Industry Profile: Alexandra Patsavas
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Alexandra Patsavas, owner, Chop Shop Music, Inc.
Alexandra Patsavas pays attention to background sounds the way the rest of us pay attention to our breathing.
Leading up to a rash of shows returning to the airways for another TV season this month, the lights have stayed on late at Patsavas’ Chop Shop Music over the past months as her music supervision staff toiled on music for such TV programs as, "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice," "Chuck," "Gossip Girl," "Rescue Me," "Mad Men," "Supernatural," and the debut of “Hart of Dixie.”
As well, Chop Shop Music have been supervising music for such feature films as "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," “A Better Life,” "Water For Elephants," and “Fun Size.”
Patsavas’ musical instincts are razor-sharp and legendary.
She is renowned for her ability to match the exact right song with a scene for maximum emotional impact. She starts with the feeling of the film, and then she creates a mood around it. She resists using this or that band if it's only a priority for a label, network, studio or whatever. Instead, she seeks out music from far-flung sources that will fit the mood she's creating; and that also will open up the film.
Besides working with about every contemporary major music act you might name, Patsavas has also provided the cinematic breakthroughs for an impressive list of emerging bands, including Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Killers, Snow Patrol, the Fray, Florence & the Machine, the Black Keys, Metric, Paramore, and Muse.
Growing up in Chicago’s suburb of Glen Ellyn in the '80s, Patsavas was a Glenbard South honors student who spent much of her free time at record stores such as Wax Trax or catching bands at local clubs.
Patsavas studied politics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, but dropped out during her junior year.
She came to Los Angeles in 1990 to work in the mail room at Triad Artists. This was followed by a two year stint at BMI, where she was introduced to the world of music supervision.
Director Roger Corman recruited Patsavas to coordinate music at his Concorde Films. By the time she left nearly three years later, she had worked on close to 50 low budget films.
In 1998, Patsavas formed Chop Shop Music Supervision, which she ran initially out of her Hollywood apartment. The company’s first projects included the independent feature film “Happy, Texas” and the acclaimed sci-fi television series, “Roswell.”
In 2003, Josh Schwartz hired Patsavas to supervise the music for his ground-breaking drama about Southern California teenagers, “The O.C.” which ran for four seasons.
Meanwhile, Chop Shop music went on to supervise a long list of television shows including: "Carnivale," “Without A Trace,” “Life On Mars,” “Numb3rs,” “Fastlane,” “Boston Public,” “Tru Calling,” “1-800-Missing,” and “Criminal Minds”; as well as the films "The Invisible," “New In Town,” "Remember Me,” and "The Dilemma."
In 2007, Patsavas launched Chop Shop Records, which is distributed by Atlantic Records. The label’s roster currently consists of Scars On 45, Anya Marina, Milo Greene, Marina and the Diamonds, the Republic Tigers, and Mackintosh Braun.
Over the years Patsavas has produced soundtracks for such TV shows as "Mad Men," "Grey's Anatomy," "The O.C.," "Rescue Me," “Gossip Girl.”
She has, in fact, produced four original soundtracks for “Grey’s Anatomy.” The latest, “Grey’s Anatomy Original Soundtrack Volume 4,” was released Sept. 13, 2011. It features tracks by Cee Lo Green, Lykke Li, Scars on 45, Peter Bjorn and John, the National, the Boxer Rebellion, Delta Spirit, and the Republic Tigers.
Due in stores and online Tuesday, November 8, is "The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn—Part 1” soundtrack on Chop Shop Records.
Patsavas was the music supervisor for "Twilight," "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” Combined, the three soundtracks have sold more than 7.5 million copies worldwide.
Studio executive Mike Medavoy’s memoir in 2002 was titled “You’re Only As Good As Your Next One.” Is that still true in Hollywood?
I think that you are as good as your collective body of work; I’m not so sure that it’s exactly about the next one.
Of course, you do amass credits and relationships over time.
