Just before the restaurant opens in Season 2 of FX’s hit show The Bear, chef de cuisine Sydney Adamu releases nine episodes of built-up tension by declaring, “Let it rip!” – and AC/DC‘s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” explodes into the foreground. For executive producer Josh Senior, securing the song promised some metaphorical bloodshed of its own — but the process turned out to be far easier than expected.
“Everybody I’ve ever talked to about licensing music always told me AC/DC was hard to get, hard to pay for, hard to contact, hard to deal with. And we knew we wanted that song,” he says. “They ended up being amazing and awesome. But the hype was intimidating.”
The Bear is known for its musical needle drops. Rather than relying on music composed for the series, the show uses mostly familiar rock and pop songs to illustrate characters, moods and relationships. That gives it a sort of instant familiarity — but also makes the music-licensing process more complicated. Senior says most of the memorable tracks used on Season 2, such as R.E.M.‘s “Strange Currencies,” Lindsey Buckingham‘s “Holiday Road” and Liz Phair‘s “Supernova,” were easy to clear. But Senior, creator-executive producer Christopher Storer and producer Tyson Bidner, who do not maintain a separate budget for licensing songs (as is the case with most shows), had to “press every penny into place,” especially in the frantic last few weeks of production, he says.
In the end, they were able to license every song they wanted, from the season-opening Bruce Hornsby & The Range track “The Show Goes On” to Taylor Swift‘s “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” — with one crucial exception, as Senior says, in a phone interview from New Jersey that covers some of the songs used in Season 2.
What was the most difficult song to clear?
An example I haven’t spoken about is the BoDeans song “Still the Night” — not a typical Christmas song. We thought it fit really well for the story we were trying to develop. It turns out that “Still the Night” has quite a few writers on it. I couldn’t find [drummer and co-writer] Guy Hoffman to save my life. We took time to do that, though. If you have a year, you probably can do anything; you have six months, you can probably do most things. Our entire show life-cycle is about three and a half months, from the first day of prep to the thing going on TV. Maybe four. So everything’s an emergency. You get a countdown clock in the back of your head. The theme of the show really does come through to the way the show’s made. That was one that came down to the wire, but we ended up working it out.
For the “Fishes” episode, you used 17 songs, many of them holiday-related. Did you avoid the Christmas classics and use lesser-known tracks for creative reasons, or to save money, or both?
That episode was one of the last episodes for us to lock and finish. Working with our producer Tyson Bidner to press every penny into place was a big part of those last few weeks. We preemptively made three swaps in [that] episode to songs we didn’t think were possible, but either we had already licensed from that record label, or we had worked with that artist and we felt they were more attainable. We were able to get everything we wanted.
Did it help with Season 2 permissions that the show was already established and had a widely viewed first season?
There’s an argument you can make now. For Season 1, we were able to look at the data carefully and closely and see the lift in artists whose music we licensed and their numbers, streams, record sales, ticket sales. A lot of them saw significant growth. This time around, we were able to not just beg and plead but use metrics and data: “Hey, look, there’s a 300% lift on ‘Strange Currencies’ after we put it in the trailer for the show. This is the type of thing we could do if you work with us.”
You used multiple versions of “Strange Currencies” prominently throughout the season. What were the R.E.M. people like to work with?
We had worked with R.E.M. in Season 1. We got to meet them through their management and we were able to point to things that worked out well in the past in terms of numbers. They liked what we did. We viewed “Strange Currencies” like a theme for the entire season, and each of our characters are dealing with loss of love or the acceptance of love, particularly in the Carmy and Claire storyline. We think it represents something potentially beautiful and hopeful and mellow. When we contrast that with Christmas dinner at the Berzattos [in a stormy episode six], it’s clear that Carmy isn’t ready for that yet. The R.E.M. team was kind enough to allow us to use the original, the incredible Scott Litt remix and an unreleased demo.
Was Taylor Swift’s “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” difficult to license, for the scene of Richie triumphantly singing the song in the car?
No. A lot of people ask that question and I wonder why they’re asking. Her team was like, “Great. This is cool. How much money do you have? You have that much money? Let’s go.” She was exceedingly generous and cool with one of our actors singing along to the song. Those are things that sometimes people just say no to, and that was probably one of the easiest songs to clear.
Any songs you wanted but weren’t able to get?
I don’t want to answer that question right now, because I think I’m going to get those songs next season. I’m sorry!
What about other stories you can share about journeying through the music business to use a song?
In the third episode, there’s a Stevie Wonder demo that we were chasing for a while that we feel like we got close to, but we weren’t able to fully paper. We had conceived a scene around that song. That episode has two big montages in it. One was originally set to a Stevie Wonder song that was perfect, that Ayo [Edebiri, who plays Sydney] had picked. It’s her episode, we felt really strongly about honoring her wishes to include that music — and we weren’t able to get it. We ended up rejiggering a few things and restructuring the episode ever so slightly and pulling two different songs in — “Future Perfect” from The Durutti Column and “Make You Happy” by Tommy McGee. It ended up working really well.
Why couldn’t you get the Wonder song? And can you name it?
I won’t name the song, but there were just some ambiguous rights about the master side. It was a demo that wasn’t released on much — just a B-side of a record.
Do you ever use covers if you can’t get the rights to an original?
We just try and pick the music that we like. You’ll see a lot of live versions — a live Otis Redding song, a live Wilco song, a live Neil Finn song, a live Van Morrison song. You’ll find obscure tracks from Italian artists in the sixth episode.
It can’t hurt that those live versions are cheaper to license than the versions we all know, right?
One hundred percent. And they are different enough for you to think about them a little. There’s the music you hear in Walgreens and CVS. While we were making the show, I heard “Love Story” by Taylor Swift everywhere I went. It was following me around. But her version, I wasn’t hearing everywhere. Being able to use that was just such a nice little nuance.