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Scores of Podcasts: How They Make the Music of ‘Up and Vanished,’ ‘Serial’ and More

When he boarded the plane to fly out to Colorado, Matt Pusti was thinking about something striking that true-crime podcaster Payne Lindsey said to him about his destination. Pusti — AKA Makeup and Vanity Set and one-half of You Drive — was heading to Denver and then to Crestone, the small, enigmatic mountain town at the center of a mysterious disappearance and thus the topic of Season 2 of Up and Vanished. Pusti was scoring Lindsey’s show, one of severals pairings for them. 

“What he essentially said was, ‘Crestone is Twin Peaks-meets-The Shining,’” Pusti told Vehlinggo in a Skype interview in December. A comparison like that is loaded with intrigue: Twin Peaks was a modestly-sized town with an immodestly-sized underbelly of peril, and we all know what happens amid the natural mountainous beauty in Stanley Kubrick’s film (and, of course, Stephen King’s book).

Twin Peaks comparisons are tossed around like spent cigarettes in a David Lynch picture, though. It’s a convenient frame of reference for music and film, but what’s it really mean in this case?

You Drive Makeup and Vanity Set
Matt Pusti (Makeup and Vanity Set) without a mask (left) and Jasmin Kaset (right) are You Drive. Photo by Bill Reynolds.

Pusti would soon see first-hand what kind of place he’d inhabit temporarily as he took field recordings and developed an understanding of the nature of Crestone from which he could craft his haunting score for Up and Vanished. The “dusty, tiny” old mining town that’s now a refuge for practitioners of New Age spiritual paths and nonconventional philosophies has a surreal quality about it.

“It’s… the kind of place where you can pull up in your rental car, get out, and you can literally feel the eyes on you,” the Nashville-based Pusti says. “You feel like you’re being watched. It’s a tiny place and people are immediately like, ‘You’re not from here.’ There’s a surrealness and creepiness to that.”

On top of it, “we knew the context of why we were there. A young woman [Kristal Reisinger] had disappeared. So there was an element of danger to it, too,” he said. “I immediately had the realization that Payne was dead-on: the beauty and majesty of the space and expanse of it were 100 percent The Shining and it had the surreal [feeling] and creepiness of Twin Peaks.”

Listeners would go on to stream and download Season 2 of Up and Vanished more than 17 million times last year (and that was just half-way through the season), according to Fast Company. (Season 2 would go on to win Best Crime podcast at the iHeartRadio Podcast awards.) Add to that the other Lindsey podcasts that Pusti has scored as Makeup and Vanity SetAtlanta Monster and the recently released Monster: The Zodiac Killer, both with numbers in the several-million downloads — and that’s way more ears than he gets from his albums. As with film and TV scores, podcast work is a massive opportunity for composers.

Some stats put the number of U.S. podcast listeners at an estimated 73 million, with global revenues at $400 million — apace to exceed $600 million by next year. 

Makeup and Vanity Set scored 'Atlanta Monster,' a podcast by Tenderfoot TV and HowStuff Works.
Makeup and Vanity Set scored ‘Atlanta Monster,’ a podcast by Tenderfoot TV and HowStuff Works.

The popularity of podcasts has given rise to a compelling and creative offering of shows in both the fictional and nonfiction realm. Reported, true-crime series like
Serial and Up and Vanished are, as mentioned earlier, routinely downloaded and/or streamed at sizable volumes. But there is also a strong presence of shows on the fictional front, such as Marvel’s Wolverine-centered Wolverine: The Long Night and Fangoria’s The Narrow Caves. Either way, in a world in which people are multitasking, on-the-go, or just don’t want to stare at a screen, a podcast can be a fascinating or downright fun way to learn something and be entertained.

Although the topics and approach might vary across those podcasts listed above, one thing common to them is that they have a score. That is, a composer has, as with a film or TV show, written a host of score cues to complement the storytelling. Some examples: Up and Vanished, and the related Monster podcast series, owe their engaging music to Makeup and Vanity Set. Composer Adam Dorn lent his musical talents to the third season of Serial. Binary Reptile powers The Narrow Caves and Deru provides the music for Wolverine

It seems natural that a podcast like the Vincent d’Onofrio-starring The Narrow Caves would have a full score — it’s billed by Fangoria parent Cinestate as an “ear movie” that combines “the grandiosity of Hollywood films with the intimacy of audio.” Binary Caves offers delectable Carpenteresque fare to support the story.

