Why Music Supervisors Collide With Netflix
It was one of the most memorable moments in Netflix’s “Stranger Things 4”: Max fleeing the murderous monster Vecna, fueled by Kate Bush’s up-and-coming song, “Running Up That Hill.”
Music supervisor Nora Felder was instrumental in picking and securing approvals for the 1980s hit song, which catapulted to number one on multiple music charts after it aired on “Stranger Things.”
Yet despite their growing role in suggesting such songs and curating music for shows, music supervisors say they don’t receive the pay and benefits shared by their union peers.
“We are currently a group of gig workers who have to carry their own insurance and calculate their own pension,” said Lindsay Wolfington, Independent Music Supervisor. “Almost everyone on set in Hollywood is union paid and union supported and has their rates and payment schedules standardized by a union. We therefore simply seek to be on an equal footing with our colleagues with whom we work.
To remedy this, Wolfington and other independent supervisors recently took a key step by joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing film and television production crews. They requested a union certification election with the National Labor Relations Board.
IATSE said it is focusing its organizing efforts around Netflix because it is the largest employer of music supervisors in the industry.
“Despite this cultural influence, music supervisors come together to set standards and solve long-standing issues for those in the business,” the IATSE said in a statement.
Music supervisors asked Netflix and the Alliance of Film and Television Producers to voluntarily recognize their union earlier this year, which would have skipped a formal election, but they refused. IATSE said more than 75% of music supervisors favor joining their union, which represents cameramen, set designers, makeup artists and other technical jobs on sets.
The alliance rejected IATSE’s request “because we believe employees should have a free choice to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union,” AMPTP spokesman Jarryd Gonzales said. .
“Our position means there will be an election if the union files a petition for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board, allowing every employee to vote,” he said.
Netflix declined to comment.
The organizing efforts come as music supervisors have become more important culturally and professionally. In 2018, Music Supervisors could qualify to win Grammys in the soundtrack compilation album category. Felder, who suggested “Running Up That Hill” for “Stranger Things 4,” won an Emmy for Music Supervision.
“Placed music has long been a defining factor in the music industry,” said Michael Peters, attorney at Ramo Law PC. “We have an excellent demonstration to underline the cultural impact that supervisors can have and the creative value of their services. They have the momentum right now to try to organize and try to be recognized as a union.
Manish Raval, a 48-year-old music supervisor who worked on the Netflix movie “The Gray Man” and shows like NBC’s “This is Us,” supports the union effort.
Tensions with music supervisors have escalated amid the streaming boom, which has shortened TV seasons. Compensation for music supervisors is usually a fee that can be negotiated per episode or for an entire project like a series or movie. The payment comes from the budget of the series or the film.
When shows were based on a network’s TV season, payouts were more consistent, with a show having 12 to 18 episodes per season, which could take about six to eight months to complete, said Robin Urdang, who worked as music supervisor on Netflix series, including Amazon’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Shows on streaming platforms, however, are not necessarily scheduled for certain seasons. A series can average seven to 10 episodes and span more than a year of work, Urdang said.
“You work for the same amount of money on fewer episodes for a longer period of time, which means you end up making less money per hour,” Urdang said.
Some music supervisors have described instances where their payments were delayed after completing their work.
Raval said he did the final mix of a Netflix film in November 2020 only to learn that the studio planned to not pay him the tens of thousands of dollars owed to him until about six months later, closer to the release of the film. His wife, an art teacher, was also not teaching because of the pandemic, which strained their finances.
“Our payments are withheld on an arbitrary notion that they will be paid at the very last moment,” said Raval, who lives in Culver City. “We are fighting this industry at this point.”
He said Netflix later agreed to pay him half of the money he was owed in January 2021 and the rest in March of that year. A person close to Netflix said final payments are usually made when a film has finished post-production.
“We saw the cultural impact of having the right song in a scene,” said Wolfington, a 43-year-old music supervisor who has worked on Netflix projects including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” “Netflix, as a company, seems to value music, which I think is a good thing, and all of its viewers can enjoy it as well. But we’re in this situation where our standards aren’t what they should be, so we want to fix it.
Studios are reluctant to voluntarily accept music supervisors as part of a union, in part because they view them as independent contractors.
A source close to Netflix said the music supervisors it contracts with run their own businesses and some have their own employees. These supervisors also do services for different studios at the same time, the source said.
In 2009, a group of music composers and lyricists attempted to organize under the Teamsters, but two years later abandoned those efforts when the AMPTP did not voluntarily recognize their union.
The fact that most other Hollywood jobs, including actors and writers, are unionized strengthens the case for IATSE, said Catherine Fisk, professor of labor law at UC Berkeley School of Law.
“There are a lot of cases involving workers who work somewhat autonomously and who nevertheless managed to unionize,” Fisk said.
In the 1930s, studios argued that writers shouldn’t be unionized because they worked independently, sometimes out of their apartments or hotel rooms, and weren’t under the direct supervision of anyone. , Fisk noted. However, the NLRB rejected that argument because the writers were subject to studio control, Fisk added. Today, writers are unionized under the Writers Guild of America.
Other audio and music sectors are also trying to unionize. Last month, writers, producers, engineers and editors at the Pineapple Street Studios podcast network asked its owner Audacy to recognize its 40-member group as a union, and workers in YouTube’s music content operations filed a application for union certification election. Audacity declined to comment. Google, YouTube’s parent company, did not immediately return a request for comment.