Burbank is a long way from MUSIC City, but lots of things in Dawn Soler‘s office show a love for Nashville, both the city and the TV show that has been in her care since its debut three seasons ago. She was the music supervisor for the first two episodes of Nashville before handing the reins to Frankie Pine, but it remains a focal point of her job as senior VP music for ABC Television.
“I don’t think there has been a day since it started that at least some of my attention has not been on Nashville — not just the show, but also the franchise,” says Soler, 54. “We’ve been able to springboard it into other things, like our relationship with the [Country Music Association] Awards. We just did a sponsorship for JC Penney, so it’s growing outside of the show.”
That synergy is a huge part of her role at ABC. As a music supervisor and executive on such films as The Big Lebowski, Sweet Home Alabama and Dead Man Walking, Soler, who oversees a staff of five, joined the network in 2006 to create a department that would manage every musical component on all of its shows — the hiring of music supervisors and composers, budgets and integrating music from programming into marketing. She created the network’s Music Lounge website to further expose songs featured on such musically rich series as Dancing With the Stars, Ugly Betty and showrunner Shonda Rhimes‘ powerhouse slate of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which has helped to launch albums by Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Kacey Musgraves and Mary J. Blige. And last season she created the On the Record concert special to promote Nashville, a concept that will be used for other programs as well. Her team’s work has paid off to the tune of 558,000 total album sales for the Grey’s Anatomy soundtracks and 493,000 for Nashville‘s, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“One reason I took the job was because I had always tried to maximize the marketing element of the films I worked on,” says Soler, a gardening and cooking enthusiast who shares a suburban Los Angeles home with her husband, 9-year-old daughter, 23 chickens and three dogs. “With television, I started infiltrating myself into marketing and it has grown. I see opportunity to put our music department’s stamp on everything.”
What’s a new show this season that bears your music department’s stamp?
I’d say How to Get Away With Murder. Not only is it a beautifully crafted show, [but] between the score and songs, we’re going to take the music and do a lot of things with it. We’re having Photek, our composer, remix the score and take pieces of dialogue and put it into the mix and every week you’ll be able to stream them on Spotify.
Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville and even some of your scores [Revenge, Once Upon a Time] have had post-broadcast success with music. Does that have any effect on how you do business?
Slightly, but not really. It’s very rare that I go in and say we can create revenue from the music. You’ve got to make the music and the show fit, and anything else you can’t count on. Each show has its own needs and personality.
What factors determine the music you choose for your shows, and what are your costs?
Brian Loschiavo is my co-executive producer for On the Record and many upcoming projects. We pick songs based on the creative needs first, and if they have a marketing angle, all the better. We spend lots of time speaking to labels, publishers, managers and even artists to know their priorities and try to utilize them. All of this factors into cost, which has no norm — it’s symbiotic: We always try to find a price that works for everyone’s needs.
The Hollywood Reporter recently referred to Shonda Rhimes as the most powerful woman in TV. What makes her shows work musically?
Each of them has a completely different music personality, and sometimes it’s in the way she uses score [as opposed to] songs: With Grey’s, she used songs to push the emotion and score to push the action. With Private Practice, it was just the opposite, and the music genres were completely different. Along comes Scandal, which uses all this vintage music, and now How to Get Away With Murder is all [indie rock]. [Music supervisor] Alex Patsavas tells me that for Scandal, Shonda actually goes to her own vinyl and finds the songs. It’s where her heart is, and you can hear it.
Mark Isham [Once Upon a Time] is among the many recording artists who moved from making records to doing film and then TV. How often do the rookies work out?
I think it’s probably 50-50. It’s tricky and scary for me because I’m putting my reputation on the line. In film, you have time to develop and work on it. In television, it’s today. I try to surround them with great support, make sure they have the right orchestrator, the right music editor. [ABC Entertainment Group president] Paul Lee is always saying “be bold,” so we always try to push the limit. “What’s a new sound? How do we do something different from last season?” I spend a lot of time talking to composers about that.
You got your start in the late 1980s, when the world of film and TV was very different. Do you miss those days?
When I started there were no film and TV departments at the labels or publishers. You called someone and asked, “What do you think it’s worth?” It was very guerrilla back then. The first movie I worked on was The Big Easy and I was in charge of tracking down people like Professor Longhair and The Dixie Cups. I got out the New Orleans phone book and started calling music stores and clubs to see if they knew somebody. I actually talked to Professor Longhair and made the deal. Unweaving a tangled web is my favorite thing to do, and I think it goes back to those days [of the film and TV music business].