Lindsey’s excellent Up and Vanished and Monster series sport potent scores that transcend what you’d attach to a typical true-crime series. For the former, Pusti goes a subdued route, tapping into the intimate power of composers such as Cliff Martinez and Johnny Jewel, combined with some seriously poignant field recordings. For shows like Atlanta Monster or the newer Monster: The Zodiac Killer, Pusti offers up synth scores that are more inline with his own musical offerings. For his part, Dorn lends a cinematic intent to Serial.

Atlanta Monster was very synthesized and wore that on its sleeve,” Pusti says. “[For Up and Vanished Season 2] I wanted to be careful — I wanted it to feel very cinematic but wanted… to make sure that synthesis played a huge role as an undercurrent.”

Crestone Up and Vanished Makeup and Vanity Set
A sign that reads, “Welcome to Crestone, established 1880, elevation 8000.” Located on Birch Street in Crestone, Colorado. Photo by Jeffrey Beall. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Scoring Crestone

Pusti, who is now essentially an in-house composer for Lindsey’s Tenderfoot TV and HowStuffWorks’s various television and podcast projects, has taken different approaches to scoring as he’s been involved in more projects.

Though Lindsey’s true-crime podcasts have very distinct narratives to them such that they feel like dramatic works, Pusti says he doesn’t approach scoring them that way.

“In the world that I’ve inhabited with podcast scoring, it always makes way more sense to score it on a segment basis,” he says. “Not that it’s piecemeal, but as things change or the story can change or you have an interview that changes the trajectory about how an episode is constructed, scoring as segments or writing music outright provides you with a looseness or spontaneity. Scoring as a completely episodic thing sort of loses that feeling of a story/puzzle unfolding.”

Pusti’s music for Atlanta Monster last year reflects more of the straightforward, synth-driven fare for which Makeup and Vanity Set has been known for years. Fans of his releases such as 88:88, Chrome, and Jogger would easily embrace the Atlanta Monster score’s darkly kinetic and pulsating synths.

Compare that to Up and Vanished Season 2, in which Pusti employs far more enigmatic and crystalline ambient synths, paired smoothly with atmospheric sounds and field recordings from his aforementioned trip to Crestone.

“[Lindsey] has a ton of confidence in what he’s doing,” Pusti says. “I like working with him, because… we trust each other — we just work together really fast and really well.”

Lindsey mandated that Pusti and the podcast crew actually go to Crestone to truly get a grasp of it. When Pusti stepped out of the rental car with two producers and walked around — meeting Lindsey in person for the first time — he was exposed viscerally to places like Reisinger’s apartment, which was the last place she was seen alive. Pusti also talked to a fair amount of locals to truly understand the nature of Crestone.

The dichotomy of the Black and White Lodges from Twin Peaks would seem to be a feature.

“Everyone we talked to in Crestone said there’s a light and a dark [side of things] — the ying and the yang,” Pusti says.

Crestone is a site of many spiritual centers — people believe it rests on the site of an important connection to things outside the plain sensory sphere — and so there’s a lot of talk about certain forces at play.

“There’s no way I’d ever discount any of those people’s experiences,” he says. “Those are their experiences and there’s something really beautiful about that that really haunted me. For a considerable amount of time here on out, Crestone will probably be with me, because it was an odd experience being there.”

Serial: The Pioneer

Adam Dorn — AKA “Mocean Worker,” and composer for documentaries such as Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind and Alex Gibney’s Enemies — took the reins for the third and most-recent season of the Sarah Koenig-hosted Serial. It’s the most-popular true-crime podcast — and probably the most popular podcast full stop. The show’s three seasons were downloaded 420 million times as of December, with Season 3 accounting for 50 million of those downloads, according to Vulture. Again, far more exposure for Dorn’s music than a traditional album.

Unlike Seasons 1 and 2, which focused on cases involving specific individuals, Season 3 of Serial zoomed in on the dysfunctional criminal-justice system as witnessed around the greater Cleveland area. The producers of the show didn’t dictate to Dorn any special intent or mood or color for the music, but instead it was “more about me asking them questions about the arc of specific episodes and what kind of feel and palette [they wanted],” Dorn told Vehlinggo in a Skype interview.

But he didn’t want to know the whole story, he said.

“As a fan of the show, I also told producer Julie Snyder, ‘Don’t ruin it for me.’ I didn’t want to know everything,” Dorn says. Stylistically, the producers wanted the score to feel urban, but didn’t want some contrived urban sound, he says.

“There was a lot of effort put into this to not make it feel like listening to a podcast,” Dorn says. “I was given free rein to really craft the musical aspect of the show. I wanted it to feel cinematic.”

