Name that killer tune: why today’s TV dramas thrive on musical mystery

Original scores are fast giving way to obscure existing tracks, propelling their makers to sudden stardom

A grisly scene unfolds on the TV screen: a dead body is revealed on a beach, or by a canal, or perhaps floating in the pool of a luxury villa. As the camera pulls out, the strains of an atmospheric tune strike up. But never mind working out who did the murder – the key question is: who did the music?

The box-set entertainment era has spawned a new leisure pursuit: whodunnits in which viewers spend as much time detecting the musicians behind the soundtrack as they do unravelling the plot.

A track by an unknown band played in a hit show can now catapult them to prominence as the increasingly recherché choices made by the makers of drama series have become a badge of honour. And for those who have to make the decision, getting the right music for the right programme is a tricky business.

“You cannot have anything that has been previously used,” said Matt Biffa, who has found the tracks for many films and TV shows, including the sitcom Fresh Meat and the teen hit The End of the Fucking World. “And you can’t use the really great old songs either, because they would be too resonant.

“Audiences are so well-versed in music, they like to feel they are making a discovery.”

As Britain’s international hit Peaky Blinders starts filming its next season this week, the tracks the director selects, alongside the show’s music supervisor, will be at the core of viewers’ experience. And the commercial knock-ons of these choices are clear even before a drama hits the screen. When ITV put out the first trailer alerting viewers to its adaption of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair this summer, it featured samples of the Bishop Briggs track White Flag. The short promo put the song straight in at number 10 in the Shazam chart, the ranking list drawn up by the phone app that allows users to identify unknown songs.

“Rights owners, by which I mean record companies and publishers, certainly do like the uptick on downloads they can get, but it is not what I think about when I am working on a show,” said Biffa. “As a music supervisor, I care about how best to tell the story.”

Television has come a long way from the days when a small group of trusted composers came up with themes for several shows. Ron Grainer, composer of vintage themes for Doctor Who and Tales of the Unexpected, was one such stalwart. George Fenton, who wrote the music for the popular series Bergerac, Shoestring and The Jewel in the Crown, was another.

The transformation may have begun with the arrival of The Sopranos in 1999. The slick American drama series, one of the first to be consumed avidly across the world, picked a track titled Woke Up this Morning by the minor English rock band The Alabama 3 for its opening credits. It transformed the band’s profile, giving them valuable touring status.

Skins helped propel MGMT’s song Time to Pretend up the charts.
Skins helped propel MGMT’s song Time to Pretend up the charts. Photograph: Channel 4

The British E4 series Skins had an equally profound impact in 2007. The soundtrack was key. In the spring of 2008, Shazam’s chart was predicting that MGMT’s Time to Pretend, featured in the finale, would sell well.

The entire song had been played, meaning that users of the app had a luxurious three minutes to “tag” it. In the same week, the band Snow Patrol raced up the tag chart when they were played in the closing episode of the BBC’s Bafta-winning Gavin and Stacey.

And so it has continued.

Fans of the recent BBC show Killing Eve, based on the Villanelle books of Observer writer Luke Jennings, have been as seduced by its songs as they have by its deadpan thrills. While there is no theme tune, the assassin, Villanelle, is associated with a track by the little-known Pshycotic Beats called Killer Shangri-Lah. The show’s use of Anna Karina’s Roller Girl also gave a big boost to streaming figures for the 60s star.

Like Killing Eve, HBO’s recent show Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams, let its musical choices define the inner life of characters. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs, winner of the first Emmy given for the role, was behind these selections. Working with director Jean-Marc Vallée, she developed a “diegetic” approach – in other words, music was part of the plotting. Adams’ personality, and that of her passive stepfather, Alan, are expressed by the songs they listen to.

“They both escape into their music. That’s the thing about this iPod she keeps with her. Alan is in that room playing those records all day long, trying to survive that marriage,” said Jacobs. Using commercial tracks had initially worried the commissioning team, Jacobs has said, because they were used to employing carefully timed original music to rack up the tension.

Speaking this weekend, Biffa affirmed his faith in original scores, despite the huge success of the commercial tracks on The End of the Fucking World. “Theme music is slightly out of fashion in dramas, because directors prefer ‘cold opens’, when the action starts before the show’s title or credits,” he said. “But composers can write to a script and match sounds that are not worth buying for a 23-second burst.”

Graham Coxon performs with Blur in Los Angeles in 2015.
Graham Coxon performs with Blur in Los Angeles in 2015. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock

Biffa worked with Blur guitarist Graham Coxon on the show. “He is ridiculously versatile and compulsively creative, and at one point was sending me five or six pieces a day.” The original music Coxon created went on to be featured in his recent American live tour dates.

For film and television composer Helene Muddiman, the pressure to get “gigs” is intensifying as the power of drama to sell music becomes clear. “I once heard an agent boast that they could ‘sell any composer they wanted for any job’, as it’s not about the music, but about their power,” said Muddiman, who has an album of music written for the British film Bliss out this month. “This power has presumably been accumulated on a reputation for suggesting the right composer for the right job.”

Biffa, who is about to work on the BBC’s forthcoming drama The Little Drummer Girl, said he first noticed the effect on The End of the Fucking World. At one point, 16 of the top 20 sounds on the TuneFind chart were from the show.

Bernadette Carroll’s featured song, Laughing on the Outside, went up like a rocket. “Last time I looked, it had 7 million streams, while her other songs were getting around 23,000,” he said. “Everything we used was incredibly obscure, which obviously makes it cheaper. But it also ages better.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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