By D. Dona Le
Before college, Eagle Rock native Megan Goldstein AB ‘05 “was determined to go to New York City. I really wanted to go to Columbia, and if Columbia didn’t work out, I was going to New York University. Then when I got into Harvard, I thought, ‘Whoa. Yeah. Okay.’”
Today, Goldstein still lives in Northeast Los Angeles and is currently Vice President of Synch Licensing at BMG, a position that perfectly marries her training as a musician and her love of film and television.
“I am a musician and I’ve always felt like a musician, but it's not that I wanted to be a clarinetist in a symphony,” Goldstein says. “I just always thought of myself as a musician. I made music every day and practiced every day—that was the fabric of my life.”
Upon entering Harvard, Goldstein initially decided, “I’ll do something responsible.” For many students, “something responsible” refers to a career in law or finance. But she quickly gravitated back to her passion for music and film.
“Harvard had Visual and Environmental Studies, but it had no film concentration. The most film classes I could find were in anthropology, so I double concentrated in music and anthropology.”
Even after taking as many anthropology film classes as she could and writing a senior thesis on film, Goldstein wanted to do more. She returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Cinema & Media Studies graduate program at USC. Goldstein credits her grad school experience as being integral to her career. She enjoyed her USC experience so much that “I wish it were a three-year program. My biggest feeling at the end of it was that two years wasn’t enough. I loved the production classes, I loved the theory classes, and I loved the people I met. After USC, I did a lot of work with those people and I actually still get to work with them. I’d take a job on their crew just to stay in the scene, or I've worked on music for their projects.”
To those who are unsure whether film school is the right path, Goldstein assures, “I made contacts that have been valuable in terms of what I want my career to look like.”
But even after film school, identifying a clear career path was elusive. “I thought it’d be really great to find a job at the intersection of music and film, without having a word for that or knowing what that was. This was before 'music supervision' was as buzzy as it is now.”
Like many young grads seeking to break into the industry, Goldstein found her first job through a combination of fortuitous timing and personal connections. It happened in a Starbucks.
“I was studying for a final in grad school, a world film class and something I was studying was about Peruvian cinema. The person I ran into at Starbucks was reading a travel book for Peru; we were reading about the same country. So we struck up a conversation and it turns out we had mutual connections, and he was looking for an assistant at Warner [Music Group].”
The assistant role was substantive—not “answering phones and getting someone’s coffee. It was a content job.”
After one year, one of Goldstein’s bosses at Warner Music Group got a job at a competing company and suggested that Goldstein apply for her opening. So that initial assistant position led to a six-year stint at Warner.
Goldstein credits her years at Warner for giving her a wealth of experience that helped to round out the team at BMG, her current company. “I was going to a publishing company from a company that works on the master side; I came with all this record label experience. Even throughout the interview process, it helped me to be immediately seen as someone with a lot to offer [at BMG].”
She speaks candidly of the potential challenge that comes with staying at one company for a long time.
“As much as I felt respected [at Warner] and grew a lot, it’s hard to shake the perception of being the junior person,” Goldstein explains. “Even though I was the only person in our department who went to grad school, and even though I got promoted very quickly there, and then stayed for a long time, it’s hard to fully shake the image of being the newbie.”
Ultimately, Goldstein’s experiences at Warner Music Group and BMG are complementary, giving her a uniquely holistic and in-depth understanding of the music industry and synchronization licensing. Goldstein works with music supervisors, filmmakers, and film studios and TV production studios to negotiate deals for the use of commercial music in their projects. On the day to day, Goldstein interacts with these content makers and the artists, artist managers, and attorneys whom she represents, “looking at which projects they want to do creatively, and what those deals actually look like—what rights we're actually going to give, how much money we're going to charge.”
In the first half of her career, at Warner, Goldstein primarily worked on deals for master recordings that had been commercially released by Atlantic Records, Warner Bros. Records, Nonesuch Records, Bad Boy Records, Elektra Records, and more. “Rhino represented a huge and amazing catalog that I was lucky to work with, and we represented that entire family of record labels for film and TV.”
“Warner handled some publishing,” Goldstein adds, “but it was through unusual deals and mostly through ADA, for indie bands that didn’t have representation and so they signed with us for both master and publishing.”
