By: Justin Sanders
Following the death of a bunny rabbit at the hands of a mysterious man in the woods, the opening minutes to Season 2, Episode 1 of FX’s Fargo take things to another level, as the morbid crime/comedy proceeds to unleash a series of surreal split-screen interludes with its major characters going about their lives against the bleak landscape they inhabit.
In any context, the images would be striking in their beautiful mundanity, but the accompanying song choice transforms them into something that is unexpectedly transcendent. It is a track called “Yama Yama,” by obscure ‘60s-era Japanese band the Yamasuki Singers, and it brims with thunderous, ritualistic drumming, chimes, a cartoonish, melodic choral through-line, and jangly guitar riff.
Somehow both ceremonious and rocking, “Yama Yama” immediately and forcefully establishes the unspoken thematic message that will fuel the proceeding 10 episodes: We might get strange, and we might get grim, but we are also going to have lots of fun getting there.
“There have been times when I’ve sent songs like that to people and they were like, ‘This is way too weird for me,’ said Fargo’s music supervisor Maggie Phillips, “but I sent it to [Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley] and he was like, ‘Great – send me even weirder…’ That’s why Noah and I clicked.”
More than just a firecracker beginning to a great season of television, “Yama Yama” kicked off a new phase in Phillips’ career. Following Fargo, Season 2, her music supervision skills would be in high demand, and she has since worked on FX’s Snowfall and Legion, TBS’ People of Earth, and HBO’s Room 104, not to mention the 2017 Academy Award®-winner for Best Picture, Moonlight.
Before she won the Fargo, Season 2 job, Phillips (who is often credited as Marguerite Phillips) struggled to gain her footing in her chosen profession. The former painter grew up in Austin, Texas, where live music is a way of life, and where she was “that person in the group [who was] always introducing people to new music,” she said, “making mixed tapes, recording songs off the radio – which became making mixed CDs, and then digital playlists.”
Phillips’ reputation for cool music discovery prompted her friends and fellow Austinites, the filmmaking brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, to seek her help with the soundtrack of their first feature film, indie comedy darling The Puffy Chair. She only helped procure one song for the movie, but later, when the Duplass brothers received the greenlight for their first studio indie Cyrus, they brought Phillips on board as the full-time music supervisor, and her unexpected career was born.
“It was trial by fire,” she said of the experience on Cyrus, but “I learned in the process that I was really good at it.”
Even so, Phillips’ path to the success she enjoys today was far from smooth. In fact, when she got the call to meet with Fargo creator and showrunner Noah Hawley, she had already moved back to Austin from Los Angeles, ready to leave music supervision behind and reinvent herself one more time. But Hawley, now an Austin resident himself, vibed with her tastes, and offered her the job of music supervisor on Season 2 within moments of their first meeting’s wrap-up.
“Now I have a number of great shows that I get to work on,” Phillips said. “I’m very fortunate and I know how fortunate I am because I know how hard it is.”
Justin Sanders: Public respect and admiration for your profession seems to be surging, as evidenced by how awesome songs are getting on television shows with increasing frequency, but also by last year’s Emmys®, which saw the first-ever Music Supervision Award go to Susan Jacobs for Big Little Lies. Why is the role of music supervisor having such a moment right now?
Maggie Phillips: Mostly, I think it’s happening because television itself is having a moment. There are so many excellent television shows out there, and the more excellent programs there are, the more excellent music there needs to be. It’s also partly because of the work of the Guild of Music Supervisors – a group of people standing up for our career, which has been an undervalued part of the industry.
JS: How does the Guild of Music Supervisors go about ensuring the career is properly valued?
MP: The Guild has been fighting for fair pay and for all music supervisors to set a pay limit, and for us to unite and stand up for that fair pay. One of the hardest parts about being a music supervisor is that there is no union, so there is no pay protection. And because it’s such a highly coveted job – often because it’s very misunderstood – if you say “no” because the pay is too low, there is someone right there behind you to take your place.
JS: How is the profession misunderstood?
MP: People think, “That sounds like the best job ever. You get to pick out great songs for great TV shows.” And the creative part is really cool, but finding a perfect song for a perfect moment takes a lot of research and a lot of listening. You don’t just pick it out of thin air. For every song that you hear on a TV show – I’m talking about the bigger moments like montages and end titles, not background music – you’re talking 20 to 40 hours of listening to [find it]. I might listen to hundreds of songs for one spot, to find one that feels effortless and perfect.
