No Accounting for Taste

Netflix series ‘Sex Education’ has been a runaway hit, with a killer soundtrack to match. David Webb reveals all about how they curated the soundtrack that earned consecutive Music+Sound Awards for ‘Best Sync for a Television Programme.’

No Accounting for Taste

When Sex Education released in January 2019, it was watched by 40 million households in the first four weeks. The soundtrack broke all records for a premiere show on TuneFind and spawned numerous Spotify playlists. Season 2 aired a year later with a similarly eclectic soundtrack to accompany it, but just what does it take to find the perfect music sync? Editor and Final Cut MD David Webb reveals all.

Music is the most subjective of mediums – everyone has an opinion on it, and no one’s opinion trumps all. Can you quantify what accounts for good taste? And does it even matter when searching for the perfect “Needledrop” – a throwaway term that belies the difficulty of the process. The jury’s out. But when it’s right it’s right; when it’s wrong, it’s wrong; and when it’s neither of these things it occupies a territory best described as “meh”.

In 2018, myself and fellow Final Cut editor Steve Ackroyd were asked to edit a new show produced by Eleven Films for Netflix and directed by Ben Taylor. It was to be called Sex Education. We had a four-page pitch document, the scripts of the first two episodes and a director brimful of enthusiasm and sparking with ideas.

We had no idea what it would be like; (you really don’t until the rushes start coming in); we had some initial music thoughts from the pitch; a music supervisor on board in the shape of Matt Biffa from Air Edel (Netflix do things proper-like!) and a sneaking suspicion that we might be able to let loose a little on the soundtrack. So, with the kernel of our creative team duly assembled, we set forth to find the musical identity of the show.

But where to begin? Spotify, of course – the great musical arbiter of our times. An encyclopaedic knowledge of musical genres and looming towers of CDs are no longer essential kit for the task we were about to undertake. Even so, with millions of tracks to trawl through, it’s a laborious process, fraught with dead ends and discord and only the occasional musical discovery. It’s a labour of love; a potential time-drain that eats up valuable post-production time and sets off interminable arguments about the nature of musical taste.

On Sex Education the director had a clear vision for the show – think 1980s John Hughes’ films. Fortunately, we’d spent our formative years watching and re-watching these movies on VHS tape. It was good to revisit old favourites: The Breakfast Club; Ferris Bueller; Weird Science, et al., to remind ourselves just what we loved so much about the era. Some of the music was great; some of it was now dated beyond reason: Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone,” anyone? But it was the starting point for a musical exploration that would occupy any spare minute for the next five months.

In an effort to avoid the soundtrack being dated, we made an early decision to avoid contemporary music altogether. Oxymoronic or just moronic, take your pick. A difficult proposition, given the assumption that in order to court a young audience you must reflect contemporary music tastes. When we got notes back on the edits saying the music needed to feel more contemporary we doubled down on this logic and looked further back, trying to identify that most elusive of things – a track that was esoteric enough to feel new, but good enough to have a hook, so it felt like a tune you might want to listen to.

Our simplified logic was this: teenagers look beyond the contemporary for their musical identity. My 14-year-old niece gives credence to this theory, recently rescuing her fathers’ vinyl collection from the loft and now schooling her friends in 90s Hip Hop from her Surrey bedroom. This is something that kids have always done: I bought dogeared Stones and Dillon albums from the charity shop as a teenager eschewing the zeitgeist in favour of finding my own musical identity in a dusty stack of vinyl, even if it was purloined from a previous generation.

So onwards, with the Dad-Rock Spotify lists. We each had our favourite tracks and auditioned them to one another on a daily basis. We were honest about each other’s musical selections. We shot each other’s choices down in flames, but once in awhile a track would survive the barrage.

Certain scenes were tantalisingly tricky to find cues for; others threw up a whole bunch of options. Masturbation was a particularly rich vein for musical inspiration (so much so that I set up a playlist on my Spotify account entitled W.A.N.K – much to the dismay of my wife who happened upon it one Sunday afternoon).

Having made the cut, the next hurdle for any eligible track was to satisfy the budgetary restraints. Devo’s “Satisfaction” written by a certain Mick Jagger struggled to make the leap for this exact reason. There is a reverse logic when choosing music sync: those artists that most need the money tend to charge the least for it. Those who could well do without, throw out a ridiculous figure, not caring if it sends your music budget plummeting into the red.

Cash and consternation were not the only obstacles to the successful clearance of a track. Often the rights holders would scupper our perfect marriage of sound and vision. Our music supervisor Matt Biffa bore the brunt of this. Bear in mind, he was asking for approval on tracks for a show called Sex Education where the scene descriptions read like this: “Otis lies down on his bed and masturbates. He lifts off the bed and orgasms in explosive fashion.”

One particularly contentious episode included a scene in an abortion clinic. The storyline required a music sync that conveyed the complexity of the situation and reflected the character’s emotional state. An early contender, “Russian Lullaby” by Ella Fitzgerald, seemed to tick all the boxes and everyone agreed that it worked well, but the publishers wouldn’t allow it, despite the Music Super’s best efforts.

Cue a frantic overnight Spotify trawl to find a replacement, culminating in a spark of inspiration on a train journey somewhere between Raynes Park and Clapham Junction. The call went out – “Biffa, can you clear “Asleep” by The Smiths?” 24 hours later it was in the mix and Oli Julian our composer was re-scoring some existing cues to repurpose the melody in later scenes. It wasn’t what we initially intended, but it worked nonetheless and resulted in a ‘Best Sync in a Television Programme’ award at 2019 MASA (Music + Sound Awards).

Netflix, Sex Education Series 2, Episode 3 excerpt

The musical circumnavigations continued on Season 2? The original team reassembled, plus a couple of newbies: editor Phil Hignett and directors Sophie Goodhart and Alice Seabright. The original team, concerned that we’d spent all our killer tracks on season 1, were glad of some fresh ears. So, in late January when Season 1 was an obvious hit, we returned to our Spotify lists like the proverbial monkey at the typewriter banging out Shakespeare and went at it trying to chance upon some new ideas.

Unsurprisingly the masturbation theme continued in Season 2, with a couple of seminal(!) tracks – never has Terence Trent Derby felt so relevant. Ezra Furman wrote a whole bunch of new tracks that we had at our disposal once again a la Season 1 and Oli Julian returned as our point man for original score and re-records. How did we fare? Well, we had the usual challenges, the poison chalice of a party episode – more than 20 mins of action in a house party that required apposite music drops. We had montages; we had rousing speeches; we had sensitive subject matter. We had a paean to female empowerment and an opening montage of glorious ridiculousness to find music for, but we stuck with the process, we collaborated, we competed and we scratched our heads.

One track, courtesy of Captain Sensible, divided opinion so much that certain people ne’er mention its name – a battle of wills between two musical camps. The Jury at the 2020 MASA awards came out on the side of Captain Sensible, awarding a ‘Best Sync in a Television Programme’ award once more. But amongst the team we still argue the toss over whether it even works, therein lies the difficulty of music sync.

So what of season 3! Initially slated to begin in April this year, production was waylaid by a global panic, but happily looks set to return to set this year. Do we have any tracks up our sleeve?. Hells yeah! but whether they’re hit or miss is not for us to decide, what do we know, when it comes to musical taste? Once again the winners and losers will be decided by the number of searches on TuneFind and followers for the pop-up Spotify playlists that are sure to appear. The viewers may well file all our picks under “meh” and move on to the next new old thing. And who’s to stop ‘em?