some sessions. You can look online. You can speak to friends who have licensed music before, and they can walk you through it. You can talk to supervisors, who can talk you through it. But, the key here is when you’re sending your music to a supervisor, who might license it in the future, understand who owns what and make sure the supervisor knows that. So when they reach out, it’s an easier clear than saying, “Yes, I own it all except for there’s a sample.”

Sometimes sync agencies reach out to indie artists online and offer to pitch their songs. What should artists be aware of? Some want a piece of the publishing.

Everything’s a personal preference, in any negotiation and what you’re going to be comfortable with. If a sync agency is going to represent you, make sure you know all the terms, of course.

Do you know what a normal fee might be?

Twenty to 40% of the fee is fairly normal, but I’m not as privy to those deals. So if somebody pitches me a song and I pay $5000 for it, they’re going to take a chunk of that and give you the rest. Again, you can negotiate. If they’re an exclusive sync agent for you, you give them six or eight or 10 months and see how it goes. It takes time. They might not get you a $50,000 placement or even $50,000 total for 10 placements in six months. But their relationships are really important and the majority of supervisors are going to deal with these trusted sync agents. In terms of assigning any publishing, I don’t like that. I understand that business model from one side, but as an artist, as a writer, as somebody who owns IP [intellectual property] and they’re still independent, I just don’t think the sync agent should take some of the publishing. They’re taking some of the publishing only for the sync that they get for you.

You got into this line of work via film and advertising. How did you slide into the music business?

I grew up playing sports my whole life.  I always thought I might be a tennis player. I thought I might play semi-professional soccer. That didn’t happen. One day, I was on an airplane and met an owner of an advertising company [Len Gill, Echo Advertising]. His vice president [Steve Pulver] used to be in the music business at CBS Records back in the 80s. Five months later, got a phone call [from Steve] and I got hired.  I worked in advertising for a few years and then realized I just needed to be in the music business. I don’t know what it was; I just needed to be in it. I was obsessed by music and sports for the longest time.

Obsessed? How? Going to concerts?

Listening.  I was a sports guy. I wasn’t going out to the clubs, but I was listening to my brother’s [Lloyd] record collection, which consisted of Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Earth, Wind & Fire. My first three concerts, in my early teens, were David Cassidy, Stevie Wonder and Jethro Tull.

Michael Perlmutter and Barbara Sedun at singer Kim Stockwood’s 1991 signing to EMI Music Publishing in St John’s, NL. — photo provided.

Not bad.

Yeah, I ran the gamut. The David Cassidy one was hilarious because I used to watch The Partridge Family. Anyhow, I worked at Echo Advertising, and then I literally quit to get into the music business. My boss [Gill] yelled at me thinking I was just ridiculous, but I did it anyhow. His son, Adam, actually founded Embrace [the concert promotion company, in 2002]. And so, I had some interviews, got down to final three at Sony Music for a marketing job. I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t get the job. Happy to have written a marketing plan for a Shawn Colvin album.  I went traveling [to South Pacific for four months] came back, hooked up with [then EMI Music Publishing Canada president] Mike McCarty, interviewed with him, and got a job at EMI as a creative manager.

You started doing music supervision there?

I didn’t do a lot of the pitching there. It was such a new world back in ’91 I was there to ‘93.  You’d pitch through phone calls and mailers. I remember pitching songs for artists to sing.

My uncle [David Perlmutter], oddly enough, made these films and he asked me to music supervise a film [1994’s Model By Day, starring Famke Janssen], which I’d never done before, but I figured it out because there was some licensing done out of our office. Norma Barnett, who worked with us, was doing a bunch of that and other royalty stuff. So, we signed four or five songs in this film, maybe one of them was an EMI Publishing song.

That was my first introduction to it. I thought it was pretty cool, but I wasn’t thinking about it long-term. I really was loving working with artists and working with Mike and Barb [Sedun, then-creative manager] and other folks in the office. And then, unfortunately, Mike had to let a few of us go and I was one of them.

What did you do after that?

I was managing a woman out of Montreal [Simona Peron]. I also went back to Echo to do the 1997 U2 tour marketing. Luckily, Echo asked me back on a contract basis. Then I got a phone call from the people [Janet York] at Feldman [entertainment agency, then called S.L. Feldman & Associates]. They were looking for somebody. I met with [Janet] and Sam Feldman when they came to Toronto and then I was hired.

Did they have a music supervision department?

They had a gentleman there [Ron Proulx, who next started his own music supervision company Arpix Media in 1997 and got out of it last year] who was leaving and they wanted to keep the division alive in Toronto. Strangely enough, Mike McCarty and Steve Herman were sitting in Sam Feldman’s office in Vancouver and Sam asked them if they knew somebody and they both said my name, which was very kind. I probably haven’t thanked them enough. I got hired and I was at Feldman for about eight years.

Eventually you got so busy, you built a staff. How did you find other people to join you in this unique job?

