By Jennifer Walden
Otis Redding, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Temptations, Janis Joplin, The Doors… the list of music featured on the HBO series Vinyl would make any music supervisor drool, and that’s just a small sample of the artists whose music has been featured so far. There are still four more episodes to go this season.
As you can imagine, big-name artists come with a big price tag. “When you have this many songs from the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll, you’re going to spend some real money. It’s such a music-driven enterprise that you have to go into it with your eyes open,” says music supervisor Randall Poster. He and co-music supervisor Meghan Currier, at NYC’s Search Party Music, had the job of curating and creating Vinyl’s epic soundtrack.
Poster has over 100 feature film credits, including Carol, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Wolf of Wall Street, Insurgent and Divergent, Boyhood, I’m Not There (a Bob Dylan biopic) and Velvet Goldmine to name just a few. He’s also done a bit of series work too, including HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, where he worked with series creator Terence Winter and executive producer Martin Scorsese — two of the masterminds behind Vinyl. Having already collaborated with Winter and Scorsese on two soundtrack driven series, there’s a lot of trust in their relationship.
“It’s a collaborative medium,” notes Poster. “We all throw in ideas and we all have certain passions. Marty is the master of using songs in movies. I think we’ve developed a pretty strong working relationship and process.”
In 2012, Poster won a Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for Boardwalk Empire. It wouldn’t be surprising if Vinyl’s soundtrack earns the same recognition.
Vinyl tells the story of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), owner of the faltering music label American Century, which is struggling to find its footing on the shifting tectonic plates of musical genres in the early ‘70s. One new genre to rise out of the rubble of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest era is proto-punk, which Finestra feels can re-energize the rock scene. “You are on the verge of punk rock, on the verge of disco, the elements of hip-hop are just beginning to formulate,” explains Poster. “This whole season you are on the verge of these musical revolutions. Also, part of the show’s music is borne out of Richie Finestra’s musical foundations, which he is trying to somehow reconnect with.”
There is a wealth of opportunity for music — interstitials, bands on-screen, diegetic music coming from cassette players, turntables and radios. There’s also music that underscores the drama or helps to reinforce story points. It’s no wonder that there are 20–30 tracks in every episode. According to Poster, the pilot alone had around 60 tracks. “One thing that is really unique about Vinyl is the volume of music, the amount of it.”
Some tracks from the aforementioned top-shelf artists were licensed with help from Warner Bros. Records and Atlantic Records, with both labels offering up their catalogs to Poster and Currier. “They were happy to make their artists and most of their catalog available to us,” says Poster.
But those two major labels were by no means the extent of Poster’s and Currier’s reach. Ultimately, if there was a track they wanted to use in the show, regardless of the label, they went for it. “Everyone wanted to do this soundtrack and they really were passionate about it. People saw the ambition of the enterprise and responded to it.”
The hardest part about licensing all the big-name songs — like the hit songs for the lipsync interstitials including Janis Joplin (played by Catherine Stephen) performing “Cry Baby” in Episode 4 — was just tracking down who owned the rights to them. “For the lipsync sequences, we talked to the series writers and we’d land on a song. Then we’d go and work out all the licensing details,” explains Poster.
The real challenge for music on the show lies in Vinyl’s substantial use of on-camera music. Several primary characters are musicians performing original songs, like the fictional punk band the Nasty Bits, led by Kip Stevens (played by Mick Jagger’s son, James Jagger), and the funk-rock band led by Hannibal (played by Daniel J. Watts). Then there are faux versions of popular bands playing re-recorded versions of their hits, such as “Somethin’ Else” performed on-screen by a faux Led Zeppelin in Episode 3, or “Personality Crisis” performed on-screen by a mocked-up New York Dolls at the end of Episode 1. “In terms of the workflow and getting involved in the pre-production process, those were the things that you had to deal with first — landing on repertoire, and casting and rehearsing actors. That was the initial focus,” reports Poster.
They needed to find real musicians to play in the bands on-screen, so Currier took the lead in casting the on-screen musicians that weren’t main characters and didn’t have speaking lines. “She was really chasing people down on the subway, asking them if they played music. We needed to cast people that had that period look, or resembled artists in a particular band. There were so many on-screen acts that we needed to cover. For example, Hannibal’s band in Episode 4 has 12 people in it. We had to find them and then rehearse them, to make sure it all worked correctly,” says Poster.
The re-recorded hits and original tunes involved collaborations with music industry heavy-hitters, like Trey Songz, Dan Auerbach, Elvis Costello, David Johansen (New York Dolls) and Charli XCX. “When we wanted to have Trey Songz, an Atlantic artist, voice one of the characters on the show, and we wanted The Arcs, which is a Dan Auerbach’s (The Black Keys) side project, Atlantic Records helped us in terms of accessing these artists,” explains Poster. “Kevin Weaver, who is the point person there at Atlantic Records, was just a business dynamo. He really helped us cut through a lot of red tape.”
Poster tapped Lee Ranaldo, co-founder of Sonic Youth, to produce the Nasty Bits punk tracks. According to Pitchfork, their tune list includes songs salvaged from the nearly forgotten ‘70s punk band Jack Ruby, lending to the era-authentic punk vibe in Vinyl.
To create the band’s backing tracks for James Jagger’s vocals, Ranaldo chose Yo La Tengo’s bassist James McNew, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, avant-garde guitarist Alan Licht and guitarist Don Fleming of the ‘80s art-punk band Velvet Monkeys. “We really had a great collection of artists who worked with us, and we relied on them for insight and precision,” says Poster. “I was really excited to do new music with John Doe (from the late 1970s punk band called X). Elvis Costello — one of my rock ‘n’ roll gods, who we worked with on Boardwalk Empire a few times, came in and sang for us. Lenny Kaye, from Patti Smith Group, is someone we have worked with before. He’s a good resource. It’s great to channel the musical energies of some of our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. Musicians are often the best people to talk to about things that they were responding to from an era.”
If you love all the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, funk, disco and ‘70s pop featured in the series, you can purchase the soundtrack “Vinyl: Music From the HBO Original Series — Volume 1” released by Atlantic Records, as a physical CD, digital download or (appropriately) as a vinyl LP. Each week there is also a new five-song digital soundtrack featuring music from that Sunday’s upcoming episode. And as the season wraps up, a “Volume 2” soundtrack will also be available. When the Vinyl digital soundtracks become available, you can download them via iTunes and Google Play, with streaming available on Spotify.
Jennifer Walden is a writer and audio engineer based in New Jersey.