An aspect of documentaries that doesn’t always get enough attention is the soundtrack. The right song in the right moment can enhance the film’s storytelling or add an emotional punch, but there are challenges in both picking those songs and then gaining the rights to use them. Jonathan Hecht is involved with both of those aspects as a music supervisor through his Venn Arts company.
That role has seen Hecht work on everything from Dear Rider (the Red Bull Media House/HBO documentary on snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter, which saw Hecht nominated for a Guild of Music Supervisors Award and a Sports Emmy) through public service announcements like the Trombone Shorty/New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation Rise and Shine PSA (which won a 2021 AMP Best In Show award) through commercials like the 2016 official Olympics campaign (which was nominated for an AMP award for most effective use of music in a campaign). He recently spoke to AA about his work on Dear Rider and beyond, and said the key for him is working closely with collaborators on each project and bridging the creative and business worlds.
“There are two sides to my job. One is that I’m creatively involved in choosing songs, or in making recommendations to the creative stakeholders in the project. In the case of Dear Rider, I worked very closely with the director, Fernando Villena, and the editor, Rose Corr, and also the lead producer on the project, Ben Bryan of Red Bull Media House. It’s a great squad of collaborators.”
“Basically, my role is to have a POV about what songs would be appropriate and support the creative vision of the project while also being mindful of the budget parameters and the type of project I’m working on, and what types of artists want to be attached to that project and which ones don’t. I always refer to the field I work in as sort of like art buying: every song is sort of priced differently, and the sellers are motivated by different things.”
Hecht said those different motivations for sellers can include the project’s subject, scale, proposed fees, and more.
“The record label, the publishers for one artist might have a different feeling about the project or the fee or the scope of the whole thing than another person. So it’s really about being very intimately familiar with different rightsholders and being able to leverage those relationships to the best of my ability. And that’s the creative end, and the other end of what I do is being able to do all the clearances and gathering up all the permissions that are necessary in order to get the song for the project and the rights that are needed to distribute it.”
In the case of Dear Rider, Hecht said that particular story of Burton Carpenter and his importance to snowboarding resonated with many artists.
“Dear Rider was great in that a lot of the artists I worked with were already familiar with Burton, and with Jake. …The company was founded in 1977, but we spanned a much longer period of time. The key moment in snowboarding was the 90s, so there’s kind of a nostalgia angle there too. And when I presented the opportunity to a number of artists, I think the way that it was presented and the story we wanted to tell was very appealing to some of these artists who very much remembered those years and credited Jake with really accelerating the sport and turning it into something not just that you do on a hill or a slope, something that transcends that.”
“It was a lifestyle, a creative endeavor. And I think that definitely meant something to a lot of these artists, even some of the younger artists. That brand had a lot of significance.”
Dear Rider‘s soundtrack features a lot of different artists and genres, from bands and tracks commonly used in snowboarding videos (such as Pennywise – Bro Hymn) to those many might not expect with this subject (such as Blue Swede – Hooked on a Feeling, Fiona Apple – I Want You To Love Me, Flock of Seagulls – I Ran (So Far Away), and Blondie – Once I Had A Love (AKA The Disco Song)). Hecht said the particular story here about Burton Carpenter transcended snowboarding for him, and he wanted to bring that to the soundtrack.
“I felt there was an opportunity to do that, to use the music to represent kind of a more mainstream audience. This story deserved to connect with an audience that wasn’t just in that inner circle of snowboarding.”
Like Villena (who spoke to AA about this film last fall), Hecht wasn’t coming at this from a snowboarding perspective. So he said he wasn’t too concerned with what tends to show up in snowboarding films.
“I don’t come from the board sport world, and neither does [Villena]. Rose, the editor, is a snowboarder. But neither of us really kind of knew the culture. And so I wasn’t really thinking about it too much, to be honest. And if we did, we were kind of thinking ‘Let’s just find stuff that’s going to be great that board people will love, but also kind of pop music that a general audience will love.'”
He said his approach was also inspired by The Last Dance.
“And right when Red Bull brought me on, I had just finished watching The Last Dance, and I was super impressed by the way music supervisor Rudy Chong put together that soundtrack, and the collection of songs from that era, both the ones that were well-known and also the deep cuts that you wouldn’t have expected, but that really rounded out the soundtrack in a very creative and cool way. And I was just very inspired and motivated by that; that was my focus, to accomplish that with this project.”
[Images from Venn Arts on Instagram]
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Bridging the creative and business worlds around music can be a tough task, but Hecht said he does it because it needs to be done.
“You just have to. I don’t know if I have a good answer for that, I’ve just sort of trained myself over the years.”
He said his various past experiences in different sides of the business have helped him figure out how to do this successfully.