There were maybe three or four of us in Canada back in 1997 when I started and now there’s maybe 40 in Canada that are doing it in all facets of TV, film, video games, advertising. To add to the story, when I found out about this music supervision job, I really didn’t know much about what it was all about, even though I did a little bit of it at EMI Publishing, I think I’d forgotten I did it. But, a year prior to getting asked to interview for the job, I was sitting in the basement of a composer, John McCarthy, listening to music and he said, “You’d be a great music supervisor.” And I said, “What’s that?” And we talked about it for a while. And then a year later, I got this phone call. So there’s some serendipity. I can’t remember how I found everybody. I worked with Erin Hunt, Scot McFadyen [who went on to cofound Banger Films in 2004], Amy Fritz and Stacey Horricks. Scott knew Stacey, so we hired Stacey.

What is the learning process now to get into this job?

There’s a lot more education out there, not only just done by the guilds, but the Berklee School of Music has a music supervision course. And Harris [Institute] does [taught by The Handmaid’s Tale/Vikings music editor Yuri Gorbachow] And there’s books that have been written by a couple of supervisors out of the U.S. There are podcasts, I believe. There’s seminars that happen all over the world.

You’ve worked with some directors multiple times, such as Barry Avrich [Melbar Entertainment Group] and our pal, Andrew Nisker [Take Action Films], who I made the Chasing Fortune doc with. As mentioned, you did the music for [Epitome Pictures’] the Degrassi franchise for years [its future is still in limbo]. How important is building and maintaining relationships?

They’re everything. Obviously if you can’t do your gig well, then a relationship doesn’t matter. I’ve worked with Barry for 20-plus years. I’ve worked with Andrew for 15 to 20 years. I’ve worked with a company called Take 5 for 15 years. I worked closely with Stephen Stohn and Linda Schuyler on 12-plus years of Degrassi and The L.A. Complex for two seasons. I’ve worked with [Circle Blue Entertainment’s] Amos Adetuyi, and [New Real Films] Leonard Farlinger and Jennifer Jonas.

Think about the directors out there. They’ll use the same composer over and over again.  They have that shorthand. They have that trust. We have their backs and my producers have always had my back when there’ve been issues or challenges.  I am ever appreciative of all of the producers or directors I’ve worked with in the last 20 plus years because American or Canadian, they’ve all been very upfront, very demanding in a good way, challenging, trustworthy, communicative. I haven’t had a lot of problems. I’ve been fired off a couple of jobs.

Now I have to ask you why you were fired?

The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought we did an amazing job. The showrunner who created the series Bruce Miller was amazing to work, but one of the main executive producers is a guy in Los Angeles; I think he may have felt more comfortable with somebody else.

That’s not really a firing. That’s just circumstance.

Well, it was a firing because I knew they were only interviewing L.A. supervisors. Maybe this gent thought being Canadian wasn’t good enough. I don’t know.

Didn’t the first season do really well?

Of course, it did well.  The first season was unbelievable.

I would think a person would be fired because they miss a deadline or can’t get the right songs or sound.

The other show I got let go from, Fargo, in the first season, four episodes in. I was in Norway at a music conference [by:Larm] and my phone rang at 2 a.m. Back then, I had an agent in Los Angeles [Randy Gerston at Fortress Talent Management] and he called to tell me I got the gig. Speaking of relationships, it’s always worth it to just meet somebody face to face. So, I went to Calgary to meet the showrunner. I thought I’d get a good hour but he was super busy. Anyhow, four episodes in, it just wasn’t working out.  It was too bad because on a first season of any TV show, it’s difficult. You’re just trying to find your footing. They hired somebody else, who somebody else had worked with before. It’s a real blow to your ego and then you’ve got to pick up and move on. It took me a while. I spoke to a couple of the supervisors who told me, “I got fired.” It takes you a minute because you do take it personally because you really want to do your best work And I felt like I failed them and that’s the last thing I want to do.

People — in my circle anyway — will often say, “Watch this show.  The soundtrack is amazing.”  Like One Day: Radiohead, The Pixies. What soundtrack that you weren’t involved with did you love?

I absolutely loved Sex Education from start to finish; the soundtrack is one of the best of the last 10-plus years. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, of course, is incredible. I loved Severance but mainly for the score.

Your C.V. is mainly film and TV, not video games or advertising. Is that a whole other specialty?

They’re quite different. There’s many supervisors in the world that concentrate on ads.  They might dip their toe in the other mediums, but the ad world is an entire industry unto itself and the video game world, most of those companies have in-house video game supervisors; EA [Electronic Arts] has their own music department, Ubisoft has their own supervisors. I’ve never tried to get into the video game and the ad business. I’ve done about four or five ads, some special projects, like I worked on two different Olympics and curated a soundtrack for highlight reels. That was a four-month project for each.  

