Scott Vener: Music's First Responder
I was backstage at ComplexCon, a great event celebrating pop culture and music that was attended by everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Kobe Bryant, and just about every celebrity in the room stopped by to say “hi” to Scott Vener as I was doing this interview.
He’s the coolest guy in the room that you’ve never heard of.
While you might not know his name, chances are that you know his work. His claim to fame was as the music supervisor on the HBO series Entourage but he’s also worked on several TV shows, like Ballers and How To Make It In America, films like Dope, and dozens of TV commercials. Plus, he consults with major brands on how to keep music fresh and relevant in their ads.
I asked Pharrell Williams, Scott’s co-host of OTHERtone on Beats 1, Apple Music’s global radio station, why he picked Scott to work with. “Scott is my partner because he is like a fine-toothed comb for all things that are good musically…He just finds it. He finds it in a way that I have not been able to figure out. I don’t even know what his method is but whatever it is, it’s super special and I’m grateful to have him as a part of my team.”
When I asked him what his favorite thing that Scott has done was, Pharrell replied, “Scott introduced me to Thundercat. He played me this one song that blew my mind. And Thundercat ended up being on the N.E.R.D. album, playing bass on two songs because of that.”
So how did Scott get the ear of such industry heavyweights and end up with a job that most people would kill for?
We sat down and talked about his career, hip-hop, TV shows, and comedy.
Tom Ward: Take us back to the beginning. As a kid do you come from a musical family? What was playing in the house as a kid?
Scott Vener: I think my dad was listening to Steely Dan, Bob Dylan and very lyrical music. My mom was more pop, like Rod Stewart and Boz Skaggs; which was the first concert I ever went to.
Ward: What was the first album that you bought?
Vener: I’m not sure of the first album that I bought, but the one that I remember the most is buying an X Clan album.
Ward: Oh wow! Note: X Clan was a hip-hop group from Brooklyn known for their Afrocentrism and militant activism.
Vener: Laughs. And my parents saying the same thing that you just said. Laughs. I think I just liked the album cover at the time. I have a memory of me and my mom riding in her car listening to X Clan. Laughs.
Ward: Was she pretty cool about it? Did she try to censor what you were listening to?
Vener: I don’t ever remember her saying that we couldn’t listen to something. Good parenting I guess. Laughs.
Ward: So after college, you worked at MTV and were working around musicians. I remember an interview, with Rick Rubin, where he said that he always knew he’d be in music but it would probably just be a side thing; like a hobby. He never could’ve imagined the career that he’s had. Could you imagine a career in music or did you just think it’d be a hobby?
Vener: No. Honestly…it’s weird because I used to work for a management company that managed comedians and I feel that I know the history of comedians and comedy more than I know about the history of music. I always thought that would be my career.
Ward: Being around comedy?
Vener: Yeah. When I was younger I used to fantasize about doing standup one day or doing a one-man show. But I never thought I was funny enough to do that. I was always intimidated by it…I respected comedians so much that I wanted to know everything about them.
Ward: Who are your guys?
Vener: Back then I worked for a company that managed Chris Rock, Mike Judge, Dave Attell, Marc Maron, Mitch Hedberg, Todd Barry, Louis C.K. These were the people that I had to talk to on a daily basis. My job was to make sure that they woke up at 7 AM to make sure they did radio…That’s how I got my job at MTV. I was in the clubs, finding talent, when I met the guy who had the job I eventually had at MTV. He asked me if I would be interested in what he was doing at MTV…And I talked it over and eventually went to go work there.
The way that I got my job as a music supervisor, which is probably what people know me most as, was I was living in New York at the time and Doug Ellin asked me to come to LA, to his house, to watch a pilot of a show that he just sold to HBO; which was Entourage. We’re sitting at his house, and like eight minutes into it he’s like, “Why aren’t you laughing?” And I’m like, “The music is so bad that I can’t pay attention to the jokes.”
Ward: I heard that story before and it reminded me of when you watch TV shows, and they show a teenager’s bedroom and they have music posters on the wall of bands that the character would never listen to.
Ward: So you were working at MTV and were consulting on Entourage for like $500 a show, in the beginning. When did working as a music supervisor become a full-time job?
Vener: I always did it as a secondary thing. It was never for the money, because it wasn’t a lucrative position. You only did ten shows a year, so you couldn’t quit whatever else you were doing. But then when people started hitting me up for TV commercials, and other shows, it became more interesting to where I was like, “I don’t want to do this other stuff.”
Ward: When was that? When you could quit your day job?
Vener: I’m really bad about years, but it was around Entourage Season 5 or 6. I never really pursued it as a career until I started doing Entourage and How To Make It In America at the same time. It wasn’t until social media that I started getting all these incoming messages about car commercials and stuff. A lot of ad agencies started reaching out to me via Twitter or Facebook posts.
Ward: How much of your income is from consulting on TV shows? How much is doing commercials?
