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The Music Man Behind 'Entourage' Shares His Secret

Originally published on November 20, 2011 4:32 pm

HBO's How to Make It in America airs its season finale Sunday, and if you listen close, you'll see what sets music supervisor Scott Vener apart.

"I think when I'm placing music, mostly at the end credits, what I'm thinking in my head is, 'I have 10 friends who I know love music, and if I can stump five out of those 10, then I won,' " he tells weekends on All Things Considered's Laura Sullivan. "Or if I can make them say, 'Oh my god, I remember that,' Then I won."

Vener got his start on the hit series Entourage, choosing unknown music to reflect the show's youthful energy and tone. His became known for discovering new music, but Vener says it's the music buffs online that really deserve the credit.

"A lot of the music I'm finding is sort of like what is bubbling on the Internet," Vener says.

He scours through conversations on his Twitter account and picks up on what music people are listening to. Vener says his own taste obviously plays a part, "but it's almost like watching trends."

A Song To Start A Pilot And End A Series

For the last scene of the Entourage pilot, Vener says he advised the show's creator, Doug Ellin, to use Jay-Z's "Lucifer," but ultimately, another song was chosen. After selling the show to HBO, Ellin showed the pilot to Vener, but got a strange reaction. Ellin asked Vener why he wasn't laughing.

"I'm not laughing because the music's so bad I can't even pay attention to the jokes,'" Vener replied. As he tells it, Vener played "Lucifer" again for Ellin, who was ultimately convinced to end the episode with the song.

Vener got known for picking obscure music on Entourage, yet ended the series on a classic. He knew he wanted Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" to be the final song as far back as three years ago.

"Everyone makes the biggest deal about the final song ever, and I wanted to find one song that I felt could top all the other songs," he says. "I would put that song as being in my top five favorite songs of all time."

Setting The Scene And Making A Hit

Vener's current show, How to Make It in America, follows two twenty-somethings as they try to make it big in New York City's fashion scene.

One scene ends with Bobby Womack's "110th Street" accompanying a character as he pushes his newly-purchased stove through the streets. Womack's lyrics are about pimps, hustlers and prostitutes in Harlem, but Vener felt the tone fit the moment.

"I thought it was a not-on-the-nose way of making you feel like he's surviving, you know, he's making it," Vener says.

For another episode, Vener used Theophilus London's "I Stand Alone" before the album was even released. The song became a hit, but again, Vener doesn't take the credit.

"It's a lot easier to recognize a hit than it is to make one," he says, "and very few of them come around."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A DOLLAR")

SULLIVAN: This is the theme song to the HBO show "How to Make it in America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A DOLLAR")

ALOE BLACC: (Singing) I need a dollar, dollar, dollar that's what I need, hey, hey. Well, I need a dollar, dollar, dollar that's what I need, hey, hey. Said I need...

SULLIVAN: It's a song by the soul singer and rapper Aloe Blacc which hit the mainstream thanks to the show's music supervisor Scott Vener. Vener got his start on the hit show "Entourage," a series which he began with Jay-Z and five years later ended with Led Zeppelin. And while Vener may have turned to the rock classics catalogue for his "Entourage" season finale, it's not usually where he finds his music.

SCOTT VENER: I would say primarily a lot of the music that I'm finding is sort of like what is bubbling on the Internet. And I feel like I'm finding it first because of the job that I have, but the people really online deserve the credit because I see them talking about it and then I sort of bring it from there to the next medium.

SULLIVAN: So they're kind of like your test tube for music.

VENER: Yeah. I mean, obviously, I have to have a certain amount of taste to decide which ones are going to make it, but it's almost like watching trends.

SULLIVAN: Well, let's talk about the last scene of the pilot for "Entourage," where all four main characters are kind of figuring out where they fit in. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ENTOURAGE")

KEVIN CONNOLLY: (As Eric) Hello?

JEREMY PIVEN: (As Ari) Hello, Eric.

CONNOLLY: (As Eric) Hey, Ari.

PIVEN: (As Ari) I'd like talk to Vince.

CONNOLLY: (As Eric) Yeah? He'd like you to talk to me.

PIVEN: (As Ari) Okay, playa. Tell him Colin Farrell took Matterhorn.

ADRIAN GRENIER: (As Vince) What'd he say?

CONNOLLY: (As Eric) Colin Farrel's doing Matterhorn.

GRENIER: (As Vince) I hope you know what you're doing, pizza boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCIFER")

SULLIVAN: So you picked that song, Jay-Z's "Lucifer," which, I mean, it seems like an obvious choice now. Once you hear it, it seems perfect for that scene. You told the show's creator, Doug Ellin, to use this song, but it wasn't even the original pick for the pilot.