When Goldstein moved to BMG, the company’s focus was on publishing and working on behalf of writers.
“Instead of representing master recordings, BMG represents the composition. We have many of the same clients, so the same music supervisors and film studios that I worked with at Warner are the same people that BMG works with. Devo (“Whip It”), ZZ Top, The Pretenders—I represented those bands on the master side at Warner. When I came to BMG, I worked some of those same bands, but on the publishing side.”
Today, BMG has accumulated more master recordings and has a growing record label arm.
Goldstein’s job also puts her in close collaboration with major film studios, such as Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Disney/Fox—”probably one of the more exciting but also challenging parts of my job. Studios are highly visible, and large amounts of money are at stake.”
“I get to work on [the studios’] different levels of projects and see the inner workings of how they view their indie projects or their prestige stuff, how they fund those or don’t fund them,” Goldstein says. “Any project at Universal Pictures comes to me; it doesn't matter if it's a $2 million project or a $180 million project, I'm going to work on all of that. You have a bit of a window into how sociopolitical elements affect project development.”
BMG also engages in work-for-hire deals with film studios that are a bit of a different animal. They’re “high-risk, high-reward.” See Exhibit A: Fast and Furious 9.
A work-for-hire deal is when a songwriter is hired to write new music for a film that’s being released—music that will be branded by the film.
In the case of Fast and Furious 9, Goldstein explains, “a producer from Warner may work with a songwriter from BMG or Kobalt, or both. Universal will say, ‘We need a hit song for Fast about power and masculinity and fast cars.’ They write a song and then we negotiate those deals, which are unique in that the film company gets some ownership. So we give something up: a writer is giving up some of their ownership of the song in exchange for extra publicity. It’s an interesting window into another part of the landscape of studio film.”
Though Goldstein admits that she enjoys the glamour of her job, that’s not why she loves it.
“The emotional payout of working on a giant film [like Fast & Furious 9] is not because it's exciting for me to go to the theaters and see music that I've worked on in the film, though that is a reliable perk. It's more fascinating to see the inner workings of how a project that big with that much money behind it gets made, how many people are involved, and what that looks like.”
Goldstein also has extensive experience working with TV shows that are “fun and feel good to work on because you’re excited by the material.” Nonetheless, Goldstein admits some projects can be frustrating when their budgets do not align with the creators’ expectations regarding music.
“A lot of projects aren't properly funded, or the people involved in making them don't leave money for music, even when they've decided that clearly music is an important part of their project. Some TV shows are responsible and only request music they can afford; they’re not asking for recognizable songs because they know they can't afford them. But others continue to request recognizable songs and offer no money to use them.”
There are other ways that projects try to cut corners on music. It takes years of work experience, years spent honing your instinct to recognize those situations. Goldstein has plenty of both to inform her decision making.
Interestingly, Goldstein also receives script pages, footage clips, or even entire film screeners to review before considering music placement. This generally happens for one of two reasons.
“One reason is that there is something potentially worrisome about the scene, like intense violence, intense sexuality, intense drug use—something where people are concerned that it's going to be hard to find music that will clear. Or maybe someone’s making fun of the song and being derogatory toward the music. Or maybe the use is just incredibly extensive—multiple uses, or high-profile singing or dancing involving the song.”
And the other scenario?
“The other reason is when they’ve identified exactly what they want and it's a hard sell for whatever reason. They know they really want a certain song, but they definitely can't afford it, so they’re asking, ‘Can you please work with us? Here’s the film.’
“When I'm looking at stuff like that, it’s fun, but you’re basically guessing based on your experience. I can give them several options I think might work and say, ‘Are any of these of interest? I can explore them for you.’ I'm working with the music supervisors and the studios to try and solve a problem.”
Chatting with Goldstein makes clear how much she loves her job—a love that boils down to her lifelong love of music and film. One of her favorite aspects of synch licensing is “being exposed to catalogs and musicians that you didn't know of or learning about a hit that was huge in 1976 and then totally dropped off.”
It’s that thirst to learn and to deepen her knowledge that propelled Goldstein through her early years of musical training, a double concentration at Harvard, and a rigorous graduate film program—and that will no doubt propel her through the rest of her career.