10 questions with music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas

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Music supervisor Alex Patsavas spoke to us back in 2005, when she was choosing tunes for The O.C. Since then, though, she’s gone on to pick the music for for TV shows like Supernatural and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as for the Twilight and The Hunger Games movies.

alexandra patsavas

From mix tapes in the ’80s to today’s playlists, music aficionados have long embraced any means of sharing their favorite tunes with others.

Alexandra Patsavas has been lucky enough to take that kind of passion one step further. She makes song compilations heard by millions of people — and she gets paid for it.

As the music supervisor for television’s The O.C., her days are spent listening to CDs and selecting the tracks she thinks best suit the show. There’s hardly a dearth of material from which to choose — almost every major label is vying for the chance to have even 15 seconds of one of their artists’ songs played during the broadcast.

How times have changed.

Until recently, it would have been seriously uncool for a record company to have even considered using a network television show to gain publicity for a band.

Back in 1995, The Flaming Lips tried to bust the “TV is tacky” stereotype with a performance on Beverly Hills, 90210. While their appearance was by no means a failure, it still took nearly a decade for trendsetters to catch on — or, in reality, for music business execs to realize that the medium offered a backdoor to reach impressionable young consumers.

Nowadays, getting airplay on the boob tube is a big coup for any artist. Hipness factor aside, acts featured on the shows – The O.C. as well as programs like CSI and Scrubs – are seeing sales spike immediately after the broadcast. Sure, the musicians aren’t completely absolved of the “sell out” stigma… but ultimately, the growth of their audience will make any possible dishonor worthwhile.

While even multi-platinum artists U2 and Gwen Stefani have debuted songs on the show, The O.C. has really come into its own as a launchpad for lesser-known bands such as RooneyDeath Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse. Credit Patsavas for bridging the gap between what viewers want and what the music business needs. She deftly wields her own musical appreciation to find songs that both fit the show and that mainstream America will embrace.

And her influence doesn’t end when the credits roll: She has also been the guiding force behind no fewer than five compilation albums featuring songs from the show. In early 2005, “The OC Mix 4” album was released, with tracks from Beck, Modest Mouse, The Reindeer Section (with members of Snow Patrol and Belle and Sebastian) and The Futureheads, among others. The fifth disc, out in November 2005, features 12 songs, including those by Kaiser Chiefs, Gorillaz, Stars, Kasabian and Frou Frou’s Imogen Heap.

We caught up with Patsavas in 2005, and found out a little more about what she knows.

Ten questions for the music supervisor
Nancy J Price: What originally inspired your interest in music?

Alexandra Patsavas: I’m from the Chicagoland area, and I was part of the original MTV generation in a way. When MTV came out, we were in high school. I was always interested in alternative music, which, when I was young, was the Police and the English Beat and Ministry and all those sorts of bands.

NJP: So how did you start working in music professionally?

Alexandra Patsavas: I went to the University of Illinois, and was part of a concert board. During my senior year, I started my own business and was a promoter for small clubs. We brought in some acts like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction to campus.

I started young. By the time I was 22, I had already been working in the business. I came out to L.A. and was a classic huge agency mailroom employee. Then I worked at BMI, in the film and television department, and that was when I really learned about the existence of music supervision as a job opportunity. And I thought it seemed like such an amazing job experience.

NJP: You used to work for the “King of the Bs” himself, Roger Corman…

Alexandra Patsavas: That was my first foray into music supervision. I worked for a great supervisor — I was the coordinator. At a low-budget company, you’re allowed to make some mistakes. You don’t have a lot of budget, so you have to be creative — and so it gave me a great basis for experiences in the future.

NJP: In general, how long does it take you to put together the songs for a show?

Alexandra Patsavas: Well, sometimes we start very far in advance if we’re going to have a band on camera. I can be working on booking that band for the show a month before the show even shoots. And then there’s of course the long editing process. Sometimes we create a cover [recording] for the show so that’s all also done in advance, and Josh Schwartz might decide on the song in the script phase. And then finally we pitch to scenes that are already shot. It really happens in all sorts of ways.

NJP: How does the whole process work? How do you put it all together?

Alexandra Patsavas: First of all, we have an incredible executive producer, Josh Schwartz. Then our picture editors, Norman Buckley and Matt Ramsey, play a big part in getting music into picture. I do comps [compilation CDs] weekly that have new music that we feel is right for the show, and those go down to the producers and the editors.

But that same thing also happens in many ways. Sometimes Josh will script something, and we will clear it from the very first time we see the first draft of the script. Or sometimes I might pitch very late in the process, because of budget or a clearance issue, or just because they’re not finding what they’re looking for. We might try many songs before we get to the perfect one.

NJP: I know you have worked with some bands to do covers of certain songs — I know you reworked an Oasis song, for instance. How do these covers come about?

Alexandra Patsavas: With that, it just felt like redoing it would add something to the scene. We always come up with the song first — we try to come up with the perfect song for a scene that’s mostly already written. So we find the perfect song, and then we try to think about who would bring to life the part of the song that would enhance the emotion of the scene. And in all of the cases, we got our first choice.

The three covers that we’ve done have been Nada Surf doing “If You Leave,” and then Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” [with Jem], and finally Matt Pond PA did “Champagne Supernova.” On “Maybe I’m Amazed” we did a little gender flip, and had to rework some of the lyrics. It’s much softer, as it’s danced to at a wedding.

NJP: Have there been any things that have just broken your heart because you haven’t been able to get them?

Alexandra Patsavas: For The O.C., we’ve been extremely lucky, and have been able to license bands that traditionally don’t license for television. They’ve always been supportive of the show. I think the music community likes and watches the show, so they’re interested in participating. My first television show was Roswell – that was in 1999. In the years since then, I have definitely seen much more participation and enthusiasm about television, which is great.

NJP: Overall, what have the artists’ reactions been like to being featured on The O.C.?

Alexandra Patsavas: Oh, they’ve definitely been enthusiastic about being on the show, which is great! We’ve had The Walkmen and The Killers and Modest Mouse and The Thrills and Rachel Yamagata and Death Cab for Cutie. We’re as enthusiastic as they are about their appearance on the show.

Clearly, Josh intended music to be a character — I mean, they talked about building the Bait Shop [the show’s all-ages nightclub] just for that.

NJP: Is it a bit of a balancing act to juggle the music for the shows, the bands themselves, and putting together the soundtrack albums?

Alexandra Patsavas: I go to work every day, a lot of nights, and a lot of weekends. But my husband’s in the industry, too, and the schedules are totally workable and enjoyable. I knew I really wanted to do this for a living. I feel so lucky — I get to work for myself, I have my own business and I get to work with incredibly creative people.

NJP: So what music do you listen to on your own, when you’re not working?

Alexandra Patsavas: [Laughs] Very much the same music that’s on the show!

Nancy J Price

Nancy J Price

In addition to being the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lilyvolt, Nancy J Price was one of the two original founders of SheKnows.com in 1999, helping turn it into one of the world's top lifestyle websites for women. More recently, she spent more than two years as the executive editor of Grateful, a Gannett/USA Today Network site. Nancy is also the founder of the Click Americana vintage & retro website. She lives in Arizona with her four kids and partner, novelist Daniel Price.

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