SUCCESS STORIES: Ciara - what is a music supervisor?

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11 min read

We recently chatted to Ciara Elwis, Music Supervisor at Air Edel. Ciara has worked on building the sound of TV shows such as 'I May Destroy You' and 'The End of the F***ing World', and has even featured in The New York Times.

What’s your current job role and what does this involve?

"I'm a music supervisor, which is essentially the person that oversees all the musical elements of either TV or film productions.

So if you're watching a TV series and you see someone switch on a radio, we'll make sure that that piece of music has cleared or choose it. So anything that's music, whether diegetic or the score, we’ll have a hand in how that all goes together.

So we don't create the music, we pick it.

I think it's something that people aren't really aware of being a role. I didn't know that it was a role until I applied for this job that I have now!

People don't realise that music supervision is something that's whittled out as a separate job under the general film producer and director bits and bobs that they do."

Ciara has worked on shows including 'The End of the F***ing World' and 'I May Destroy You', both soundtracks receiving huge reactions globally.

She spoke about how music supervision is only just starting to be recognised as a career with the growth of streaming services like Netflix, with both shows' soundtracks being featured in articles:

"I think that's something that we're just seeing more and more of as people are becoming more obsessed with Netflix ... you've got a real opportunity to build the sound of that world."

Ciara chatted about one of her proudest accomplishments of her career thus far, with the huge response that 'I May Destroy You' received:

"It got released in America a little bit behind the UK. So we got a really good buzz in the UK. And then it came out in the US, and it just exploded. It was crazy all of a sudden getting asked to do interviews: I actually got asked to do an interview with The New York Times."

"I never thought my name would be in the New York Times!"

"That's definitely the highlight; it's so nice to have something you’ve worked so hard on actually get some recognition. So much of the time people don't really notice the music to the extent that they're actually going to say anything.

It's also hugely exciting to be able to share music that I really love with a lot of people - millions of people realistically now - especially with artists that I really rate that haven't done that well to date.

Off the back of TV features they end up doing a lot better, so it's always really exciting to be part of that as a music lover. You want to be able to raise their profile and it's not always something you're allowed or able to do."

What routes did you take to become a music supervisor?

"I knew I wanted to work in music all the way through school, so it's always been a very big part of my life. I wanted to go into the business side of music but I wasn't really quite sure how that was done.

I went to study music at the University of Edinburgh and while I was there, I was given the opportunity to do a year abroad to the south of France."

Ciara described how her music degree at Edinburgh Uni didn't really set her up for her music supervisor job now, but her experience on her year abroad in France enabled her to see how everything fitted together, as it was more business-focused rather than overly technical (harmonies, composition etc) as it was at Edinburgh.

"That's when I really decided on the route that I wanted to go down. I started learning about labels and publishers and how those play into the music industry, which is very relevant to my job today."

"At the end of my fourth year I started applying for pretty much every job or any job I could get in the music industry. It's notoriously competitive to get anything in the music industry so I wasn't going to be picky.

Music supervision was something that I'd always thought I'd like to do but only in the capacity of adverts because I knew that that was something that people did in the commercial world. I thought: 'Let's just get some experience in the music industry first', and then we'll work it out after that."

Ciara stresses the benefits of being in an entry level role in the music industry to work your way up:

"My first job was working on reception at this company, and then office assistant. I didn't go to the job because I really wanted to be a receptionist. But that's the music industry - you have to work your way up."

"A lot of what I learned at uni is really useful, and a lot of what I learned at uni isn't useful at all. It's not really real knowledge until you've actually started using it in your day-to-day life."

Ciara encourages asking as many questions as you can when starting out:

"Asking a lot of questions and making sure that you're being as helpful as possible is really key because I think you've just got to be really realistic about the fact that you don't know anything. I've learned a whole load since I've left just from asking people questions when they've been speaking to me because I was on reception.

I'd be downstairs, I'd ask people how their day was going, ask the supervisors what they were up to, offer to help, and that's when I decided when I started the job that I was going to try and do it for a year. Then if I wasn't getting anywhere with it, I'd try and find something else. But I actually ended up getting promoted within nine months.

Then I saw this role at Air Edel, and to be honest, it was just another company with another job opening and I thought I'd just apply. When I actually started looking into the company, I realised that what they did was exactly what I wanted to do. So it was very lucky really, but it also came from applying for 50-60 jobs. It was pretty soul destroying - but there's definitely something to be said for keeping trying."

Have there been any significant challenges that you've faced?