I’ve been lucky to work as a music supervisor for the same groups of creators and producers for a long time. You develop a short hand, and can work together on all sorts of different projects.
A busier time than usual?
Pretty busy. But the fall is particularly busy, in general, for me as we launch a new season and new shows. You spend a little time finding your way. Of course, this is also the eigth season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” another show with (creator/executive producer) Shonda Rhimes, and Betsy Beers is the executive producer. I was hired to do the pilot, and they were very focused on giving music a character’s voice and that choice has really resonated with the fans over time.
Was it fun returning to “The Twilight Saga” film series?
Oh, for me, of course. What an opportunity to work on a project that people care about so much.
Music has been important to Bill Condon’s work over the years. Is he very hands on with music?
Very, very hands on. I can’t reveal the track listing (for the soundtrack). It will come out November 8th.
[Bill Condon is best known for directing and writing the films “Gods and Monsters,” “Chicago,” “Kinsey,” and “Dreamgirls.”]
Do you really receive 500 music submissions a week?
What staff do you have?
I have five staff (members) and I have an intern. John Rubeli is on the record side (Chop Shop Records), and then I have three full-time (staffers) on the music supervision side. One gentleman who splits his time between Chop Shop Records, and Chop Shop Music Supervision, and there’s our poor overworked intern who does whatever needs to be done.
Who scrutinizes the music you are sent?
Anything not horrifying is put into our iTunes. We are on a Final Cut Pro editing system so we put our music into an editing system in order to house it all, and tag it correctly. It’s enormous.
You are 43 this year working in an industry fixated with youth.
So many of my colleagues are my age that I don’t really feel it--producers, directors, editors. But I know what you are saying. I also spend a lot of time focusing on picking up music for “Gossip Girl” or “Twilight” fans. So I definitely think that I have retained some understanding (of youth culture).
Can you enjoy music for itself rather than gauging where it might be placed in a film?
Again, I know what you are saying, but I still get carried away (by music), although I certainly think about music differently as a music supervisor than I did before I did this job. I think how it would fit behind dialogue to make the audience feel. I spend a lot of time thinking about how music makes someone feel.
You aren’t someone in a restaurant who hears music in the background, and thinks, “That would so fit this project.”
Usually at a restaurant, it is songs that I already know, but that I can’t turn off. I am still programmed to listen to what is in the background. It is just so much a part of my life that I am always listening to what is on in the background.
The independent music supervision field has exploded in the past decade. A highly competitive field today?
Yes. Of course, it’s been with (a growing number of) cable and network shows alike, but I do think that with A&R jobs being less available that music supervision has become more of a destination. Sort of a second choice (for a career).
A few decades ago, there were only a handful of music supervisors; studios had in-house people handling music.
And they still do. The VP of music oversees every aspect of that network or studio’s programming. It is an intense, and an enormous job. We rely on them all of the time--to sort through problems; to talk about on cameras; to help with fees--absolutely. We really rely and depend on these people.
You are working on multiple projects. How do you get your head around the diversity of music needed for all of the projects?
I work…how do I explain this? I am a person who has a business who works like I work for somebody. I keep very regular hours. I have a very organized office. I have amazing coordinators, and I have created a system--not about the creative aspect--but the back office. Of course, we clear, and we negotiate fees for the songs on all of these projects. That’s the part of this job that gets lost sometimes. If you can’t successfully negotiate and clear music, and maintain good respectful relationships with these long-time members of the film and TV community, you can’t really get anything done.
How are you paid?
A music supervisor gets paid per episode. With soundtracks, it depends. Usually for the music supervisor, there are points. It’s a very standard process.
It is a very collaborative relationship providing music for a television show or a film. It’s not like you are sitting in a dark room with earphones on.
Oh, music supervisors have agents just like the DP (director of photography) and the editor. We interview for every project that we do. So, yes it’s incredibly collaborative. A music supervisor doesn’t exist on their own. We exist within the context of a film or television or commercial, whatever it is that we are working on.
