Meet Our Judges! Q&A with Music Supervisor Heather Gardner

Heather Gardner, Head of Music Supervision + Licensing, Vapor RMW
Heather Gardner, Head of Music Supervision + Licensing, Vapor RMW

In this ever-changing music industry, more and more artists are making their mark with film, TV and advertising placements. We are lucky enough to have Vapor RMW’s Head of Music Supervision and Licensing, Heather Gardner, on our judging panel. She let us pick her brain about her job, how she discovers music, and the Canadian music scene. Enjoy!

How did you get into a career in music licensing and supervision?

A little luck, a little timing, and a lot of hard work. While finishing up my program at Toronto’s Harris Institute I was fortunate to intern at Vapor RMW for the two music supervisors who worked at the company at the time. I was able to learn hands-on about contracts, cue sheets, and everything that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that we could use the music we wanted in ads, films, television series, video games and other media. As timing would have it, there was a position available at Vapor not long after I graduated school, and I’ve been here ever since. My position has changed and my responsibilities have grown, but at the end of the day I’m still finding great music and ensuring we can license it for our projects.

Name one of your all-time favourite songs, and what makes it great to you?

I have so many – this isn’t an easy thing to ask! A personal favourite is “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. There are so many things I love about it, what makes it truly great to me is its ability to transcend its own lyrics. It doesn’t matter what the song is “supposed” to mean, or what the story “really” is. The song wraps you in its nostalgia and warmth regardless, and by the time you reach its rousing climax, you can’t help but sing along. It reflects elements of your own life and feels personal, no actual dancers needed.

How do you discover new music?

In so many different ways – I’m fortunate to be frequently receiving new music from artists, labels and publishers, and have relationships with a lot of these people so rely on a lot of word of mouth and music submissions for specific pitches and projects. I also really love Spotify; I frequently discover new artists while listening through their themed playlists when I’m in a particular mood or looking for something special. I love to go to music festivals, conferences and events that feature new music and always come home with a new favourite.

What are some qualities that make a song a great fit for licensing? Do you ever come across songs that you enjoy, but don’t lend themselves to film/TV/ad placements?

I strongly believe that there is a place in the world of licensing for all kinds of music – that being said, some of those places are less common and are found less frequently in mainstream advertising, film and television projects. We have licensed a wide range of music, from heavy metal to Russian rap, authentic music from countries around the world, and everything in between. It really depends project by project on what the team’s creative vision is.

However, there are definitely elements that make a song more difficult to license – lyrics that reference specific places or names or brands, for example, are hard to then put in a scene in a different location or with different character name, and often way too on the nose even if you’re set in that location or happen to have a character by that name. The best songs elicit emotions that are applicable across multiple scenarios, so that they can be used in different scenes without feeling as though they’re telling the story word for word. Just as great lyrics will mean different things to different people based on their life experiences, a single song will work differently in different scenes based on context.

For mainstream TV, another hurdle we run into are profane lyrics – the networks are very specific as to what can and cannot be said on air, and so it’s always in a songwriter or artist’s best interest to have clean versions of their songs available.

What do you love about the Canadian music community?

My favourite thing about the Canadian music community is that we genuinely love music. We work in this business because we love it, and that comes first. We support each other’s artists and projects, and want to see the industry as a whole be successful.

What advice would you give to an artist who is trying to land their first sync placement?

First of all, make sure you have all your ducks in a row before approaching music supervisors. Be clear about who owns the master recording rights and who owns the publishing rights in each song you pitch – and ensure that information is embedded in the song’s metadata. Note any song that is a cover, has co-writers, or contains samples. Is there a label involved? Music supervisors need to clear rights with every person who has an ownership claim to the song, so be transparent about who those people are, and how to get in touch with them.

Secondly, target music supervisors who are licensing songs in similar genres to the music you make. Check on IMDB or a supervisor’s website or social media to see what they are working on, or what they have licensed in the past, and check out those projects. If you target specific shows, a supervisor is more likely to get to your submission quickly, as they may have a more urgent need for that kind of music.

What are your favourite non music-related things to do?

My baby girl is due in just a couple months now, so my non music life has been consumed by planning, nesting, and getting ready to bring this little person into the world. I love spending time at home with my husband and our cocker spaniel rescue dog, who really is our first born. I love to travel, particularly to theme parks, and have a bit of an obsession with going to Disneyland, Disney World and Universal Studios. I’m also on an everlasting hunt for the best macaroni and cheese and cupcakes in the GTA!