"To be honest, yes and no. I like the way that we function within a production.

We report to the directors and the producers, so we have a lot of situations where we're not being able to meet what they want due to a creative disparity.

For example, a director really wants ‘X’ track to go here over this moment but he can't find the track. We're trying to find the track for him but nothing that we're suggesting is working. It's hard with music because it's very difficult to actually describe what you mean by something and it's so contextualised by your own personal experience of the song.

For example, take a song like 'The Boys are Back in Town'. That will mean something for me - it's in a movie that I love, so every time I think of that I think of A Knight's Tale.

But that's going to mean something very different for someone who was raised when that song was new and remembers that as being a big song for them and their friends."

"You're always juggling so much context that people have towards music that it can be really challenging to find something that fits the brief that everyone is happy with. So I think that's one of the main challenges."

"There's also a lot more people management involved with the role than people would ever really believe. I definitely don't just sit on Spotify all day listening to nice music and say 'I'm just gonna shove this in a TV show: bish-bosh-done'. That’s unfortunately not really how it works. It's very much more like working with a team to try and find something that works for everyone."

Ciara discussed the legal side to music supervision, which many people aren't aware of:

"I wouldn't say that it was a challenge to learn about the legal side: I think it was definitely a skill that I didn't expect to have."

"I think there's definitely something to be said for being really adaptable and saying: 'I don't know much about this but I'm just gonna go out and learn. I’m still learning'. It definitely didn't stop at uni, put it that way."

What are your future plans - can you progress onto anything else after being a music supervisor?

"It's a really funny one. All I’ll really ever do is work on bigger projects - more exciting projects - and, along the way I'll also work on a lot of not as exciting and not as big projects. It's just part of the game really. 

For example, take a film director, they're a director the whole way through, all they can really do is gain more clout and be recognised as someone that other people want to work with. And hopefully, they'll get to work on bigger and bigger things. But that's kind of as far as it goes."

Ciara spoke about how it sometimes feels strange chatting to friends who regularly receive promotions:

"I've had one promotion, and that will probably be me."

"The only thing I could do is go freelance, because I could technically work for myself and have an agent. I don't really know. Right now I'm not in any sort of rush to move on to anything different other than just keep trying to raise my profile and get to work with people that I love the work of. I guess the goal is to work on projects with people that you really respect and then that's as good as it gets. 

Unless you want to become the owner of a company and have your own music supervision company or something. That's not something that I'm particularly interested in, but I’d never rule it out."

What would you tell your younger self in light of where you are now?

"To be honest, the best piece of career advice that I got was from my headmaster. He said:

'Choose something you love, and work it all out afterwards.'

Because if you choose something you love, then you’ll enjoy your experience at university, and you won't end up regretting it regardless of whether you end up getting the job straight out of it or not. That was the reason I'd written a full personal statement to study Classics, because I just thought that a music degree didn't really mean anything, because to be honest, that's what I got told."

Ciara, like many other Music students, refers to the stigma around studying arts-based subjects, receiving comments like: 'That's not a real degree!'

"Music's no more or less relevant than anything else."

"Especially with music, I had to have Grade 5 piano and a Grade 8 instrument to be able to study my coursework. There are very few other degrees, where you actually have to have additional qualifications on top of your A levels.

So that was my main piece of advice that I'm really glad I was given: study something you love and then you'll be able to put everything into it. And I really stand by that - I ended up getting a first class degree and there's no way in hell I would have gotten it in any other subject."

"It has to be the thing that you're really interested in that you can't get enough of it."

"That's the kind of attention to a subject that it takes - you have to be obsessed. You have to be a nerd to be able to do well at it.

I would say the time that I felt most out of sorts was when I was in my fourth year applying for all these jobs. I was really getting quite stressed because everyone who I’d spoken to all the way through uni had told me that I wasn't going to get a job at the end of it.

So I was very, very determined to get something in the industry. I was working very hard to do my finals at the same time, so it was a lot of stress.

It's worth it to just keep going and one thing I would say to friends when they're trying to find a job is you only need one job. I think it’s really hard to forget that you're applying for around 50 jobs.

You'll be thinking: 'Oh god what if that person doesn't like me, or what is this isn’t right?' I think you've got to stick true to what you actually know and love and how you actually feel about stuff when you're writing your statements."

"Actually try and be as honest as you can. Because if you're not honest, then you might get a job but it's probably not gonna be the right fit for you. And then just keep applying and doing that because, you don't need 50 jobs.

You only need one job."

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