Who would you audition for the VP of music at a studio or a network?
Perhaps in the early days I would start with exactly that--somebody from the film music community at whatever studio and get vetted and move on to the directors and the producers. But now I get called for projects and I interview with whoever that creative is. In television it is a producer-driven medium so it’s Josh Swartz or Shauna Rhymes or Matt Weiner; in movies you have an interview with the director.
Does the film director or TV producer have the last call on the music in a project?
Absolutely. We are finding options to carry out the (film) director’s vision; or the producer’s vision in television.
You look at scripts and, maybe, a rough cut?
I often get hired on a TV show for the pilot; and for a movie before it has been shot. Every project starts with a dialogue with the creative to define what the objective is for the music. Sometimes, music is front and centre; and sometimes it’s not. Is it period? Is it current? Should it be music that people know? Should it be music that the audience is introduced to for the first time? The mechanics of supervision can include creating a theme song; anything on camera; anytime a character hums something, dances to something. These are all part of the music supervisor’s job.
Do you send film directors and TV producers CDs or MP3s of music you think might work?
Yes. I send lots and lots of choices. I think that a good music supervisor cannot get a…it’s part of that collaborative process that you were talking about earlier. It’s very important to always remember that we are working for the creative, and carrying out their vision.
Someone rarely mentioned in the process are editors. They must have to be music centric.
Editors are so key. I feel that you cannot overstate the importance of an editor. I think (that their role) is covered in the editor’s magazine The Cinemaeditor from ACE (American Cinema Editors). I think I have read a few articles about the musicality of editors. I know editors who actually cut to a tempo. You can watch them editing. “Is it 3/4 time?” They use music (in their editing).
I always work to get clearable current music down to editorial as quickly as possible so that they can start shaping the movie to music that the director or the producer has in mind. But you are right, their role cannot be overstated. I have a close relationship with so many editors that I have had the privilege of working with now for years
How do you get a feel for a project looking at an early draft script?
I think that if you know the (creator’s) personality, if it’s a Shonda (Rhimes) script or a Josh (Schwartz) script, you can sorta figure it out. As the scripts come further on into the series, you hear the character voices. I hear the speaking voice of the actor when I am reading a script. I think it’s the same intuitions for music. And, as I mentioned before, I have had long-term relationships (with the creatives).
Do you go on the set?
No. I’m on the set only if there’s an on-camera band or a complicated dance sequence. Otherwise I spend all of my time at the snack table, and it doesn’t go well.
You seem to have a lot of leeway in what you do.
I have worked with incredibly adventurous creatives. Of course, Josh worked on “The O.C.” At the time he was the youngest showrunner ever on a network television show (the youngest person in network history to create a network series and run its day-to-day production). He had, and still does have a real interest in new music. He is always at shows.
We were able to develop a short-hand. (With “The O.C.”) he was very specific about what kind of music that he wanted, I think you don’t serve the project well ever to short change. The job of the music supervisor is to find the very best song. I often get asked, “Are you interested in indie music rather than major label music?” I think that the job is to find the very best song for the scene. It is a very different process than putting out an album where there's touring; and does the band get along? All of these factors that enter into making and putting out an album. All I need is one amazing song that the creative feels is the best fit to enhance the drama that they brought to screen.
Working with Josh Schwartz in “The O.C." was a turning point for you. It went on for four years. Being 26, he would have grown up with the indie music.
It was such a dream come true. Of course, they decided to build a set, The Bait Shop (a fictional new night club and concert venue), and the character (Ryan Atwood played by Benjamin McKenzie) was very natural. I think we did 13 or 14 (artist) on-cameras throughout the series, as well as creating a series of covers for the show. Those were all things that Josh made space for. We did six soundtracks over the four seasons.
[For four seasons, the opening strains of Phantom Planet's "California" marked the start of Fox TV's "The O.C." to millions of fans.
The show featured a fictional all-ages venue, The Bait Shop, and an audiophile character Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody), who had a penchant for Death Cab for Cutie.
