On the wall of Russell Howard’s home studio in Marina del Rey, California, hangs a plaque from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers commending him for having altered the bedrock of the entertainment landscape by planting, through his company Signature Tracks, more music on American television than almost anybody else in 2016.
Picture the Earth in space: The blue is music provided by Signature Tracks. A lot of the green and brown parts are also music by Signature Tracks, as is the nearby envious moon. Signature Tracks’ signature tracks have been heard alongside Kardashians and Bachelorettes; at the Jersey Shore and Siesta Key; in the Puppy Bowl and during Shark Week. (“We kind of pushed the boundaries” with Shark Week, said Howard’s Signature Tracks co-founder, Adam Malka. Howard elaborated: “We incorporated dubstep with heavy strings, like anticipation — ‘cause it’s Shark Week, you know?”) But most of all, they’ve been heard on Bravo, the Shangri-La of reality TV.
Since 2006, Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise has spread across the United States with the efficiency of a bagged salad E. coli outbreak. Originally conceived to capitalize on the popularity of ABC’s prime time soap opera “Desperate Housewives,” the show has fortified itself into a pillar of American culture. (The connection between “Real Housewives” and “Desperate Housewives” is now as faint as the link between Bethesda, Maryland, and the biblical healing pool of beth hesda.) The basic premise: Wealthy women in the same vaguely defined social circle are followed by camera teams documenting the drama of their cosseted lives, which ranges from irritation at being served wine in a Champagne coupe (Beverly Hills, Season 8) to allegations of conspiracy to commit rape (Atlanta, Season 9).
What makes the show addictive is the rush of combined envy and superiority it foments. To desire wealth is ultimately to desire more options — about how one could live one’s life, and where, and doing what, if only there was money for it. When you watch “Housewives,” said Shari Levine, Bravo Media’s executive vice president for current production, “you’re watching people who have options and choices make choices that you know you would never make, that you can see might be really wrong.” After they make their choices, you also get to watch the aftermath; Bravo cameras have been following the arcs of choice of several women for more than a decade. “There’s a sense of ‘Wow! I wish I could do that,’” Levine said. “And there’s also sometimes a sense of ‘I would do it better.’”
The network frequently airs its roster of “Housewives” editions (currently: seven in America, plus the odd international) in triple, so that the dawn of one city’s season overlaps with the sunset of another, and the high noon of a third. Nearly every day of the year, somewhere on Earth, at least one episode of “The Real Housewives” is being filmed. They all sound like this: doot doot doot da da tsa tsa pleenk.
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When it debuted in 1980, Bravo marketed itself as the fine arts channel — the kind of place that could broadcast a show called “Jazz Counterpoint,” right before a full-length ballet. Today, tuning in feels like being deposited, lightly buzzed, into warm quicksand, and forgetting to extricate yourself because the marsh wildlife is riveting. You might turn on Bravo one minute to watch the newest “Real Housewives of Dallas” and, hours later, realize you’re waist-deep into a multipart “Shahs of Sunset” reunion special — and you don’t even watch “Shahs of Sunset.”
The moment when a customer is lured into contemplating previously unplanned purchases is known as the Gruen transfer, named for the architect of America’s first sprawling suburban indoor shopping center. A TV channel cannot limit its viewers’ exposure to those sentinels that soberingly tattle about the waning of a day (clocks, windows), so it must find other gentle ways to cause its customers to lose track of time. One of Bravo’s most potent weapons is an endlessly regenerating lullaby that bleeds across shows.
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“Bravo to me is like pop culture eye candy,” said Michael Baiardi, 46, the lead composer of Bravo soundscapes at Soundfile Productions, who has provided music for “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” since its first season began eight years ago. “You watch it on a big high-def TV, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it looks and it sounds like a big piece of candy.’”
This, according to Baiardi, is what candy sounds like: midcentury spy film vibraphones. Tchaikovskian pizzicato — that is, finger-plucked — violin strings. The melodious wooden tock-tock-tock of a struck marimba. Egg shakers. Cymbals which, when struck in succession, vibrate with an ephemeral sound halfway between a wish and a sparkle.
Of the yearslong process of curating the Bravo sound, Baiardi said, “This is like, you know, on a much smaller scale what George Martin did with the Beatles.”
Much like the 8-bit calypso tune that is Mario and Luigi’s constant companion as they dart through their vivid environs, the tinkling, sashaying instrumental leitmotif that accompanies “The Real Housewives” is their trademark. On the shows, the music functions as a kind of omniscient narrator, giving (or purporting to give) clues about characters’ thoughts, and conjuring poignancy out of mundane interactions. Initially, it also helps differentiate characters. (In the first season of Beverly Hills, Baiardi said, “I had themes for all the girls.”)