In the U.S., The Guild of Music Supervisors formed in 2010. There’s obviously way more music supervisors in America than Canada, probably even in Los Angeles alone. Here, you said there were less than 10 when you started.  Why did you feel a guild was necessary in Canada?

Through my trips to Los Angeles for various functions or conferences, since I started in 1997, I met a bunch of fellow music supervisors and I used to run the Canadian Music Cafe here for nine years [an artist showcase, held during the Toronto International Film Festival] so we would invite a lot of American supervisors. By 2014, I started talking to a couple of supervisors who had started the guild there [Jonathan Mchugh, John Houlihan, Thomas Golubic] but it was still fairly new, if they started in 2010. Their goal was to open up chapters around the world and I said, “Well, you guys should start one up in Canada.” And they said, “That’s a great idea. You’ev been around. You know people. You should start it.”

The first meeting of the Guild of Music Supervisors in 2016 at Toronto’s the Tiki Bar above The Bovine. Standing (L to R): Michael Perlmutter, Velma Barkwell, Tammy Egan, John Rowley, Dondrea Erauw, Garrett McElver (visiting U.S. music supervisor), Jody Colero. Seated (L to R): the late David Hayman, Amy Fritz, Mikaila Simmons — Photo provided.

Were you allowed to join the guild in America?

We are today. Back then, I wasn’t even thinking about it.

What was your first step?

I called a few supervisors. [David Hayman, Velma Barkwell, Jody Colero]. We then had a meeting in 2016 upstairs at the Tiki Bar above The Bovine. We had talked a little bit beforehand and there were emails going back and forth and we decide to start up this guild. It’s not the Canadian chapter; ot’s just the Canadian guild. We’re affiliated with the U.S. in sister/brotherhood. We have our own awards and philosophies, which are very similar. We have our own dues. We have our own events. But, we can share resources and discuss different things going on in our business.

What were your goals?

We had three objectives:  create awareness about our craft, education for either the industry and or up-and-coming music supervisors and share knowledge and work on issues and solutions in our industry.

Outside of supervisors, who else do you need to educate?

We feel that directors and presenters and editors and post-production supervisors should know a little bit more about what we do. The role of the music supervisor over the last 15 years has changed dramatically in many respects. It seems to have become more of a significant role in the creative interpretation and creative execution of a project. There is now a [Primetime] Emmy category for outstanding music supervision for an episode of a TV series [created in 2017]. The U.S. [Guild of Music Supervisors] lobbied and talked to the power that be at the Academy [of Television Arts & Sciences] for years to make this happen which adds a bit of a spotlight on it. I don’t think it’s about ego. It’s about the creative Importance that a supervisor has and can have — not necessarily for every project but we’ve seen an extreme explosion of syncs departments, sync companies, pitch agencies, soundtracks, the works.

Instinct Entertainment’s Dondrea Erauw (who left in 2022) and Michael Perlmutter give acceptance speech via Zoom when they won a 2021 GMS Award for feature film The Cuban — photo provided.

Guild of Music Supervisor Awards in the U.S. has been around [since 2016] and 1500 people show up. Obviously, they’re in Hollywood and they’ve done an extraordinary job to help elevate our craft and that’s what we wanted to do up here. One of the other reasons we started the guild is because more and more productions were coming to shoot here, American or UK to take advantage of the world-class crews that are here and, of course, the tax credits. We knew the industry was growing and we were going to need more music supervisors.

A few years ago, we decided to have our own Sync Awards and CMW has been an amazing partner. They’ve got thousands of people coming in for their event and we’ve got the guild with all the supervisors and all the contacts and connections. What we did, which is also important, is we wanted to also celebrate our community, which are people that we work with every day at record labels, at publishers, the sync agents, independents, everybody, so we created categories of Best Sync Team (categories): sync agency, indie record label, indie music publisher, major record label, major music publisher. These are the people that keep us going.

One little thing I’d really would like to say is the Sync Awards are an incredible celebration. Of course, it’s amazing to win an award and you know what they say, “It’s lovely to be nominated,” but the most important thing to me is to bring everybody together for one night of celebration. We’re dispersed around the country. Many people that we work with are working from home and have been for years, so it’s great to be able to get everybody out under one roof.

You are the founder and the president of the guild. You have won in the past. How do you avoid that conflict of interest?

That’s an excellent question, but I’m just one of 30 supervisors. We have a board of seven.  Somebody has to be a president and help run the Sync Awards. The way that it works is that when submissions come in, they are then sent out to the Guild members to vote. The top five become the nominees. It’s pure voting to get the final list of nominees. If I’m put in a submission for one of the categories, that that gets juried won’t come to me. Because we have 16 categories [plus The Huey], we’re just going to split things up.  I might get ads and other things that I haven’t worked on or that I haven’t submitted for and then the voting this year is going to be by our peers in the U.S., the UK and the sync community at large in Canada. Everything’s going to be voted on by a peer group and not the public as we’ve done the last three years.


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