Vener: My name is @BrokeMogul so there’s no money! Laughs.
Ward: Do you own @RichMogul too for when you hit it big time?
Vener: Laughs. I always said that if I get rich, I’m going to buy the account from the guy who owns it. But I would say that commercials pay me the most, and then TV shows, and then consulting.
Ward: What do you mean by consulting?
Vener: Like consulting for other companies. And I also do the radio show. But TV commercials are probably the bread and butter.
Ward: What’s your favorite thing to score? Is it TV shows, movies, or commercials?
Vener: I always wanted to work on one-hour dramas with a bunch of montages. The montages are where you can flex and put a song on for a long period of time. It’s not a short burst. That’s why I love the end credits so much. That’s when I get my 90 seconds of a song.
Ward: The Sopranos is one of those shows that jumps out at me as a show that really used the ending credits well to showcase a song.
Vener: They set the bar. They are the blueprint for me. Other people may have done it before them, but for me they’re it.
Ward: How do you listen to music? Do you listen the same way us mortals do?
Vener: I don’t listen to music. Laughs. I listen to Howard Stern.
Ward: Hey now! Baba Booey. Happy Cocktober.
Vener: Happy Cocktober to you. Laughs. Yeah, I’m a big Howard guy. I’ve listened every day since I was a kid.
Ward: When you listen to music, is it work?
Vener: I love music. I mean it’s always on in the background at my house.
Ward: Like when you’re playing online poker?
Vener: Before online poker was illegal, I had the perfect setup. I’d wakeup in the morning and have poker on one screen and music on the other screen. That was the dream. I was living the dream! I’ve thought about moving to Canada because you can play legally. But usually I listen in my house from like 11PM to 3 AM.
Ward: That’s “work” listening?
Vener: Yeah, that’s work. Or it’s digging; like looking for stuff I haven’t heard before.
Ward: Where do you find new music? Do you look through the blogs?
Vener: Whenever I hear a great brand new song, that people don’t really know about yet, that’s the best time to find people who have good taste. Because if they found it already and it’s on their Soundcloud or their Apple playlist, you can reverse engineer it and see that those kids are the “first responders” to music. And then I save those people in a folder in my browser and I see what they’re listening to, along with digging myself.
Ward: Do you reach out to them and say, “Hey this is Scott and I love what you’re doing?”
Vener: Never. They have no idea. They have no idea that they work for me. Laughs. But it’s the most organic way to find music. It’s kids from all over the world, finding music that they love, passing it along to their friends and starting the bubble.
Ward: How do you organize your music? And where does it live? Is it in Apple Music playlists, MP3s, iTunes, Spotify?
Vener: It’s definitely Apple Music. For the radio show, OTHERtone, we keep the music in an Apple Music playlist. For Ballers and other TV shows, I keep it all in iTunes. And I have a secret YouTube channel where I save all my stuff that isn’t on the streaming services. I always joke around that when I die I’ve instructed, in my will, to give this away. Laughs.
Ward: How many songs are on it? Thousands?
Vener: It’s more categories, like “90s R&B” or “Nigerian Music.” It’s all categorized by stuff I listen to. If YouTube ever went out of business, I’d be very sad.
Ward: What you think of hip-hop now? Is it in a dark place? I read that you said that it’s syrupy and dark right now.
Vener: What I mean by that is that a lot of the hip hop that I love right now, which is that syrupy darker stuff, I can’t put in my TV shows.
Vener: Because of the tone, the mood it creates instantly. It’s very rare for a half hour show to have that. I’d need more of an indie movie, that’s dark, to have that. So it doesn’t translate well for me. But personally, that’s what I’m listening to.
Ward: What else are you listening to now?
Vener: It’s a lot of new stuff that people probably aren’t into yet…I’ve got some artists in my head but there are certain artists that I don’t want to give away yet. Laughs.
Ward: Is that a dangerous thing in your profession? You can’t let a secret song or an artist that you’ve been sitting on slip, because someone else will use it first.
Vener: Yes. A thousand percent.
Ward: Is it real territorial in your business, amongst your peers?
Vener: There are only like two or three friends, that I trust, that’ll I’ll share music with and get their reaction to see that I’m not out of my mind.
Ward: What are you promoting?
Vener: The radio show, but the beauty about my job is that I’m not forward facing. I’m more behind the scenes.
Ward: Which is cool, because as we’re doing this interview, backstage at ComplexCon, every hip hop artist stopped to say “hi” to you. You’re like the coolest white guy in the room.
Vener: Why not just the coolest guy in the room? Laughs.
Ward: Laughs. It’s true though. You’re like the guy that only the insiders know. And that’s a great place to be. You’re at the party, but you can walk down the street, where Pharrell can’t.
Vener: Exactly. Chris Rock once told me, “You want to be rich, not famous.”
After that, Scott was ushered away, by his PR person, to go host the OTHERtone podcast, with Pharrell Williams and the members of N.E.R.D.
Like I said, the coolest guy in the room.