The SAS Speaker Series Presents: A Casual Conversation With Sr. Music Supervisor, Mike Ladman

Published August 17, 2023

What’s new at Score a Score you ask? We recently hosted the first episode of our SAS Speaker Series! Now you're probably asking yourself, "What's the SAS Speaker Series?" Our founder and CEO, Jordan Passman, just started hosting Zoom webinars where he's joined by industry experts for some casual conversation about what they do best. Our first guest was Mike Ladman, a good friend and very talented music supervisor. Mike and Jordan met back in 2010 when Jordan first founded SAS. Mike at the time just started his internship at McCann, one of the most legendary ad agencies in the world. After working his way up at McCann, he eventually left to work at Droga5, a highly-respected creative ad agency. He's been at Droga5 for 7 years now as a top Sr. Music Supervisor. From the evolution of music supervision to AI predictions, check out the entire interview below. Or, scroll through to read some of the highlights. Enjoy!

The SAS Speaker Series Presents: A Casual Conversation With Sr. Music Supervisor, Mike Ladman

Jordan: Now that you're running the music at Droga5, which is known for being one of the most creative, and I would say, most respected ad agencies right now, what's your favorite part of being a music supervisor today?

Mike: I think what's fun is that it always changes. I think any job does as you move up and get experience. For so long my setup was: lock me in a room, don't email me, don't talk to me. I'm just going to look at the film and give you the best music in the world for it that is unexpected and elevating. That lights me up! However, in that version of my career as a music supervisor at that time, I never cared about negotiating, getting the deals, or things like that. Now, I love that part.

Jordan: Can you talk to us about how a song is actually selected these days? When you get a brief, what's going to be the process?

Mike: I will always answer the brief and go with my gut and what excites me. If I have a clear brief, sometimes it'll answer the script exactly. I will send tracks based on that brief, whether that's a lyrical brief or an instrumental brief. That selection comes from me and my team. First, we pitch what we think works best and why to our creatives at Droga5. From there, we go to the client with our top three favorite tracks. The client has their own hierarchy to look through those options. We'll send more options and pivot as needed based on how the project moves along. 

Just listening to more music than most humans on Earth and having been a music supervisor for so long, I have a different knowledge. My formula for the feels, which is what we're looking for, comes in three parts. First, is the song good? Will it give me goosebumps, and does it have soul or a human quality to it? Second, is it telling the story? Third, can you do both of those things in an unexpected way? When you get to part three, the selection and getting to the goosebumps becomes much easier

Jordan: Every time I hear about this process, I'm just reminded that it's a miracle every time we get a license because of how many people have to give a thumbs up. How many would you say are in that process from accounts to producers to creatives to the client?

Mike: It varies. There are cases where the client just trusts us, which is rare. It's the same with the creatives. There are clients that I have worked with for ages who won't share their thoughts until they hear what I think is best. It is wild how there are times when it all gets approved days before. I never believe it until it's on the air.

Jordan: What about the timeline? Sometimes you're at the luxury of taking a long time. Then there are other times when they need something right away. How much does that change your approach from a strategy standpoint?

Mike: It's not necessarily always that one is better than the other. I think with music you can have that song that you've been working on for years and it's amazing. Or you can have a one-hour challenge. That lack of ability to have perfectionism or make quick decisions sometimes gets you more interesting results. I call them bandaid spots. As a music supervisor, those are almost more fun, because sometimes you can overthink something and forget your north star. Usually after round 6 or 7, typically the best stuff is in there. Sometimes if it gets to Crazy Town and you're on round 12 or 13, you are at that "I have no idea what I'm doing" place. You've sent every good song and you're now just throwing weird stuff in there that isn't quite on point. That stuff though may open up some new avenue or unlock some magic that while overthinking for the perfect song, you might not have arrived at. In general, though, it's often that first gut track.

Jordan: Aside from working with music partners like Score a Score, what is your process of finding those hidden gems of music right now? Where do you find inspiration? Where do you find yourself listening to songs that most people aren't?

