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What Exactly Does the Writers' Strike Mean for Music Supervisors?

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Cover image by Amber Baldet


There’s no denying the crucial role music supervision and sync licensing plays in the film and television industry. A production’s soundtrack has the power to make or break its success and to create major trends. Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” soared to No. 1 on music charts across the

board following its use in season four of hit TV series Stranger Things. In fact, according to Billboard, the song saw an 8,700% increase in global streams compared to its popularity from the time of its release up until the Netflix series’ new season aired.

The soundtrack to 2023 limited series Daisy Jones & The Six not only brought a fictional band to real life, but also produced several highly charting songs in the process. The semi-real band reignited nostalgia surrounding the 70s rock music scene–for both older fans and those too young to have experienced it firsthand. A particularly impactful original score can move entire audiences to tears, as was the case with the freshly released Oppenheimer movie. Whether the viewer realizes it or not, soundtracks guide storylines and add immeasurable depth to every film and series.

As of May 2, 2023 at 12:01 AM PST, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents more than 11,500 screenwriters nation-wide, began their strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Thousands of writers seek higher wages, new contracts, and protections against the encroaching surge of artificial intelligence-generated content. See the full WGA pattern of demands here. The SAG-AFTRA (actors’ union) strike beginning on July 14th, 2023 marked the first time in roughly 63 years that both professional guilds have been on strike at the same time.

Photos courtesy of ufcw770 and Eden, Janine and Jim

The ongoing strikes impact every aspect of the film and television industry, which is precisely its aim. Both sides negotiating (AMPTP and WGA/SAG-AFTRA) see major disruptions and must work together in order to reach compromises that benefit everyone. In the process, however, technical workers and specialists (like music supervisors) who generally work on a freelance basis have been swept up in the undertow of a wave of halted productions.

Typically, payment contracts for music supervisors are negotiated either per episode or for a full project (a TV series or feature-length film) and the payment itself comes out of the production’s overall budget. Music supervisor Robin Urdang (The Baby-Sitters Club, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, etc.) explained that when operating through a network, payments for seasons are relatively straightforward and regularly scheduled, given that each season has roughly 12 to 20 episodes equating to about six to eight months in work.

Streaming platform-led productions are not constrained to the same time frames as those on cable television. According to Urdang, “a series could have an average of seven to ten episodes and span more than a year of work… You’re working for the same amount of money on less episodes for a longer period of time, which means that you ultimately make less money per hour.”

Photo courtesy of Clusternote (author VACANT FEVER)

The situation has seen some improvement as of late; companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video recognize the great value of music in video production and are moving towards more efficient payments. Given that the rise of streaming platform-produced content is still relatively new, there is still much work to be done. Studios, in general, consider many music supervisors independent contractors and payment details may be less standardized than those of other employees.

So, amidst the chaos of simultaneous strikes, what happens to music supervisors–and the music synchronization industry at large?

For starters, music supervision is a largely freelance field, meaning that many trade professionals have been left without the healthcare benefits and paid leave protections held by some of their peers. Without scripts and actors, production on a multitude of projects has been halted or altogether canceled. Without a production, there is no post-production, and therefore no work for supervisors.

The lack of active productions also significantly diminishes the number of opportunities for music synchronization placements, given that there are few to no soundtracks to be built currently. In 2022 alone, synchs generated over $218 million–2% of overall revenue (source: Recording Industry Association of America). As one of the major income sources for musicians, especially independent talents, synch licensing is essential to the livelihoods not only of music supervisors but also artists. Music synchronization companies can not connect supervisors with musicians in the capacity they normally would, as there are no cues to be assigned and no briefs to be filled.

Photo courtesy of John Palmer Productions

Overall, the current strikes serve as a reminder that technical professionals who may not be directly involved in the event are still deeply impacted by it. Music supervisors, synch licensing companies, and many others face collateral consequences during the industry-wide pause. Both the AMPTP and the individuals at the picket lines recognize the profound effects of the strike not only for their own careers, but also for those of their co-workers. The parties are working towards an efficient and satisfying solution for everyone involved.


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