What Is This Music Supervisor Thing You Speak Of? By Sean O’Bryan Smith

I recently had a conversation with Sean O’Bryan Smith and I realized just how little I understood about the music roles involved in filmmaking. Honestly, all I knew of was composer. Then I noticed he was listed as a music supervisor for a couple of films and so I asked him about the difference between a music supervisor and composer. As he began educating me on the differences, we both decided this was something that other filmmakers needed to know. So today I’m excited to share a guest post by Sean explaining some of the complexities of music for film. 


Let’s face it. We’ve all watched many a movie trailer and we’ve all wondered to ourselves what half, or better, of those job titles actually mean. Seriously…..what do these people do? Does “Best Boy” mean they were particularly good that day on set? Another one of these gray areas is once you start looking at the musical credits of a film. You’ll see music producers, music editors, music supervisors and the more well known, music composer. The music composer position for the most part makes the most sense for most folks to comprehend. He, or she, is the person that composes the music for the film right? Not entirely. Here’s why.

Since the beginning of sound in motion pictures, the role of music became more and more important. Of course in silent film the music was a way to drive the whole film, but once “talkies” arrived then the invent of “singies” arose and now original song material apart from the background score worked its way into a film initially in the form of musicals and eventually the insert of hit songs. We’ve all sang along to some song that helped make a movie huge and drive their soundtrack on the charts haven’t we? That’s not something that was done by a music composer. Those are artists and songwriters and that’s when things get complicated.

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Now let’s look at that from the viewpoint of a filmmaker. This is an original song with lyrical content. That means there is a songwriter, sometimes multiple, involved that may or may not be your composer. In the case of large studio houses like Disney, Walt employed music departments loaded with songwriters that were also competent composers like the Sherman Brothers, but as we all know, this is not a reality for the independent filmmakers pocketbook. In faith based films in particular, you’re already dealing with a shoestring budget at best. So what do you do, and how, when you want to have original songs in your film? Sometimes it is as easy as asking the artist or songwriter for permission, which can save you a ton on licensing fees and permissions. This works especially well when dealing with worship songwriters in your own church, regional aspiri artists, etc. In other cases, it isn’t that easy. This is where the need for a music supervisor is beneficial.

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In modern faith based films today there seems to be one ongoing theme I keep hearing from filmmakers. They ALL want to up the caliber of the genre and especially the quality so that they can create a product on the level that the modern film going public can embrace and appreciate. The mindset of making what “looks like” a $20 million dollar film for a fraction of a fraction of that is running rampant. This also entices distributors and theaters and in cases like “GOD’s Not Dead”, your return on investment can be quite stellar. . In that filmmakers need to educate themselves on the processes that, quite frankly, have been subpar in the genre for quite some time. One of the areas that this is painfully obvious is in music selection, and so much of it can be remedied with some basic education of what you’re going to need to make the difference so that you can best utilize your time and resources….I.e. Your budget. Independent filmmakers either get scared of, or refuse to, get involved with royalties and licensing for music but the fact is their films ultimately look like they cut the corners as well.

Music Supervisors serve multiple roles on a film project. The first thing, and usually the most important, is they are your liaison for all things musical on your film. They are working with the composer to make sure all of the cues are where they need to be and in the proper format. They are working with the songwriters, artists, managers, labels, music producers, whomever, to also acquire you those hit songs you are hoping for so that you can take your film to that next level we mentioned. More importantly, and this is where most independent filmmakers pay the price later, they are there to make sure that all of your bases are covered with the legalities of the music you are using in your film. This includes mechanical and performance licenses, royalties, etc. Mismanagement of any of these can cost filmmakers greatly for the uneducated or unprepared.

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What does “legalities of the music you are using in your film” mean? The fact is you don’t own that music. The composer, songwriters, labels, etc do unless you negotiate differently in a contract. For example, that negotiation alone is something you probably don’t want to tackle unless you have the proper experience. That is an immediate reason you may want a Music Supervisor onboard for your project because music supervisors not only work to acquire the music but also are there to protect all parties on the usage of it. So in addition to all of the creative levels of the music, music supervisors also work closely with lawyers, paralegals and musical affiliates and recording organizations such as BMI, ASCAP, SECAC, RIAA and musician’s unions. They are there to protect YOU to make sure you don’t get yourself in a bind because you used a song in a film and didn’t know all there was involved in doing such, or you had no idea that the licensing fee for that hit song you wanted rivals the budget for your entire film. These things happen and on a daily basis so you need to be educated and have the right people around you to make sure your film is a success.

So why do you have to pay you ask? As mentioned before, you do not own this material. You are licensing the music for your usage. This agreement can be simple or complex depending on the material, artists, labels, etc. For instance, if you want a track from The Beatles for your film you can plan on paying the equivalent of your entire film budget and then some. Luckily, independent artists are much more flexible. The fact is, though, that in either case these artists and songwriters deserve and have earned their compensation. It isn’t about getting rich or taking advantage of your project either. In most cases these are amounts that help keep the artist continuing their craft so that they can continue to work for you and other clients. For the filmmakers unfamiliar with this process, these negotiations can get tense for the uneducated as some people will take these as threats to their own rights and wants for their projects. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. These rights are here to protect everyone and again this is why you want Music Supervisors to help you along the way.

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Right now you’re probably starting to see the reason for this article. This is just the tip of the iceberg on the marriage between the film industry and the music industry. While they mimic each other in some regards, they differ greatly in others. The strangest part is that they are two industries completely reliant upon one another. You can’t have an epic film without epic music and the modern music industry can’t survive without filmmakers for their videos, etc. Knowing this and who the players are and what the roles mean can mean countless successes for both industries. This is something I’ve been blessed to witness many times as they are both realms I live in daily. I wanted to share this article with you today to get you to just start educating and understanding your needs and the roles of people who are there to help you with your project. These are not always individuals who are going to blow your budget but the consequences are well worth the salary considering the costs to you on the back end can be vast. As you look to up the game on your own project, consider having all the right members to your team so that they can help make your low budget project not look like and sound like it is.

For additional reading, check out this informative article.



Sean O’Bryan Smith is an award winning film composer/music supervisor, internationally acclaimed solo artist and accomplished author and educator. His film work can be seen worldwide and he works withaward winning directors and film companies in the US, India and Canada. As a bassist and recording artist, he has received high critical acclaim and has recorded/toured with over 100 major and independent signed recording artists including Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Kevin Max, Gavin DeGraw, Kenny Rogers and countless more.

Find Sean on IMDb 

Follow him on Facebook

About the Author Sharon Wilharm

Christian speaker, Sharon Wilharm, is a popular media guest, award-winning female filmmaker, and women’s ministry leader, whose faith-based films have screened in theaters, festivals, and churches around the world, and on multiple television networks. Sharon has recently taken over as women's ministry director at her church. Her passion is to lead prayer retreats, engaging women of all ages to pray with each other, for each other, praying with expectation.


  1. My pleasure Heidi. We’re all in this together and I am happy to help in anyway I can so that we can use our crafts to their fullest potential to glorify.

    Liked by 1 person

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