“When the "O.C." thing happened, we went through a whole host of emotions,” recalls Death Cab For Cutie’s guitarist/producer Chris Wall. “When we got the first request for that, they hadn't even aired the pilot, and we said, "Sure, why not." It was one of the first licensing things we did and we didn't think it would be a big deal. For a while after it got huge, we thought, "God, we're the "O.C." band forever, stuck in this box." But we realized it was only a chapter in the band's history, and we had albums and a fan base and it wouldn't be the only thing we ever did.”
In 2003, Josh Schwartz had written a pilot for Warner Bros. TV and Wonderland Sound and Vision which was produced with him as creator and executive producer.
“The O.C.” quickly became a teen favorite after debuting on the Fox Network in Aug, 2003, attracting 9.7 million viewers for its first season.
The show became well known for its music designed to reflect who the characters were. Bands including Death Cab for Cutie, the Walkmen, the Killers, Modest Mouse, the Thrills, Rachael Yamagata, and the Subways guested on the show. “The O.C” also premiered many new tracks, including from the Beastie Boys, U2, Beck, Coldplay, Gwen Stefani, and the Shins.
In 2007, after four seasons “The O.C.” was canceled due to a drop in ratings.]
Josh Schwartz is known for being very hands-on as a producer.
He is very hands on. I have been lucky enough to continue to work for him on “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” and I am currently supervising his feature “Fun Size” that he has directed. We are just getting into that now.
You were an honor student at Glenbard South in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn.
My father taught at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, and my mom was a retired high school librarian. So yes I grew up in Glen Ellyn.
[The village of Glen Ellyn is a suburb of Chicago, about 20 miles west of the city. Performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson was born in Glen Ellyn, and Brian St. Clair, drummer of Local H is from there.]
As a teenager, you hung out at Wax Trax Records! on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.
I did. I definitely bought some vinyl there, and I went to all-age clubs like Medusa’s and, of course, The Cabaret Metro which is a force, and The Avalon. Chicago has a great music scene.
Were you a good girl in terms of you being an honor student or a bad girl in terms of going out and smoking, and hanging out?
I was a very good girl.
Like Molly Ringwald’s character in “Pretty in Pink.”
I was a little quirkier than Molly. I was a kid who was in drama, and on the speech team. I was one of those kids. Of course, I was a big movie fan. The John Hughes’ movies had all come out while I was in high school, and they had an enormous impact on me.
What did you study at the University of Illinois?
I studied political science. My father taught "poli sci." It was always in the house and it was something that we talked about. I was very interested in politics. I still am.
Traditionally, Chicago has been a hot bed of politics, and Democratic.
Not so much in the suburb. It was pretty conservative.
You dropped out of university in your junior year. Were you distracted by booking bands there during that year?
I was distracted, but I also really thought that there was something there for me (in the music industry). I really felt that I wanted to be an agent. I wouldn’t ever have been able to name music supervision. Being a kid from Chicago, to me the music industry was the booking industry because that is what I could see. Producing was outside my ability as far as running the board. There were people that I knew who were label reps. I didn’t have the ability to be a DJ. I tried that for the college radio station and I was completely unable to put a record on, and talk at the same time. That did not go well. So a career in radio was not going to happen for me. That was an obvious. But I had many friends who went on to have careers in radio from U of I.
Booking bands is like landing on the ground floor of the music industry.
It is the way in for many, many of us. For so many of us that are in the music business now, we started at either college radio or whatever the entertainment board is called at the university that you attended. It was funded, of course, by the school, as were the college radio programs. Of course, music or rock and roll is so much more than just your ears. It’s a lifestyle. It’s fashion, and an identity, especially at a big school like the University of Illinois, which has the biggest Greek System in the country - sororities and fraternities. But the counterculture is always equally as strong there as well.
Booking bands also gives a newcomer access to the highest echelons of the music industry. You are dealing with agents, and managers. That’s pretty heady at a young age.