And yet, there is no Bravo department tasked with inventing music for the network’s programming. Each “Housewives” soundtrack is cobbled together using audio from multiple competing businesses; 15 or more companies might contribute, in some form, to a single episode.
Signature Tracks is co-owned by three childhood friends from the Philadelphia Main Line, two of whom are 40, one of whom was conflicted about giving his age but could be described as also 40. They dress in the impeccable casual wear that, on Bravo, is favored by the wealthy adult children of “Real Housewives.”
Howard is Signature Tracks’ head composer. He entered the music business as an adolescent white rapper, eventually parlaying his interests into a career as a full-fledged producer. Malka had backgrounds in sales and music production. The third founder, David Lasman, used to work as a reality TV producer; the company was his brainchild. When Lasman first approached his friends with the idea, Malka said, “Russ and I kinda thought it was a joke.”
To get music for many scenes, producers send these men general thematic requests (for “sentimental” cues, say). Other times, they ask them to “write to picture”— that is, study specific scenes and soundtrack them directly. A huge volume of the work is for same-day requests, and it adds up fast: A single season can require 2,500 pieces of music to fully score.
The resulting harmonious amalgamation of sounds creates some murkiness. Baiardi estimated that his company Soundfile currently provides 70 percent of the music on Beverly Hills. Lasman estimated that Signature Tracks provides about 80 percent of the music for the same show.
A representative for Bravo said it is nearly impossible to calculate what percentage of music a specific vendor provides to a show, given the network’s labyrinthine filing system, contractual complexities between clips that are licensed and clips that are owned outright, and the ways in which the music cues themselves are edited for use. (Consider, too, that a single instance of music might last just one second.)
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Every season of “The Real Housewives” is shaved down from hundreds of hours of footage into anywhere from 13 to 25 hourlong episodes. Much of the series is stakes-setting — establishing the precarious perfection of the housewives’ lives — so each cast member needs to be truly interesting (i.e., lose her temper, faculties or inhibitions) just once or twice in a period of several months to ensure an entertaining season. Incessant quick cuts — from a woman, criticizing; to a woman on the other side of the room, being criticized; to a third woman summarizing those criticisms directly into the camera; to a close-up of decimated party hors d’oeuvres — are one reason reality shows feel jumpier and more chaotic than multicamera sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory.” Wall-to-wall music corrals the visually disconnected footage into a cohesive narrative in a manner unique to Bravo: In contrast to other TV shows — even other reality TV shows — nearly 100 percent of its screen time is underlaid with music.
For scenes of discord, Howard said: “It’s all minor key. Usually D and C minor are, like, drama.” Bombshell revelations are followed by a second of abrupt silence that leaves the words that precede it ringing in the air.
Lighter footage — what Baiardi calls “tasking” scenes — is scored with less bass, sparser, high-pitched instrumentation, and physically smaller drums. This music often accompanies scenes of soothing upper-class chores: a woman wiping a clean cloth over a countertop the size of a sparkling glacier; a woman instructing her maid on how to pack her designer luggage; a woman in a maelstrom of dinner party preparations discovering her mother’s urn tucked beside the silver condiment bowls.
The Signature Tracks guys showed off their process from Howard’s home studio, which is crammed with equipment but neat, like NASA’s Mission Control Center if just one person worked there and had a taste for purple. The room is blessed by a small plaque recognizing Howard’s work on Jay-Z’s album “Vol. 3 ... Life and Times of S. Carter.”
A tense instrumental boomed from his speakers, but Howard decreased the volume until it was almost inaudible. “Now you can hear them talking,” he said. It was true; the music sounded more familiar — more Bravo-like — at a muted level. Every few seconds, three quick string notes in a minor key abruptly cut in — VHHVHHVHH — and fell silent. “There are these little string fills that give it that tension,” he said.
“They’re dropping in and out, which is creating room for dialogue,” Lasman added. “The dropouts are a really big part of actually telling the story.” They provide opportunities for close-up reaction shots. They suspend time to amplify uncomfortable moments.
“‘What did you say to me?’” Howard asked, playacting a fed-up Housewife, in one such silent pocket.
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Of all the musical cues on the “Housewives,” one has stuck with Levine since she began overseeing the franchise for Bravo 13 years ago. It’s played only once a season, she said, and only for Orange County. It’s a short instrumental for finale episodes that embodies “a bittersweet sense of sadness,” Levine said. “Like the end of summer.”
For most “Real Housewives” franchises, trips abroad, which find the women separated from their families and forced to cohabitate in a single luxury property from which there is no escape, represent the dramatic apex of a season.
“It’s usually someone from their post department,” Baiardi said, “calling us like, ‘Hey, we’re filming this week and — ‘ like this happens all the time ‘ — the girls are traveling to the Caribbean.’ ‘The girls are traveling to France.’ ‘The girls are going to China, so can you do some Asian-influenced Housewives cues?’”
