Music News

Anatomy of a Hit

Three years ago last week, when I became the Backbeat editor of this hallowed fish wrap, I was convinced that I had landed the coolest gig in the music biz, bar none. But now I'm not so sure. After speaking with Alexandra Patsavas, who handles music-supervision duties for such shows as The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy (the soapy medical series that's used songs from both the Fray and Dressy Bessy), I think she could give me a run. We both get paid to listen to music and offer our opinions. Her reach, however, extends way beyond mine. A tastemaker of the highest order, Patsavas has helped turn the prime-time serial-drama format into a viable vehicle for launching new acts -- as well as bringing some slept-on artists to the forefront.

"I definitely have an opinion," she says humbly, with a laugh.

Patsavas began formulating her influential opinions early. When she was growing up in Champaign, Illinois, her parents exposed her to traditional Greek and '40s swing music before she started developing her own ear, tuning in to Chicago's WXRT and various pirate-radio stations. That's where she acquired a taste for such acts as the Police, Gang of Four, the English Beat, Blondie and Devo, among others -- while still in junior high. "I was committed to musical life early on," she admits.

By college, her sensibilities were sharply refined. Rather than affiliating herself with a sorority, she opted to join an organization at the University of Illinois that promoted concerts on campus. At first she was in charge of the group's advertising; her junior year, she took on booking duties. And by the time she was a senior, she'd launched her own company, putting together shows by such pivotal groups as Smashing Pumpkins, Afghan Whigs, They Might Be Giants and Camper Van Beethoven.

"The music scene and the climate in the music business was actually quite similar to how it is now," Patsavas says. "Nirvana was emerging, Smashing Pumpkins were emerging, Americana was just coming to the forefront."

In 1990, Patsavas parlayed her college experience into a position in the mailroom at Triad Artists (the Los Angeles company that eventually merged with the William Morris Agency). But she soon left that for BMI's film-and-TV department, where she stayed for four years. "I was introduced to a different music business," she explains, "the music business of composers and music supervisors and how film, TV and music can come together. I was really interested in music supervision, and a very good friend of mine was directing his first feature, and he hired me to do that."

In 1995, Patsavas worked on her first film, Caged Heat 3000. Over the next three years, she did more than fifty B movies with Roger Corman at Concorde Films, then formed her own company, Chop Shop Music Supervision ( Inspired by car counterculture, Patsavas says she thought that "bringing in a lot of parts and sending it back out shiny and new" seemed like the perfect metaphor for what she was doing. Although she soon got gigs handling music supervision for such shows as Roswell and Without a Trace, it wasn't until she hooked up with O.C. creator Josh Schwartz a few years ago that her business took off. And when she started working with Shonda Rimes and Betsy Beers, the duo behind Grey's Anatomy, she gained true notoriety.

"The best collaborations are the ones where you have similar sensibilities," says Patsavas. "Those producers are very interested in new music and making music a character. Every project has its own musical personality and template. I think that we define a sound for the show first and think less about the characters. I mean, Seth [Cohen, played by Adam Brody on The O.C. ] has a certain kind of music that we've attached to his character. But really, we focus on the songs fitting the drama more than the character. It's about the drama and enhancing what's happening, about enhancing the drama in addition to the characters, the dialogue, the setting. All those things have to come together."

It may sound glamorous, but music supervision is complicated -- and quick. "The biggest hurdles of television music supervision are the incredibly intense and short time frames," she reveals. "Not only does an idea have to be approved by a producer, but the music has to be requested, quoted on by the artists, confirmed and then delivered on budget and on time. And that can be like a week. So that is the challenge: If you can't sort out that task, then it doesn't matter how good your ideas are."

And Patsavas (along with Schwartz) has some pretty fantastic ideas, including commissioning inspired covers -- from Nada Surf's stellar version of O.M.D. 's "If You Leave," which appears on Music From The O.C. Mix 2, to Jem's read of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," to Imogen Heap's goose-bump-inducing a cappella take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Along the way, she's also spotlighted great unheralded talent on Grey's, including Au Revoir Simone, which she contacted through myspace, and Kate Havnevik.

Lately, she's been listening to Syd Matters, Gnarls Barkley and the Figurines -- a good sign that her inclinations are still extraordinarily on point. "I think that I've just always been attracted to indie music," she explains. "I certainly take advantage of myspace and the Internet and magazine reviews, but I really focus on what I hear and then use the rest as sort of confirmation. The most important thing is that it sounds good."

Those gut instincts led Patsavas to use the Fray's "How to Save a Life" -- from the album of the same name that was just certified gold a few weeks ago -- in an episode of Grey's earlier this year. "It seemed like the natural song for that show lyrically, with the instrumentation and the way the vocal performance was captured," she says. "The song was certainly something that seemed perfect for Grey's." Likewise, several Dressy Bessy tracks "just seemed particularly Grey's. They had a certain whimsy," she notes.

"Every creative endeavor, you need to prove what's the best choice," she continues. "Even if your first instinct is the best, sometimes you need some runners-up. Sometimes I pitch to scripts and sometimes to already edited scenes. Sometimes a song will drop out for whatever reason or the scene has taken on different life. It's about flexibility and fluidity."

It's also about listening to as much music as you can, whenever you can. "I'm always working in a way," she says. "As a music supervisor, your whole job is to listen to music in the background. Music's in the car, always in the background.

"I'm still giddy about it," she concludes. "I'm lucky. I love my work."

I know the feeling.