You’re right. You watch the displays go up at the record store; the college (label) rep comes in; someone is advancing the show, of course from the label, from the agency; and the manager is involved. You are absolutely right. It is heady stuff at that age, and I was just trying to sort out how to do it.
Did you book any cool bands?
I did. I booked quite a few national acts. They Might Be Giants, Camper Van Beethoven, Royal Crescent Mob, and Jane’s Addiction. This was all about 1989. This was such a brief moment in the scope of what I have been doing. I didn’t do it for very long.
But it provided a base for your career.
How long did it take you to get a job once you got to L.A.?
I had a job to come to. I had booked a few of the Triad Artists roster over time. So when I came out to work in Los Angeles, I had a job. I was lucky.
Many people come to Los Angeles to try to break into the business without a job.
I was brave but I was not that brave. I arrived in Los Angles in 1990 to work at what was then Triad Artists in Century City which, of course is now William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. I was in the mail room. I didn’t know how to drive, and I moved to Los Angeles. I basically learned how to drive, and figure out this city while taking very important packages to very important people who, of course, live on long, windy roads.
[In 1992, The William Morris Agency purchased Triad Artists. The acquisition brought 50 agents and a client roster that included actor Bruce Willis, country music star Vince Gill, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.]
Anybody working in the mail room with you who became well-known later on?
No. I was only there about a year. Many well-known clients, of course, were there. My particular mailroom class, I didn’t keep in contact with, except for John Rubeli, who runs Chop Shop Records. He and I were in the mailroom together. That’s where I met him. He had Doc Martens so I knew he was one of the music trainees rather than one of the lit (literature) or actor trainees.
Music was low on the totem pole for many talent agencies in that era.
I was so focused on music. I didn’t even really see the other departments at the agency. Then I went to work at BMI for about three or four years. First I was with Rick Riccobono, (VP of writer/ publisher relations) I was his second assistant. Then I worked for Linda Livingston (director of film/TV relations) in the film and TV department.
Was that job an eye-opener for you?
It was the first time that I was exposed to what I do now, so it was an eye opener. It was the first time that I was able to understand that there was a whole separate part of the music industry, and that music supervisors existed. Of course, I knew composers existed, but this was a whole new side.
Was BMI a good place to make contacts?
It was a great place to be young and because I was in the vice president’s office I was able to watch. Yeah, was a great place to learn.
Did you see a lot of films?
Yeah. But mostly I went to a lot of shows.
You went on to work at director Roger Corman’s Concorde Films.
I was there two and half or three years. I worked for a very generous head of the (music) department Paul DeFranco. I was the music coordinator, and I really got to learn. Of course I had seen cue sheets at BMI, but I learned about the process of how to interact with the director; how to spot a film; how to determine if a project needed score or source; and then I learned how to carry out the things that we talked about.
One strength you had as a young person working with older creatives was that you knew what was happening in music whereas they didn’t. That was your ace card.
But also we were very low budget. You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to be creative, right? You can take chances. The first movie that I supervised was “Caged Heat 3000” (in 1995). A friend of mine, Aaron Osborne, was a production designer, and he was directing his first movie. Of course, we had very little money. Aaron was into alternative rock, and new music. I was allowed to take many bands into the studio, and we created songs for “Caged Heat 3000.”
There was a soundtrack.
That’s right; there was a soundtrack. If you are lucky, I will send you one. Cooper created the artwork for the soundtrack. He was a well-known artist at the time. I learned a lot working there. I got to be more comfortable in a recording studio. Of course, these were the days that there was actual tape.
[The Cinemadisc soundtrack of “Cage Heat 3000” features the Melvins, the Ape Hangers and Fu Manchu, among others. The film’s shrill come-on on the VHS version blared, ”3000 Years. 2000 Women. 1000 Ways to Punish Them!”]
It was a big step to form Chop Shop Music Supervision in 1998.
