Getting the Green Light From Bob Dylan — and Other Dispatches From the 'Transparent' Music Supervisor

Courtesy of TIFF

Bruce Gilbert speaks with THR about the song-clearance waiting game and the evolving relationship between the TV and music industries.

Bob Dylan may take weeks to acknowledge a Nobel Prize, but if you ring up his team for song approval, he chimes in remarkably quickly.

At least that's been the experience of Bruce Gilbert. The prolific music supervisor, responsible for soundtracking Orange Is the New Black, Crashing, Jill Soloway's Transparent and I Love Dick and a number of other series, wanted to use the legendary singer-songwriter's "Oh, Sister" during Transparent's first season, and Dylan's camp gave him the green light in a matter of hours. But that is not always the case.

Gilbert, one of a slew of professionals finally eligible for an Emmy in the newly created "music supervision" category, has had to play the waiting game on a number of occasions. He recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his work and how the divergent states of the television and music industries have actually made it easier than ever to court an artist's approval.

A decisive point in the I Love Dick pilot comes when Kathryn Hahn's character can't secure song rights for her film. Was that a familiar scenario?

It doesn't happen as often as you imagine. Given the state of music, artists are more inclined than ever to license their songs. Record sales not being what they used to be, they're more reliant on touring and licensing. But I also think TV just doesn't have the stigma it used to. Sometimes they'll ask for a clip or a script page, but often they're familiar enough with a show, like Transparent, where they're happy to participate.

But it has happened to you, right?

There was a stand-alone episode in season one of Transparent where we decided to try a different song over the main title. I waited and waited and waited for it — and, ultimately, couldn't get approval for it. I don't want to out the band, in case they're fans of the show now. But I had to quickly come up with a replacement, which ended up being "Oh, Sister" by Bob Dylan. Not a bad replacement! I emailed Dylan's lawyer, and he responded within a few hours in the middle of the night saying, "Yeah, we're good to go."

How long have you been left hanging for approval?

The first season of Transparent, when no one really knew about the show, there was a song we really wanted —  Neil Young's "Razor Love." That took a long time to clear. And I did not want to replace it. But the way that he looks at his requests, I'm told his manager takes them to him on a monthly basis. So if your request comes right after that window, it doesn't get to him for three or four weeks. It turns out getting Neil Young isn't that hard if he likes what you're doing, but all of these other music supervisors have asked me for help with him. I can't offer any guidance! (Laughs.) You just have to put it out there and be really patient. With these binge shows, we have the luxury of being able to wait a little longer.

Do you have a favorite music moment from Transparent?

From this last season that aired, there's a whole episode where there's just a number of placements. It's the one that I ultimately submitted for the Emmys. There's a T. Rex song, a flashback to "Operator" by Jim Croce that we used in the first episode of the first season, a Laura Mvula song, Tune-Yards, and I closed with Karen Dalton's "Something on Your Mind." I've always had a special love affair with that song. I haven't been waiting to put it in something, but I've been pocketing it for the opportunity. The beautiful thing about that show is that sometimes the very first song I suggest lands and stays. Everyone is usually on the same page.

Do you ever change your mind?

When my mind relaxes, I feel like I come up with some of my favorite choices. I watched an early cut of the I Love Dick pilot with Jill. It was really cool, and it was all this stuff that we talked about specifically. But something about it wasn't quite landing for me. I went to bed that night, woke up the next morning with this song in my head by Lhasa de Sela — who we ultimately ended up using all over the season and a couple times in the first episode. I replaced a bunch of music in that pilot with her music. It wasn't my intention. It just felt emotional without being manipulative.

How close are you to the final say in the music that makes the final cut?

A show changes a lot between its first and second season, where the studio or the network has a lot more faith in what's happening. Early on, there's a little bit more interface with executives — if not with me, then the showrunner — about particular tracks or tone. MTV, for example, would be way more plugged in about that stuff. For Transparent or even I Love Dick, Amazon just makes sure we have what we need in terms of getting clearance. On the creative front, it's mostly high fives. (Laughs.) We know exactly what we're doing before a studio cut. So it's very likely that the music from early cuts will be what lives onscreen. I don't have final word, but I'm encouraged to let them know my favorite.

You and Jill were married. Is it safe to assume your familiarity makes for an easy collaboration?

Yeah, for sure. We work really effortlessly together. Part of that is that I know, even if it's not autobiographical, from where these things come, even if it's just on an intellectual level, because we've talked about them. We discuss the early impulses for a season before we film it, and we'll just talk about music in a general way. Reading scripts, if you know someone well enough through their work or through your personal life, it can really inform the creative process. There's a definite shorthand.

You have a very specific career. How did you get into this work?

This is weirdly the first thing I ever did. When I came to L.A. after school, my first job was at a trailer house assisting what I didn't even really understand to be a music supervisor. It was this guy that picked music for trailers. There were only a handful of big trailer houses at the time. It hadn't become a constellation of boutique shops, the way it is now. That was kind of boot camp for me. It was high pressure, high volume, big movies. It was a lot of picking scores, licensing scores from other big features and then having marketing executives tell my bosses how important the music was going to be for their opening-weekend numbers. Everyone else was waiting around to become editors. That was the star job at a trailer house. But I had my eye set on this other thing because I was always into music. I was in my 20s, and suddenly it was a real job.

What trailers did you do?

This was a while back. ... The first couple of Spider-Man movies, Charlie's Angels, Three Kings. That was a fun one because we used a Public Enemy track from another movie that sampled [Buffalo Springfield]. It was a great job, but working in closer contact with people who are close to the final word on something is such a pleasure.

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