Alexandra Patsavas has always had her ear to the ground for new music. And whether you know it or not, she's likely the person who's kept yours there too.
The wildly successful Grammy-nominated music supervisor has curated some of the most iconic soundtracks of the past 20 years, selecting the music for cult TV shows like The O.C., Gossip Girl, and Grey's Anatomy, as well as movies like The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. In large part, the Chicagoland native's creative blend of licensing unsigned and under-the-radar artists to premiere songs or cover other artists' songs on her projects has introduced some of the biggest indie artists of the 2000s to tens of millions of viewers throughout her career, helping revitalize television as a medium for music promotion in the process. On one 2005 episode of The O.C., for example, Beck premiered five new songs during the 42-minute show, while other artists like The Killers, Coldplay, Death Cab For Cutie, The Fray, Snow Patrol, and a long list of other turn-of-the-century indie bands debuted new tracks or had their music featured under Patsavas' watch as music supervisor. For many of these then-unknown bands, this primetime placement would lead to cultural ubiquity and career-making hits.
Soundtracks invoke emotion and play a major role in setting the mood for visual arts, such as television and film, and the song choice for a particular scene can completely alter the way an audience perceives it. At times, Patsavas says she mulls over more than 100 different tracks while listening for the perfect song to go with a specific moment in a program. And she's made a career out of having the ability to pick the right one. We asked Patsavas about her musical roots, the way music can become a character in a show, and how music licensing has evolved in the dawn of the internet.
Noisey: You booked and promoted shows when you were in college [at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], and you said you'd go to shows almost every night. Did that experience influence the way you tried to utilize bands in TV shows, like the way that live acts were used in The O.C.?
Alexandra Patsavas: Champaign had, and has, such a vibrant, educated, and diverse music scene. It made perfect sense for bands to stop there between gigs in St. Louis or Columbia [Missouri] and Chicago, so I think we were able to experience the best of the best. I relished the ability to discover music through live shows, friends and [University of Illinois college radio station] WPGU. The O.C. gave me the opportunity to relive those days, because Josh [Schwartz, creator of The O.C.] actually wrote in a club, The Bait Shop. It was a permanent set complete with posters on the walls, a bar and all the appropriate club fixtures. I was able to think about music as source and score but also as promoter. Bands experienced live is certainly different than thinking about pairing music to picture.
How much did your time living in Champaign, Illinois, influence or broaden your music tastes? There's a lot of history here, between classic rock bands like REO Speedwagon and more contemporary emo bands like American Football all getting their starts here.
I grew up in suburban Chicagoland in Glen Ellyn and I was already interested in music, but [Champaign-Urbana] certainly influenced my tastes and broadened my musical horizons, as it were. I remember being introduced to music so many of peers were already familiar with—John Prine, Uncle Tupelo, Gordon Lightfoot, and KMFDM, for example. It wasn't only the geography of the place though, but rather the deep pockets of musical knowledge.
Your work holds a lot of the responsibility for the boom of 2000s indie rock and a lot of bands were discovered by fans through shows you worked on, like The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy. Did you expect to have that impact when you went into television and movies?
Not at all. I was really interested in getting into music supervision because of the work itself—pairing music with picture, exploring different genres and eras, and working with talented directors, writers, and producers, and I was fortunate to work on projects that highlighted music and to be able to highlight music that I personally loved.
What led to the decision to focus so heavily on music on The O.C.?
Josh Schwartz, The O.C.'s creator, always was sure that music was a character on the show. He conceived of The Bait Shop to shine a light on live music—The Killers, Modest Mouse, The Walkmen, Jem, Death Cab [all played "live" at The Bait Shop on The O.C.]. We created covers specifically for scenes in the show, and Josh made room for special music events like the "Beckisode" and other song premieres like Coldplay's "Fix You" and others.
What went into the decision of picking a song for a particular scene?
Every situation is different. Sometimes a song was scripted and lived in the cut, sometimes one of the picture editors selected a track from the compilations we sent down, and sometimes I pitched one or 100 songs until the right song emerged.
How did you seek out bands before social media was a major access point to different music scenes across the country?
The old-fashioned way! I had contacts with labels big and small, managers, publishers, and trusted friends with great ears. I eagerly read CMJ, NME, and later I was able to read reviews online. Certainly, access into music in 2017 is the same, and although my network has expanded, the method is the same.
What's the difference from seeking out new artists now that there's online tools like social media as opposed to the early and mid-2000s, when internet communication wasn't as instantaneous and widespread?
Not terribly different, although I am able to get specific music much, much faster, and Sweden or Berlin is essentially as local as LA, where I live and work. What is different is the clearance process. Music supervisors have to make sure that each piece of music is buttoned up legally before air. It used to be extremely lengthy and the fax machine was the most important piece of equipment next to the CD player and DVD players. Now, it's radically different on all fronts.
Are there any negatives to having so much access to different bands online now?
Just the nagging assumption that I am missing something epic.
You have a lot of history with song premieres, like you mentioned with the "Beckisode" on The O.C., and movie soundtracks like Twilight that you've done. How important was it to get unheard songs by major artists like Beck and Paramore to use?
Showcasing emerging talent and premiering new songs is one of my favorite aspects of music supervision. I think special projects are best served by a musical point of view or signature sound, if you will. Brand new music, especially by artists clearly at the beginning of what is to be a long and important career, cements this. It's important to me that certain tracks or artists remind the viewer of a scene or character.
How much of a difference does it make to curate your own soundtrack and having fans hear an original or cover of a song they haven't heard before? I imagine that's the most ideal thing you could have, right?
Ideal only if it makes sense for the project and scene. Sometimes a song or cover of a song that the audience already recognizes provides a certain essential emotional resonance.
Does it feel like premiering songs on TV or in movies led directly to the way music is premiered now, primarily via online media outlets? What's the difference there?
I am not sure it's exactly the same. Songs premiered in TV and movie projects are tied to characters, themes, and scenes. The songs are instantly recognizable because they remind us of what connects for the viewer. The online media premieres, to me, omit this ingredient and serve as introductions without context.
Where do you see music licensing going in the coming years? Do you see much more change coming, or do you see industry leaders still trying to navigate and figure out how to best utilize the internet and social media?
I think that the artist portion of the music supervisor's job—working with creators to get a signature sound for a project—will stay consistent. The licensing portion will continue to change as the rights packages shift in order to accommodate how programming is experienced.
Sean Neumann is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.