I had worked for Paul De Franco at Concorde; I had spent a year at PM Entertainment which is another low budget film company; and then I started Chop Shop. I felt like that was the route for me. That the independent route was the way that I might be able to do some projects that my mother might be able to see. Then, of course, I did “Happy Texas” (in 1999) and I started doing more and more things.
Your first television series as a music supervisor was “Roswell” just after you opened up Chop Shop.
It was, yeah. It was my first television show. I wanted more than anything to do television when I started. I co-supervised with Kevin Edelman. Dido was the theme song (“Here With Me"). We used bands like Radiohead, Coldplay and Doves. It was a wonderful show about alien teenagers in Roswell, New Mexico. Jason Katims was the show runner. Of course, he does “Friday Night Lights” (as head writer and executive producer) and many other things.
With (“Roswell) we sort of went after this British other worldly thing to support the other world alien teenagers. I will never forget clearing “How To Disappear Completely” by Radiohead for “Roswell.” I thought that it was my birthday and Christmas and everything else. I was elated. I was absolutely elated with it. To me, that was the moment where everything seemed possible.
[Precedent-setting in television for its musical scope and its placement of music, “Roswell” featured an abundance of songs by unknown and star acts; as well as unreleased tracks, and major hits.
Among the acts featured were: Coldplay, Dido, Travis, Doves, Ash, Ivy, Gus Gus, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Dave Matthews Band, Smashing Pumpkins, Mandy Moore, Blink 182, Counting Crows, Foo Fighters, Hole, and the Stereophonics.]
Many bands didn’t want to do television back then.
That’s true, but it’s not that way anymore.
It has been said that the growing use of music by unknown acts in TV and film is because Hollywood doesn’t have to pay big bucks for top acts or big hit songs.
I don’t think that’s true. I really don’t. I think that we go after the kind of bands that….We had Jem cover (Paul McCartney’s) “Maybe I’m Amazed” on “The O.C.” We have used some very big songs and small songs. It’s about feel more than anything else. I really do. I know that isn’t a popular things to say.
Arcade Fire turned down “The O.C.” Was it you they turned down?
I don’t even remember, anymore. I am sure that it was. I have never licensed Arcade Fire. They are certainly notoriously not interested in licensing.
Nirvana used to be a holdout.
Nirvana is definitely more open. Things have shifted.
In 2007, you opened a record company, and you were executive producer of the web series “Rockville, CA” that ran on “TheWB.com” in the spring of 2009. Why the different projects?
I’m interested. It was a great privilege to be able to co-produce (“Rockville, CA”) with Josh. He asked me, and I screamed “yes.” I am interested in new things.
Has the label turned out the way you wanted?
The label has been such a good experience for me. I have never worked at a label. This has given me such an understanding of how hard it is to break a band; and how hard everybody works.
When I started out (in music supervision), especially during “The O.C.” days, I would get calls from (label) marketing departments asking, “How about this track? This is the focus track.” I would almost immediately focus on not that track. I don’t think I understood how difficult it was (breaking an act).
I don’t have a large roster. I have a pretty focused roster, which is how I like it. I like to be able to pay attention to the acts, and have specific types of acts. I have so enjoyed having the label, and I have been able to put out some soundtracks with it as well.
There are obvious synergies at Chop Shop between the music supervision side and the label side. You have, for instance, put Scars On 45 in different projects.
They are so likeable and present. I liked them instantaneously. Their manager Steve Nice came over and played me some music and I just thought, “How could this band be unsigned?”
Other than new signing Milo Greene, the label roster is pretty well what you started with. So it’s been about development?
That’s right. That was what it was intended to be.
Are your mom and dad proud of you and the career that you chose.
Yeah, they are.
I would imagine that anytime one of your shows airs that there are phone calls from your family.
Music is not the first choice for your Greek daughter--your only child. I think that it probably seemed completely impossible that I would leave Chicago, and move to California. It took me a long time. It took me about 10 years.
You were supposed to marry a Greek dentist back home, right?
Exactly. I don’t know, it’s not too late.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”