Sometime in 2018, baroque-pop songwriter Julia Holter spent an afternoon reading about almost every type of R-18 sex that your parents tried to shield you from. Frenzied orgies full of guttural grunting, sweaty pounding and the occasional incestuous fantasy – she scrolled through it all. And relax, we're not outing her personal proclivities. She'd just been sent a script for an upcoming Channel 4 series called Pure, alongside an invitation to score it, and was getting her head around its lead character's destructive OCD.
As Holter puts it to me, the show is a “raw, sweet, complex, uncomfortable mix of comedy and drama” that tells the tale of Marnie, a young woman from the Scottish borders who moves to London to try and outrun the graphic, intrusive sexual thoughts derailing her life (not to mention her parents’ wedding anniversary party). Accompanied by foggy synth murmurs that sound like the dissociation of OCD feels, its nuanced, sophisticated portrait of the disorder – the real OCD, not the OCD your neat-freak mate describes themselves as because they hoover twice a week – won over critics and viewers. Pure pulls you violently into the reality of picturing something distressing and – unlike most people, who can dismiss the thought as quickly as it arrived – following that thought into an inescapable spiral. “I was really drawn to how refreshing it was to see that,” says Holter, who worked on the score between recording and releasing last year’s Aviary, her fifth studio album.
If you’ve ever wondered what the music to match someone necking an entire bottle of Listerine, in lieu of booze, to blot out sexual thoughts about her mum would be, it turns out you need hushed Casio shimmers and ambient swells inspired by Brian Eno. Sandpapering Holter’s usual crystalline, string-soaked piano sound into abstract analogue shapes, the show’s score puts each episode in a near-permanent state of haze. “I’d been listening to a lot of Another Green World, and went looking for these very chill, warm electronic sounds that were woozy and pulsing and a little bit ominous,” she says. “I wanted to be invisible, and just flow along with the characters and their emotions.”
Holter’s not the only indie artist scribbling “taboo-smashing television” at the top of her CV. Already this year, Chicago-born songwriter Ezra Furman has soundtracked Netflix’s Sex Education. The second season of mind-warping sci-fi thriller The OA, soundtracked by former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, is expected imminently. And at some point this year, another season of Channel 4’s The End Of The Fucking World, scored by Blur’s Graham Coxon, should emerge (unless, of course, the actual end of the fucking world gets here first).
The trend of indie artists scoring films – of Oneohtrix Point Never unleashing glowering synths on the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, of Tune-Yards lending an eclectic touch to Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, of Jonny Greenwood turning up with a string orchestra every time Paul Thomas Anderson goes within a two-mile radius of a camera – is finally trickling down to TV. But while on the surface it might appear like a winning arrangement for both artists, TV creators and small screen bingers alike, underneath it reveals a darker truth about how indie musicians are increasingly being forced to diversify in a time of crushingly low streaming platform royalties railroading acts into exhausting cycles of touring.
It’s a cheery symbiosis on paper. TV – now in a much think-pieced “golden era” of ambitious storytelling, inflated budgets and cinematic production values – needs great music. Songwriters, meanwhile, get to experiment and express themselves on TV projects that are, these days, artistically satisfying. “I could see from the scripts I was sent early on that it was surprisingly inclusive, with gay characters and gender non-conforming characters,” Ezra Furman, fresh from the success of Sex Education, tells me. “But I still needed a lot of convincing that this was not gonna be like so many TV shows: just one great big damaging set of sexual stereotypes and ideals.” He needn’t have worried. A whipsmart, diverse comedy about a high schooler who sets up his own sex therapy clinic for classmates, the show’s realness regarding matters in the bedroom dovetailed neatly with the types of relationships Furman regularly sings about on celebrated solo albums like last year’s Transangelic Exodus. “It represents a lot of attitudes that either healthy or pointing away from an unhealthiness,” he continues, “I’m pretty proud to be associated with it because I haven’t seen a lot of shows that do things that way.”
Both Holter and Furman describe a near-total freedom in what they were allowed to do with their scores. Music supervisor Jen Moss ( I, Tonya, American Animals) tells me this is pretty typical of the new “celebrity”-scored TV show. “Things like cable channels and streaming platforms are allowing for slightly more leftfield storytelling and non-traditional narratives and voices,” she explains. “The creatives behind them want to to extend that experimentation into the music as well. So what we’re getting now is a move away from all the orchestral traditional scores you used to tend to get, into soundscapes that are as artful and unique as the visuals they’re accompanying.”
Dig a little deeper, though, and the number of indie-level musicians seeking scoring gigs paints a slightly desperate picture of an ecosystem scrambling around for new ways to make money in the age of streaming. As revenue from recorded music has declined, labels have doubled down on efforts to place their artists’ songs on screen. Sync departments – dedicated to lobbying film and TV music supervisors to feature songs by their artists – have become an increasingly important part of the record label money-making machine. In a time of Shazam and Genius, audiences can discover a song like “Civilian” by Baltimore duo Wye Oak, featured in an early season of The Walking Dead, in a moment. And not just any audiences: these are mainstream audiences tuning in in their millions, who indie artists might otherwise never reach. “I read that 40 million people had watched Sex Education already,” says a bewildered Furman. “That’s insane.” Moss, meanwhile, says she’s known song placements to result in streaming spikes of over 4000 percent.
And so scoring a whole show feels like the next logical step, for artists already embracing sync. It sets up a bit of a win-win situation. The show gains the credibility of a cult artist. And the artist… well, indie musicians spend loads of time on tour, trying make a living. Holter says a TV score commission can give an artist the financial stability to take a break from the intensive cycle of recording music, then hitting the road to make more money to afford to record more music, and so on. “The reality of being a musician and touring can be overwhelming. It can be great but it’s not the healthiest thing – physically or mentally,” she says. “I hope to keep doing scores cos for me, it’s extremely fun and rewarding but also, on a practical level, it means not always having to tour.” Furman agrees: “Being on tour is incredibly difficult work. You’re just essentially working 24 hours a day. You’re not sleeping a lot. It’s not a lot of fun to do a ton of driving and to carry gear in and out of venues every day, to not see the people I love on a regular basis. So yeah, getting work from some financially well-endowed TV company and being able to stay home and work? That’s very attractive.”
In other words, as the pressures on indie musicians persist, as TV continues to evolve into a space for boundary-pushing and taboo-smashing experimentation, and as streaming competitors like Netflix and Amazon continue to battle it out for dominance, expect more artists to seek TV scoring work, and for more TV companies to afford them the opportunity. For viewers, it’s an exciting new dawn: the golden age of TV growing ever more golden thanks to lush, scintillating scores as captivating as the stories they’re there to underline. But maybe it’s worth remembering – there was a time when artists didn’t need to moonlight like this.
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