Throughout Friday Night Lights‘ five-season run — which came to an end last month — the music being played in the background was nearly as important as what was actually being said. These were teenagers, after all (albeit teenagers of the late-20s, TV variety): Matt Saracen may not have been the most articulate guy in Texas, but he could stare longingly while Explosions in the Sky played and manage to rip your heart in two.
By that last episode Friday Night Lights had cycled through some 600 songs, almost all of them hand-picked by a woman named Liza Richardson. She’s a DJ for our friends at KCRW, as well as the person behind the soundtracks for movies like The Kids Are Alright and Y Tu Mama Tambien.
As part of our new feature — where we talk with those behind the camera about what goes in to choosing the music for our favorite movies and TV shows — we spoke to Richardson about classic Texas music, DJing the Oscars, and why you’re not getting the whole experience when you watch the show on DVD.
How does being a music supervisor work?
Basically, at the top of the season and throughout the season I would continually feed production and editorial with general songs that I feel are right for the show. Certain editors are really great with music, and certain editors don’t want to worry about it so much. So some of the editors would lean on me more to work on specific scenes — they’d send me Quicktime versions of the scene without music, and ask for ideas.
What is your philosophy on the song’s function in the scene?
It depends on what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just for vibe and background and mood and that kind of thing, and then there are certain scenes that are super-emotional. You want to kind of match that with the song; you don’t want to oppose the emotion in the scene. If it’s football, action, you’re gonna want music that kind of reflects that. And same with a super-emotional scene, or a whimsical, light-feeling scene, you know?
Did anything change in terms of your position when you guys struck up that deal with DirecTV? [DirecTV aired the last three seasons first; NBC would then re-run them in the spring. The fifth season begins on NBC on April 15.]
Well, yeah, I think creatively that freed us up a lot, because I think before that there was more pressure for ratings. And I think once DirecTV got involved…I mean, numbers for cable shows is an entirely different ballgame. When you’re talking about the major networks, pressure to have really high numbers is just, you know, huge. And so that took a little pressure off. I think we were criticized during the second season for trying to be a little out-there to help the ratings.
Have you ever managed to sneak a favorite song on the show?
Townes Van Zandt is a big Texas icon, and he’s got a unique sound. It took me a while to convince everybody that we really needed to use a Townes Van Zandt song, like, it’s an absolute requirement, you know? We can’t do a show about Texas without Townes Van Zandt. If we’re using all these Texas singer-songwriters like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Butch Hancock or Joe Ely or Jimmy Dale Gilmore, that’s awesome, but we have to use Townes Van Zandt.
The music changes for the DVD releases, right?
We had 600 songs in five seasons. I can’t even tell you how much money that would cost, to license those songs for all media. Millions and millions of dollars. The licensing strategy for Friday Night Lights is frustrating. We would do two-year terms, for the initial rights to the songs, so on the NBC broadcast and on the DirecTV broadcast you’re hearing everything that we’ve put in. But unfortunately we can’t keep those songs for more than two years, so they have to be what we call “re-musiced.” We have to re-music the show. We keep some of the songs that we can afford, but we’re not able to keep everything–that would be impossible.
What is the re-musicing process like?
I’m not responsible for it. We hire a company called 5 Alarm music. They provide production music — library music — and they go through the songs and suggest alternatives that they think are in the same tone, the same vein, but they’re much less expensive. That’s not my job, thankfully.
How did you experience DJing inform your role as a music supervisor?
Well, in a lot of ways. I’ve been a DJ for a very long time — god, like 25 years or something — so having that many years under my belt of listening to music and researching music and that kind of thing, that helps with my ability to suggest songs for scenes. But also, just in terms of Friday Night Lights, like I said before, my DJ career started in Texas. I worked at a public radio station and a community radio station, so I was definitely involved in the culture of the area — the local culture. I had a lot of people schooling me on what I need to be listening to. But I will say that there’s very little crossover between what I play on my show and what I work with. A lot of my TV shows or film projects require very commercial music, and on my radio show I play a lot of world music, and dance music, and rock, or hardcore, whatever. In a lot of ways, there’s not a huge connection. But on the other hand, I’m constantly listening to stuff. They do feed each other in terms of just volume of music.
This is not directly related to Friday Night Lights, but I read that you DJ’ed the Oscars a couple of years ago. What was that like?
I DJ’ed in the actual room where they were holding the ceremony. It was an experiment — I don’t think it went that well [laughs]. There were three-minute commercial breaks, and they wanted me to play music during those moments. And, you know, three minutes isn’t long enough to get people going [laughs]. So it was really kind of lame, to be honest. It was more fun to DJ during the rehearsals, because Ellen Degeneres was the host that year and she would be groovin’ and boppin’ while I was practicing.
How was your experience working on Friday Night Lights different from other movies or TV shows you’ve worked on?
One of the greatest things about Friday Night Lights is just the definition of the musical landscape that we all understood, and all tried to achieve. It was a really defined thing. We used a lot of Texas music, a lot of Texas singer-songwriters, we used hard rock for football action, we used some urban music, we were able to use popular music in certain background spots, we used a lot of country. And then a lot of indie rock that just helped emotional moments. That was kind of our main sound. Everybody was one the same page about the musical landscape on this show, and that’s one of the greatest things about it.