“I’ve been in this business since 2005, this field, having started on the artist side of the field. I worked at record labels and at a big artist management company, and then for the last seven-plus years, I’ve been an independent music supervisor. And being involved in various projects, in quite a wide range of projects, and being asked to go after some of the biggest artists in the world and some obscure stuff that’s kind of unknown and everything in between, you just kind of get a sense of how the whole market works. So you just have to have a creative head and be business-minded.”
Hecht said there’s also an element of educating artists on the process of licensing for films, and hearing them out on their concerns.
“And I’m not a lawyer, but you definitely need to have familiarity with contracts and legal language. And you also have to be sometimes a sleuth and sometimes even like a therapist, because there’s a real human side to this as well. You end up finding yourself talking to people with songs who are not very familiar with this process, so you have to kind of educate them and make them familiar with it and make them understand what the project is you’re working on and what your goals are. You have to teach them licensing.”
“I’m always learning how to do my job better, and I also have to share that knowledge with other people, so they feel more empowered to be involved with the project and say yes. It’s always about trying to encourage people to get to a yes.”
Hecht said another challenge that can arise is if the group that recorded a track didn’t end their partnership on good terms.
“There are instances, too, where you’re talking to bands that have separated after many, many years. And maybe the remaining members ended things in not the most positive way. And sometimes you have to reconcile those differences. I don’t know that that came up so much on this project, but it has in the past.”
He said music supervision is a challenging job with all of those different elements, but it’s one he loves.
“It’s a pretty unique job. I think I’m well-suited to it, even though I didn’t know that I was. The deeper I kind of go into this field, the more I’m like ‘Damn, this is what I was always meant to do.”
Beyond documentaries like Dear Rider, Hecht has also done a lot of work on various ad campaigns and public service announcements. One particularly notable one was “Rise and Shine,” a public service announcement that Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews did to promote the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation‘s efforts to connect musicians out of gigs due to the COVID-19 pandemic with music students looking for instruction over video conferencing. That video won the coveted “Best In Show”
Hecht said a connection of his got him involved, and he loved the cause.
“A guy named David Cameron, he’s the agency lead at an agency called Light + Co, and he’s got deep connections in New Orleans. He got kind of called up by his friend on the board of the Trombone Shorty Foundation, I think a few months into lockdown. And the music industry, everyone was suffering, but New Orleans musicians who really relied on nightlife and tourism and being able to go out and play shows, they were suffering. And Troy is just a great symbol and ambassador for that town, and the board was just like ‘What can we do to help here, to get attention and drive music relief funding for the musicians who are out of work?'”
“So David and the board came up with this idea that they could connect musicians who wanted to be educators and instructors with students who were interested in taking Zoom classes, so they could get lessons in a particular brass instrument, or anything, really. So that Trombone Shorty film, it was really spearheaded by David, and he rounded up a bunch of people within his advertising network who were interested in helping and felt that they could help. And at that time, a lot of us were on pause with projects, having things pulled from us, and just looking to use our skills and contacts to help in any way.”
“David and I, that was actually only our second project; we had worked like five years prior on a Steinway and Sons project, another kind of music-centric project. So he brought me on to kind of lead the music effort. And I brought on a partner, Sarah Tembeckjian, and we also brought on this other music company called Found Objects to lead the production of the track with Trombone Shorty. And together we made this arrangement of an Allen Toussaint song to support the Music Relief Fund, so that was the launch to bring attention to Trombone Shorty’s efforts and the Jazz and Heritage Foundation.”
As for what’s ahead, Hecht said he’s involved in another sports documentary at the moment. This time, it’s a documentary on Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira, who was featured in HBO’s 100 Foot Wave series around surfing a 73-foot wave (the biggest wave of 2020) in Nazare, Portugal.
“I’m actually working on another sports doc. We’re still a few months from being able to deliver the final film, but it will be taken to festivals, and I think the filmmaker/director wants to find a buyer for it, maybe a streamer. But it’s about the big wave surfer Maya Gabeira. She’s remarkable; I didn’t know much about her before getting pulled in to help with the music, but the filmmaker has been with Maya for like 10 years filming her and her journey to be the top female surfer, and captured her amazing overcoming. She’s been dealt some blows, and had some challenges within her career, but [the filmmaker] was there to capture her record, surfing the biggest wave. So it’s telling Maya’s story, and it’s going to be a really cool soundtrack, not one that you would necessarily expect either.”
And Hecht said that one’s an interesting project because it’s going in a direction you might not expect for a surfing documentary.
“Musically, actually, the director has a strong interest in pursuing more of a kind of electronic and experimental soundscape for the project. She really wants it to feel kind of modern and evergreen. So we’re not really going into anything too retro or too specific to either Portugal or Brazil. It’s geo-agnostic in terms of place and time; it’s all stuff to really capture the contrast of these big expansive waves and the intimacy of Maya’s human journey.”
[Images from Jonathan Hecht on Instagram]