Awards Daily TV speaks with music supervisor Liz Lawson on what its like to work on Black Ink Crew, VH1’s hit reality show breaking ratings records in its sixth season.
Following the staff of a Harlem tattoo parlor, Black Ink Crew and its Chicago spinoff have become some of the most talked about reality shows of 2017. In its sixth season premiere, the show continues to break VH1 ratings records. As the music supervisor, Liz Lawson plays an integral role in helping audiences understand the world and relationships of the show through the musical soundscape she created. As the music supervisor for one of the biggest reality TV franchises in 2017, Liz began her career assisting on major dramas like Dexter and True Blood after years of work as a journalist and publicist.
Recently Liz took the time to speak with Awards Daily TV to discuss her passion for music and devoting her career to supporting musicians led her to the world of music supervision. We discussed the creative differences that go into reality TV versus scripted dramas, the excitement of introducing audiences to up-and-coming artists, and her unique path to becoming a music supervisor that included work as a journalist and publicist.
What does your role as a music supervisor entail?
What I enjoy most about being a music supervisor is being able to balance the creative and the business ends of things. People tend to think of a music supervisor simply as someone who listens to a lot of music. That is part of the job but a large part of it is also dealing with budgets, clearances, the opinions of the rest of the team. So overall it’s a creative process that is equally balanced with business and interpersonal relationships. Communication is key.
Black Ink Crew and Black Ink Crew: Chicago have become some of the most talked about reality shows of the year. How does your job differ with reality TV compared to scripted television?
The biggest difference with reality TV is that instead of dealing with a single showrunner I am usually working alongside multiple producers. Reality TV has a lot more voices in the room working together to shape their vision including the producers, editors, myself, and obviously the network.
Another big difference is that reality TV is pretty much scored throughout the entire episode from end to end. I’m not only dealing with bigger songs that need to be licensed but also finding libraries with good solid music that we can use. On Black Ink Crew we use a lot of hip-hop vocals so we need to find libraries that are willing to give us an overall blanket license.
The reality side deals more with the minutia of the show. I need to go through every second of each episode to make sure there is no music in there that shouldn’t be. Fundamentally those are the biggest differences.
You began your professional career as a journalist and later on as a publicist. What led you to music supervision?
In college I was on the editorial board of the school newspaper which naturally led me to freelance writing and interning at Paste Magazine as well as other publications. At the time I was dating a musician and saw how hard it is for them to break out professionally. There are so many great musicians and we only hear about a small percentage of them. I went into publicity to bolster the careers of artists that weren’t getting the attention that I thought they deserved. After a few years of that I was burned out because I wasn’t making the impact I wanted to make. I moved to LA and a friend working in post-production introduced me to the career. It fit my idea of what I wanted to do so well. I even enjoy the business side because I think it is a great balance of both sides of my brain.
From there I was lucky. I sent a crazy email to Gary Calamar and he responded. He was working on these awesome shows at the time and it was a great first experience. A lot of fortuitous events happened in a row.
Watching his and Alyson Vidoli’s process (his coordinator at the time) was such a fun learning experience. I remember when they put together an Iggy Pop and Best Coast collaboration specifically for the show. It was amazing watching Gary coordinate all of that and he actually co-wrote the song as well.
Your career as a music supervisor began with you assisting on dramas like Dexter and True Blood. What inspired your transition to reality TV?
It was all sort of happenstance. One of my first jobs was working with a supervisor that was supervising a lot of reality shows for MTV. It taught me that working reality required something very different than scripted and I love both ends but reality is really fun. It’s so fast paced and we are often dealing with multiple episodes all at once which keeps everything exciting.
More than any other genre reality TV has to be able to stay current and often times be able to predict what will be popular in the future. How do you plan the musical soundscape of the season especially when you are often trying to predict what will be popular and fresh months in advance?
There are two parts to that. In the first season of Black Ink Crew I pitched a bunch of Macklemore’s songs to the executive producers, way before he became a huge artist. The producer ended up loving it and we licensed a bunch of his tracks with a small budget before he became a sensation. That was a great moment for the show and an example of how helping to discover up-and-coming artists adds to the show.
I think most people who like music have a natural ability to spot something that’s good and with this job it’s adding to that by keeping your ear open for something that’s new and up-and-coming. There are a lot of great labels with lesser known bands waiting for an opportunity for a bigger platform. So watching that happen on our show is great. With our show VH1 gives these artists even more of an opportunity and places ad cards with the song which is a great promo for these artists. VH1 is very forward thinking with that.
