Music Supervisors Brace for Impact of Potential Hollywood Writers Strike
"Other people have some type of safety net and we have nothing."
The last time film and TV screenwriters went on strike, for a hundred days in the winter of 2007 and 2008, production on shows and movies abruptly shut down, advertising plunged and pink slips were passed out. Freelance music supervisors like Julie Glaze Houlihan, whose credits include Malcolm in the Middle and Roswell, also felt the pain.
“My husband and I both were independent music supervisors, so the money just fell. We struggled,” she recalls. “We had savings and we dipped into it. We had three small children. It was a difficult time.”
Unlike actors, directors, music editors and other unionized professionals who would still receive contractual benefits in the event of a strike, music supervisors are a largely freelance group of specialists who lack employer-provided healthcare, paid leave and safety protections. So the supervisors are more vulnerable than many of their colleagues if the Writers Guild of America follows through with a walkout when its members’ contract with studios and networks expires May 1.
“We all care about the writers getting a fair deal. We’re all in it together,” says Houlihan, who recently supervised music for Glass Onion and is working on upcoming ESPN and MGM+ docuseries. “But if they strike, it’ll affect all of us. Other people have some type of safety net and we have nothing.”
The Writers Guild unions, east and west, represent 11,000 movie and TV writers and began negotiations March 20 for a three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Few expect a fast resolution over issues like higher compensation, more contributions to health and pension funds and improvements in workplace standards. Anticipating a strike, studios are rushing production schedules for existing shows.
A strike “would definitely be scary,” says Justin Kamps, who works on Grey’s Anatomy and Bridgerton. “If you can’t get the scripts written and the shows brought into post-(production), there’s not much you’re going to be doing as a supervisor. You’re going to be out of luck.”
A prolonged strike could narrow the opportunities for music synchs in shows and movies, which generated $318 million in 2022, or 2% of overall revenue, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. “The most obvious point is that if there is a strike, it’s going to put a hold on shows being put out, which means there’s no music being requested for shows,” says Sara Torres, synch and licensing supervisor for ASAP Clearances, which clears songs for TV.
Uncertainty has kicked in. “I’ve been meeting on a new project and they have been in a holding pattern, waiting to see what happens. They are not able to actually hire anybody until that is sorted out,” says Kier Lehman, a music supervisor whose recent works include Abbott Elementary and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. “Without having new things starting, it definitely would affect us and our income — if it goes on for a long time, I could see it having a big effect.”
Like everybody in Hollywood, music supervisors are scrambling to figure out where the money might come from in the event of a strike. Houlihan doubles as a music editor, an industry with its own unions, so she expects to receive certain benefits no matter what. Torres’ company emphasizes reality shows, which surged in the ratings during the last strike (including, notably, Donald Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice); she suggests reality shows might temporarily dominate the synch business and indie artists might have more opportunities to place songs.
“People are always looking for music,” she says. “It’s just being able to pivot.”
Music supervisors are not unionized, but last October, a group of Netflix supervisors filed to certify their union with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking representation with the labor union the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. Netflix opposed the move and the NLRB’s decision is pending. (Netflix reps did not respond to inquiries.) If the board rules in the supervisors’ favor, they can negotiate a contract with the streaming giant — “which would make a great precedent,” says Lindsay Wolfington, a music supervisor for shows including Virgin River and The Venery of Samantha Bird and has been active in the Netflix unionization efforts.
Laura Webb, who frequently works with Wolfington, says the supervisors want more reliable payment deliveries, cost-of-living increases and healthcare and retirement and pension plans — as opposed to relying on the gig economy. “We’re not paid by the studios that would allow us to have the same safety net that most employees get,” adds Joel High, president of the Guild of Music Supervisors. “We don’t have health insurance through anybody. We don’t have a 401(k). We’re basically left to our own devices, working from show to show and studio to studio.”
Supervisors say they’ll keep working on shows after writers have finished their work. “Most of our job is post-production, so hopefully things don’t change that much,” says Webb, who works on Wolf Pack, Monster High the Movie Sequel and others. Adds Lehman: “If there was a show that was already written, and just being finished, that becomes the complicated issue.”
For now, music supervisors remain hopeful the writers and studios will come to an agreement and avoid a strike, even as unionization is gathering momentum in the U.S., with workers from Amazon to YouTube Music filing for certification. “If there’s an atmosphere to strike in, it would be now,” Houlihan says. “Go, writers! I hope they don’t have to strike.”