VENER: No. It definitely wasn't the original pick. Basically, what had happened was Doug had sold the show to HBO, and he had already finished. And he wanted me to come to his house and watch the pilot. And he just wanted me to see what he had done, what I thought about it. And when I was sitting there, he was like, why aren't you laughing? And I'm like, well, I'm not laughing because the music's so bad I can't even pay attention to the jokes.

Later on, he's like, well, if you have any better choices for music, send them to me. And one day, we were sitting in my car - actually, his car. He was dropping me off at my house - and I was like, what about this song? And then I played him Jay-Z "Lucifer," and he was like, oh, my God. That's it. That's the one that we have to end on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCIFER")

SULLIVAN: Do you think that the music can shape or even alter people's perceptions of what they're watching?

VENER: Yeah. I mean, of course.

SULLIVAN: Like you can make it feel old and stodgy.

VENER: You can make it feel old or you can make it feel cool or you can make it feel sad. Like, as a joke, when we get stuck, me and the music editor, we would sit there, and there'll be a scene where it's like a comedic scene and then we'll send like a dramatic song just to see how it plays. And you can turn, like, what's supposed to be a really funny scene into feeling sad just by changing the music, you know? And we just - and you learn so much by that.

SULLIVAN: Now, normally, you pick rather obscure music. And in "Entourage," it's a lot - a lot of it is hip-hop, but in the series finale, I mean, you ended with a classic. You know, as the credits rolled, we heard Led Zeppelin's "Going to California."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING TO CALIFORNIA")

SULLIVAN: We can even change the mood of this interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: What made you pick this song?

VENER: Well, it's funny. I mean, that particular song, I knew I wanted to use it as the last song ever three years ago.

SULLIVAN: Three years before the show ended you knew you wanted to end the show on this song?

VENER: Yep. Like, you know, everyone makes a big deal about the final song ever, and I wanted to find one song that I felt could top all the other songs. And I would put that song as being in my top five favorite songs of all time.

SULLIVAN: We're talking with Scott Vener, and he's a music supervisor for some of HBO's original programs. You also choose all the music for this other HBO show "How to Make it in America," which - and this show follows two young 20-somethings as they try to make it big in New York City's fashion scene.

One of my favorite scenes in this past season of "How to Make it in America" involved the character of Cam. And he's just gotten this break, and he's sold some of his T-shirts. And he's finally got some money in his pocket, and he decides to buy a good stove for his apartment. And the episode ends with him pushing the stove through the streets of New York City with this huge smile on his face. And then we start to hear Bobby Womack's "110th Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACROSS 110TH STREET")

SULLIVAN: So why this song?

VENER: Well, I thought it was a not-on-the-nose way of making you feel like he's surviving, you know? He's making it. And obviously, you know, the Bobby Womack lyrics are about pimps and hustlers and prostitutes and, you know, what's going on in Harlem and he was, you know, he was surviving. I don't know, just the tone of it, that- see, that's like where the lyrics probably weren't as direct telling you the story but the emotion was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "ACROSS 110TH STREET")

SULLIVAN: In "How to Make it in America," you also made a hit out of Theophilus London's song "I Stand Alone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STAND ALONE")

VENER: I don't want to go out there and say that I particularly made the song a hit. Like, I always say this to people is that it's a lot easier to recognize a hit than it is to make one. And very few of them come around.

SULLIVAN: You used this song in the trailer before the album was even released.

VENER: Right. And so he and I developed a relationship through Twitter to the fact where he trusted me enough to send me his music before it was out. And he sent me like five or his songs that were coming out on his album, and that's how I chose "Stand Alone." I was like, this is the song.

SULLIVAN: When you were growing up, were you the kid who was always listening to really unusual music, or would we have found, you know, of Britney Spears and N'Sync in your CD player?

VENER: No, you would not have found Britney Spears and N'Sync in there, although we definitely listened to it. You know, it's weird. I think when I'm placing music, mostly at the end credits, what I'm thinking in my head is I have 10 friends who I know love music. And if I can stump five out of those 10, then I won.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VENER: You know, like, or if I can make them say, oh, my God, I remember that, then I won.

SULLIVAN: That's Scott Vener. He's the music supervisor for "How to Make it in America" which airs its season finale tonight on HBO. Scott, thanks for being here.

VENER: No problem. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STAND ALONE")

SULLIVAN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast, WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode tonight. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.