Mike: If everyone goes to the gap, we're all going to look the same. All music supervisors are getting the same mailers from all the labels and publishers, so I do go through those because it curates a lot. I've been a music supervisor for 14 years and I've publicly and vocally made my tastes known. I am a total music nerd and people who I have worked with a lot will be like, "Hey, I just got this, and I know you'll love it!"

I do try to find other ways though. Bandcamp is great. I find all of these labels from around the world doing these reissues and other things that can be nerve-wracking to pitch. However, those resources can lead me to some great roads. The best answer to that question is that I started a playlist. I used to do a monthly playlist for Droga5, which then led me to do a weekly playlist for the past 2 and a half years with 10 eclectic tracks each week. I now have all these different playlists of people that I find. I'll find some Ethiopian disco track and not know where I found it. Then I'll see the label that put it out. If it's had 1,000 streams, I'll see who else has put that track on a playlist and liked it. Then I'll check that out. If it's an overall interesting playlist, I'll follow that person.

Jordan: A lot of people on here are composers and their dream is to be working on a campaign with you, doing something custom. That is something you can't just wait around for. I think what's amazing about Droga5 is you have the opportunity to work with whomever you want. Do you still see the opportunity to work on unique documentaries or other long-form projects that can elevate the brand to get the attention of advertising on the back end?

Mike: 100%. That's often what we try to do. There are a lot of creators out there. There's you guys and music houses and I think that's a great way to do it. If someone just wants to be a composer, that's great! There are always references. "We want something that sounds like Jungle or sounds like Tame Impala." There's usually a reference like a film, tv show, or ad. With Droga5, however, we'll go right to the artists and bands ourselves rather than sending someone else. If it's not LCD Soundsystem, who else is in that world, and can we get an artist like that to do it?

Just start doing it. There are probably a lot of creators who want to be producers. If you're a composer and you want to do it for a motion picture, just do it. Find commercials and rip the audio and see what makes it interesting. Just make sure you're clear in saying that you did it on your own. Start noticing that stuff. Start listening to soundtracks and movies that you like. We often work with or through companies to get to the individual writer, whether that's through you or a music house so that we get a little bit more bang for our buck.

Jordan: I am curious about the flipside. What are the more challenging aspects of working directly with a composer on a custom job?

Mike: So much is about the creative. There are times that I've had those 1 million dollar budgets, and I end up going to stock music. The difficulty might be that with demos, you will get 5 to 12 tracks. If you go with a composer, you just get one and it creates a kind of mental game to get everyone on that boat.

Jordan: The big like thing we are seeing everywhere right now is AI. Everybody is wondering what's going to happen. I'm curious, are you currently using any sort of AI in your day-to-day job, and where do you see it going in the industry?

Mike: I think it's a tool. Autotune and Melodyne didn't stop singers from singing. People like James Blake were probably the first to take it - even though they could sing - and make something more interesting. I think AI can help bring larger arrangements, like orchestral stuff, to people who don't have those budgets or no music house. Similar to Jeff Tweedy's songwriting strategy, ChatGPT can help find different word combinations. However, in the same way as copying and pasting from Wikipedia, it can be kind of like plagiarizing and uninteresting. I also think that music from the creation side will run into something similar. For example, you hear three songs. How does that impact your writing? How do you put your spin on it?

For us at Droga5, almost every creative deck has something for AI. I think the tricky thing is the legalities behind it. Lawyers and EA plus agencies and labels are a little scared right now. We are trying to figure out how to make a version that will be usable in a public and commercial space. I think people and musicians are just going to start using it. If they are going to do something great and not think about that, hopefully, it doesn't turn into Napster where they sue the customers. Whether it's emotions or anything you're scared of, it's probably something to dig deeper into it. It's happening and opinion doesn't matter. Just try to figure out how to embrace and utilize it.

Jordan: I agree with you. It's a matter of how we use it and embrace it and not about how we fight it. They are tools for sure, and of course, some aspects feel threatening. It's just fascinating stuff.

That's a Wrap with Sr. Music Supervisor, Mike Ladman!

To quote Jordan, "Mike, you are a legend, you are the man, and we thank you so much for joining us to kick this off!" We are very excited to keep our SAS Speaker Series going. Sign up for our newsletters to be the first to know about our next webinar. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Instagram. See you all at the next one!