And then the creative is a really small part of the job. The music clearance process is extremely time-consuming and challenging, especially when you’re working with a budget – which I always am.
Managing relationships and expectations is also a huge part of it as well, not only on the film side of things – the producers, the directors, the editors, the showrunner, and sometimes even the actors and the writers – but with all the people you license the music from like the publishing houses and the labels.
Then there’s the unglamorous part of it: the cue sheets, the quote requests, and the confirmation letters – all the paperwork it takes to clear a song. For each song, you have to clear the master license, which is for the recording itself and goes through the record label, and then you have to clear the publishing side, which is the songwriting – the actual song. But a song could have had two or three people write it, or more, and then you’re dealing with multiple parties on the publishing side, and you have to get them to all agree to the same price.
Being the middleman can be taxing.
JS: How did you find your way into this line of work? Are you a musician yourself?
MP: I’m not a musician. I went to art school and I was an oil painter, but I’ve always been a huge fan of music. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and live music is really important there. I was very much into that scene when I was in high school and college, going to multiple live shows every night. I was always introducing people to new music, making mixed tapes, recording songs off the radio, which became making mixed CDs, and then digital playlists. Because I was that person in the group, my friends, the filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, asked me for help with the music on their first movie, The Puffy Chair, and it sort of grew from there. They were extremely loyal to me, and when they started getting offers for studio indies, they fought for me to come in as music supervisor.
JS: Did you have any idea what the job even entailed in those early days?
MP: No, not at all. [The Duplass brothers’] first studio movie was Cyrus, for Fox Searchlight, and I walked into it having no clue. This was more than 12 years ago now, so it was before people really knew what supervisors did. It wasn’t a popular career back then. I knew my music, but I knew nothing of the other parts. I went and got some books and I learned, and I keep learning every day.
JS: Was Cyrus the point when you realized that music supervision might be a viable career choice for you?
MP: Yeah, after Cyrus, I was like, “Okay, I think I can do this. I’m going to pursue it.” I figured out that I had skills that I didn’t know I had. I mean, I was an artist for 10 years – doing stuff like negotiations and the business side of [music supervision] was very new to me. I was also transitioning out of painting because it’s hard to make a living as an artist. Little did I know that it would be very hard to make a living from music supervision too!
JS: It definitely does not seem like one of those career paths where the next job is guaranteed. It seems like you have to really hustle to succeed.
MP: I hustled for many, many years. About eight years after Cyrus, I actually moved back to Austin for a while and was like, “I’m quitting. I’m going to find my third career.”
I had given up at that point. I was in my late thirties and I couldn’t keep living like a pauper. I wanted to start planning for the future. I had only done indies, and it wasn’t looking like I would be able to break out of that pigeon hole. I had gotten very close numerous times, but then the studio would say that I didn’t have enough credits. I knew from talking to other music supervisors that television was really the only way to make a living, but it’s really hard to break into television.
JS: So, how did you break into television?
MP: It was really lucky. I got called in for Fargo, Season 2. I was in Austin and [a producer on Fargo] called and asked if I would be willing to meet with [Fargo showrunner] Noah Hawley in Los Angeles. I was like, “Are you kidding?” I loved Fargo, Season 1. I was so excited to meet Noah. I actually thought I was having a general meeting with him, but the night before the meeting, the same producer told me, “Oh, by the way – Fargo‘s music supervisor position is open.”
So, then I went in very nervous, but Noah and I hit it off, and then 30 seconds after leaving the meeting, the producer texted me and said, “You’re hired for Fargo, Season 2.” And then my whole life changed.
JS: How so?
MP: I moved back to L.A. for Fargo, and then I did [HBO drama] Togetherness with Mark and Jay Duplass, and then it all sort of grew from there. Now I have a number of great shows that I get to work on. I’m very fortunate and I know how fortunate I am because I know how hard it is.
JS: Why do you think Fargo impacted your career so profoundly where other, previous projects did not?
MP: Fargo, Season 2 took place in 1979. I love that era of music and I finally got to do what I knew I always could – I just didn’t have the platform to do it. I worked really freaking hard on it, and I think I really dug deep and did something that was unusual in music supervision. People took notice and I’ve received offers because of it.