Both installments of Black Ink Crew utilize multiple genres from hip-hop to pop to alternative and even EDM. How do you decide what genre fits the moment best?
Black Ink Crew has been great in that way because when we started the first season we were solely incorporating hip-hop and once the show became popular VH1 opened up the possibility of trying different genres. Working with the post-supervisors and editors to play with other genres really opened up the storytelling aspect and tap into more emotions. Hitting that emotional chord is important to helping audiences connect to the show and being able to use a pop ballad with an epic chorus in certain scenes really took it to another level.
What is your process for picking the music of Black Ink Crew? Do you seek out specific songs that relate to the moment or do you begin the season with a list of songs and artists you hope to incorporate?
It works both ways. Reality moves so quickly that sometimes I will pick a song simply because a scene needs that special extra touch. Sometimes I will curate a list of songs and the editors will take them and fit them in throughout the season and I will then step in if the producers are looking for something different in a specific moment. The fast paced nature of our schedule allows me to bring the music to the editors and let them get creative.
We like to tell the story with music as opposed to scripted television where the lyrics don’t necessarily have to fit what is happening onscreen while with reality we’re using the music as a storytelling device. As tools to help the audience understand what the cast is feeling and thinking.
I imagine because reality TV deals with the lives of real people you receive a lot of specific requests on what they want the soundtrack to their lives to sound like. Does the cast ever influence your decision in the direction you take the music of the show?
They definitely do. On Black Ink Crew: Chicago one of the cast members is a hip-hop artist himself so we use his music throughout the show which is great for us and for giving him even more exposure. We have definitely had moments where we’ve received requests to feature music of their friends and often times the clients of the cast are well-known artists and we will then incorporate their music into those moments. I can’t go into detail but there have definitely been moments where cast members have put the kibosh on certain songs and artists but I can’t say much more than that.
Because you are working in reality TV do you feel an added pressure or sense of responsibility when helping to tell these stories?
Absolutely, these are real moments that happen to be taking place in front of a screen. I aim to approach it ethically and never forget that these are real people putting themselves out there and that’s something that needs to be respected. Everyone on the production side tries to respect their humanity and I aim to use music that helps to tell their story without distracting from it. I definitely feel that responsibility.
What has been your favorite moment so far while working on the franchise?
The Macklemore stuff was awesome and I loved that. One of my favorite moments was back in the second season. I fell in love with this indie band Ellenberg and we ended up receiving a pitch form their producers to use their music. We used their song Dust to underscore an emotionally touching moment where one of or characters is introduced to his daughter for the first time. It was one of those moments when I had wanted to incorporate their music for so long and was so excited when it all came together. It just feels so special when moments like that happen.
With the sixth season of Black Ink Crew premiering where can we expect the music to go throughout the season?
We’ve really been able to open up the different genres and this season is the same. It’s been really fun to watch the evolution of the show’s sound. We are incorporating some great female artists which I am always excited by. In the premiere we are featuring Aloe Black who is great and already popular. His music is utilized in a really funny way in a scene with Ceaser and Sky who are a great comedic duo on the show. I’m excited for people to see it!
Going forward what type of projects are you hoping to work on next? I noticed that you currently have an a show in production called Spooning… With Zac Efron?
Unfortunately I think the show got smooshed after MTV went through all of that turnover. It was a really fun show though. Zac Efron and his brother went to Japan and explored Sushi culture. The idea behind it was that every episode would go to a different part of the world and explore the culture and the food. The first episode was really cute. Zac Efron is extremely fun to watch onscreen obviously. He and his brother are really funny together. Creatively it gave me the opportunity to play with genres I don’t normally get to work with like Japanese hip-hop. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t go anywhere.
I’d love to work more in scripted TV. There are many great shows that are exploring with interesting musical moments. I love watching Insecure and researching every single song I hear throughout the show. Being able to shape the soundtrack of a scripted show would be a fun experience that I want explore.
I’m currently working on two feature films. Support The Girls will hit the festival circuit next year has a really great cast with Regina Hall, Brooklyn Decker, Dylan Gelula, and Hayley Lu Richardson. I also just started working on Eat, Brains, Love and that project will be really fun. It’s kind of in the realm of quirky horror and I am really excited to be working on it.
Lastly, what are your favorite shows on TV right now?
I just finished the second season of Stranger Things and loved it. I mentioned Insecure earlier and that is one of the only shows I always make time for. I just finished American Vandal on Netflix and I really enjoyed it. It’s a really cool take on high school.