An episode from the most recent season of Beverly Hills sees the cast travel to Germany, where one woman suffers an allergy-induced panic attack while horseback riding, after which, per Bravo’s official episode summary, “the ladies get emotional while visiting the Eisenman Holocaust Memorial and Berlin Wall.”
“We did some darker, like techno-y German kind of stuff, and then some Bavarian type of things,” Baiardi said, of the trip’s soundtrack. This stuff and these things manifested themselvesas heavy, angular synths and oompah-style tuba sounds sprinkled over traditional Bravo-ian folk music. The tracks bore titles like “Bavarian Barbie” and “Danube Dames.”
Creating a sonic template for a prior trip to Amsterdam proved more challenging.
“Dutch was tough,” Baiardi said. “‘Cause I was like, ‘What is the Netherlands?’ Something like that, I would literally go on YouTube and look up ‘Dutch music.’”
It’s important to differentiate the network’s shows by sound, but not stray too far afield from the hypnotic Bravo theme. Signature Tracks is currently working on an untitled Bravo docu-series Lasman describes as “kind of like the Housewives of San Antonio,” starring affluent women of Mexican descent living in Texas.
“We’re incorporating some light Latin sounds to it,” Howard said. “Just light. But enough.”
“We literally had to hide the fact that we were putting hip-hop in,” Lasman said of another Bravo show in the Signature Tracks repertoire: “Vanderpump Rules,” a “Real Housewives” spinoff that chronicles the lives of the staff at restaurants owned by the Beverly Hills Housewife Lisa Vanderpump. The cast skews a decade or two younger than most Housewives, with a raindrop of their liquid assets.
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The characters’ age difference is reflected in Signature Tracks’ “Vanderpump” brief: to create songs that could be Top 40 hits, minus the star performers. (Music by known artists is prohibitively expensive for regular TV use — so much so that parties thrown on camera are generally conducted in eerie silence, with the soundtrack added later.) Lasman describes “Vanderpump” music as “more aggressive” than a typical “Housewives” score;the sounds of an 808 drum machine are louder, the cymbals are deeper, and there is more overt hip-hop influence.
Signature Tracks has rebranded these sound files “beat-driven” so as not to “turn off” producers who might think “this isn’t necessarily a hip-hop show,” Lasman said. The company does provide music to some franchises that are explicitly hip-hop, like VH1’s “Love & Hip-Hop,” the casts of which consist primarily of people of color adjacent to the music industry. The principal cast of “Vanderpump Rules” is entirely white.
The biggest difference between a Drake song and a TV song that sounds like one is that the latter exists to be heard but not listened to. So it can slide comfortably under dialogue, instruments deemed distracting — like bells — are banned. Another obstacle: the spread of the sound of trap music.
“If you listen to this new movement of hip-hop, like Post Malone, like 21 Savage, Travis Scott,” Howard said, “the instrumentation is dark. It’s heavy. The tempo is slow.” Radio artists can use lyrics to enliven their songs. On Bravo, most “vocals” are people conversing at a reasonable volume (sometimes screaming). “If you take away the actual lyrics from that song, and you just play the beat,” Howard said, “the energy is lacking a bit to carry scenes.”
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The faux-Top 40 hits and other cues created by Signature Tracks all live in a huge online library, organized by keyword (“reflective,” “Middle Eastern”), that they believe has become something of an object of envy for competitors.
“We’ve created unique categories that are really easy to look at,” Howard said. “Here’s your News, your Urban News, Urban Reflective, Urban Uplifting.”
“We’ve had competitor libraries like steal our whole format of how we display the music,” he added. “Activities is now a genre. Beach Urban’s a genre now.”
The money in reality TV music is, in a sound, trliiiiiiing (the expensive sparkly cymbal tree noise), earning its creators enough to pad around their clear-smelling home studios in pristine $600 Virgil Abloh for Off-White sneakers.
The majority of the cash comes from royalties received any time a cue is played on television, calculated based on factors like a song’s duration, the time of day it aired and the show’s ratings. The rate decreases with each subsequent airing of an episode, but a cable network that fills midday hours with reruns can remain lucrative for years. TV placement can also be a profitable landing spot for composers’ extant, languishing musical creations. Unused songs Howard had written for the singer Seal formed the basis of Signature Tracks’ initial library.
Occasionally, the men behind the sound of “Housewives” tune in as viewers. More often, said Baiardi, after a day of scoring swimsuit shopping scenes, “It’s like, I just wanna watch ‘Game of Thrones.’”
A few months back, he bumped into a Housewife walking her dog near his home. They’d met a few times, at wrap parties, mostly. He asked what she was doing there.
The quotidian activities of her daily life, it turns out — her performing them, him creating ambient music about them — had allowed them both to purchase homes in the same lovely neighborhood. She had moved in down the street.