JS: Give me an example of an unusual moment of music supervision that occurred on Fargo, Season 2.
MP: One of the songs in Season 2 that people flipped out about was a song by the Yamasuki Singers called “Yama Yama”. It was a song that a friend of mine introduced to me a couple years ago and I was like, “I can’t wait to use this song.” That’s why Noah and I clicked – because when I gave him that song he was like, “That’s awesome, and I’m going to open this season with it.”
There have been times when I’ve sent songs like that to people and they were like, “This is way too weird for me,” but I sent it to Noah and he was like, “Great – send me even weirder.” He and I just respond to the same music.
JS: What is your process of finding unusual tracks like “Yama Yama”?
MP: Record collectors go crate digging – I go digital crate digging. It’s just listening a ton, and then when I find one of those songs that I’ve never heard but really resonates, I put it on a playlist and I save it.
Normally, I’m at the office until about three or four in the afternoon, and then I head home and from 4:00pm to 10:00pm, it’s listening time. It’s just me huddled over a computer with my headphones on. I do weird Google research, too, and I get on random Reddit threads to try and find stuff. That will take me places, which will take me other places.
And then about once every quarter, I go away for three to seven days, depending on how much time I have, and I listen to music nonstop, and that’s how I build an arsenal for the next few months. I get really obsessive about it and, like, forget to brush my teeth, and just go straight from sun-up to when I go to sleep. Then I wake up and do it again.
JS: Is there a particular place where you like to go when you’re ready to do one of these deep dives?
MP: I used to go to my friends’ cabin in the mountains, but they sold that. I went to Mexico recently to do it, to a hotel on the beach in Cabo. Sometimes I just rent a house [in L.A.] I just need to get out to a different place. You take away all obstacles and distractions and then you can focus.
JS: What advice would you have for someone looking to become a music supervisor?
MP: I say this to everyone who asks me that question – which, by the way, happens quite often because (laughs) it is seemingly such a cool job: I tell people to just get a little taste of it before you say, “This is what I want to do.” Because it is not at all what one might envision, and there is no way of understanding that until you actually get thrown into it.
When music supervisors get together and have a conversation, it’s one of the only times we can feel appreciated because it’s like, “Oh my god, someone else gets it. Someone else gets how hard it is.” The only way you can understand is by doing it. If people want to pursue it as a career, they really need to get a taste of what it actually is.
JS: How might one go about getting a little taste of the profession?
MP: Find a music supervisor that will let you come and intern. Apprenticing is the best way to go. There are classes you can take, but nothing beats the real-life experience.
JS: You can actually take classes in music supervision?
MP: Yeah! There are courses offered at some colleges now. Every person that I get an application from has some element of music business education on their resume, or has taken the program at UCLA Extension. But it doesn’t help much with actually doing the job.
JS: You’re receiving applications – does that mean you have a staff under you now?
MP: Yeah, I have four people working for me now. I’m working on a fair amount of television shows and movies, so I have a team that handles clearances for me. It’s what I’ve dreamt of – not having to do the clearances so I get to do the creative also. I’m really lucky.
JS: Is your ultimate goal with all this to keep growing your company?
MP: My big goal right now is to find work-life balance.
JS: Are you able to listen to music simply for the joy of it anymore?
MP: Honestly, very little. I listen to it so much for work, it’s really hard to enjoy. But recently, for my birthday, I bought myself a new sound system – a pure, adult sound system with a really nice record player, an amp, and two really cool speakers. My friend who is a music supervisor on Master of None is a hi-fi enthusiast and he came over and set me up. So, for the first time since I started this career, I will put a record on and let it just sort of sit in the background while I’m moving around my house. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve gotten to just enjoy music in that way, where it’s not targeted listening and it’s part of the background. It’s been a really nice quality of life change. It was a good present.
JS: There’s something about that analog experience, about dropping the needle and so forth, that makes you appreciate the music more deeply.
MP: You can’t jump ahead 30 seconds. You can’t look up any information while you’re listening – who owns it, how much it would cost to get, etc. You’re listening to music the way it was meant to be listened to.
Photo credits, from top to bottom: Martin M303/Shutterstock.com; Courtesy of Maggie Phillips; Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock.com; Serge Ka/Shutterstock.com; Martin M303/Shutterstock.com