Of course, much of the program is spoken word and he wouldn’t want to overpower the story. But there are what Dorn says are called “post melodies” that he says Snyder invented. They manifest after certain moments in the show as a kind of memorable punctuation that doesn’t detract from the narration.

“It’s set up so, when appropriate, it can stand out with a hook/melody,” he says, noting he puts a reverb tail on it for added flow and effect.

For his first foray into podcast scoring, Dorn had a rewarding experience.

“The Serial team was an incredible group of folks to work with,” he said. “They have it so dialed in — the whole This American Life production crew. I was constantly surrounded by folks that really knew what they want and really knew how to explain it. It was never vague; as a composer it gives you so much freedom because you just know what’s expected.”

From its first episode, Serial set the template for reported true-crime podcasts.

“I think everyone who listens to true crime has heard the first season of Serial,” Pusti said. “I remember listening to it and thinking that the storytelling that’s taking place here is fascinating. It’s done in such a succinct way.”

Benjamin Wynn (AKA Deru). Photo by Tim Navis.

Superheroes and Horror Stories

Pusti and Dorn have established that nonfiction podcasts can pull off having full scores with ease — I would contend that it’s preferred. But fictional stories — radio plays, ear movies, full-on scripted, serial narratives — are of course a quite natural medium for score work.

I previously interviewed Benjamin Wynn, commonly known as Deru, after the release of Wolverine: The Long Night, a podcast that plays like a cop show with some superhero and even horror undertones. It was the first scripted podcast from Marvel New Media and Stitcher. It was also the first podcast that Wynn scored.

The plot centers on two FBI agents, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Ato Essandoh, who are investigating a series of murders in rural Alaska that they think a man named Logan (AKA Wolverine) committed. Meanwhile, Logan is trying to hide from the world.

Apple named it one of the best podcasts of 2018. It won the 2019 iHeartRadio Awards for Best Scripted Podcast. Season 2 is coming soon.

Director Brendan Patrick Baker is known for his production work on Love + Radio, a podcast that featured an innovative execution of sound and music. He had a knack for taking a large body of music to choose from and edit it in every which way into the podcast’s narrative.

That meant that scoring for Wolverine wasn’t merely an exercise in composing to a script or even the recorded audio. Because of the way Baker approaches music in his podcasts, Wynn’s approach had to rise to Baker’s experimental spirit. He succeeded profoundly.

“[Baker] was used to editing around pre-existing music, so I realized that maybe the smartest approach would be for me to deliver him a library — a group of cues for specific feelings and scenarios — that he could then start editing the episodes around,” Wynn said in that interview with Vehlinggo last year. “After that, he could give them back to me for further edits…”

“I delivered everything stemmed out, so that he could have the freedom to make edits, if he needed,” Wynn said. “That can be a scary proposition, because it’s like giving someone the keys to your car and you don’t really know if they can drive stick. It’s not something that a lot of composers would necessarily suggest.”

Wynn got behind Baker’s approach, because he trusted him and could see that the narrative might require it.

“Podcasting seems to be one of those mediums where a lot of the times it might be helpful to have the music first, so you can edit around it,” Wynn said. “I didn’t want to get in the situation in which he was using temp music and I was redoing it. That wouldn’t feel very creative.”

The end result is an evocative but tempered score — electronically centered with threads of the Old West — that plays to the narrative strengths of the show without trying to teach the audience how to feel.

The S. Craig Zahler story, Fangoria’s The Narrow Caves, is an eight-episode series that features voice acting by Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Lili Simmons, and Wyatt Russell, and a score by Binary Reptile. Given its provenance, it’s obviously a horror story. It follows two people as they fall in love in upstate New York in the midst of some kind of evil presence in the forest.

It takes a different approach to fictional storytelling than Wolverine. Wolverine didn’t have a narrator, so it often felt like you were encountering interactions and plot points as they happened, like a fly on the wall. The Narrow Caves features narration by Will Patton, a noted audiobook narrator in addition to being a successful character actor. The listener is led through the story, as each mysterious circumstance unfolds.

Though different shades, both Wolverine and The Narrow Caves have scores that augment their storytelling. The latter uses the music of Binary Reptile, a duo consisting of Zahler and friend Jeff Herriott, in a more traditional synth-score format. There is the story, and scene- or theme-specific cues are deployed to support the scenes playing in your ear. It definitely flows more like a motion picture that way.

The result is an enriching, if more traditional, experience.

Selling Podcast Scores

Even in the face of more and more podcasts relying on full scores from gifted composers, there isn’t a ubiquitousness of those scores in record stores — not like what you find for film and TV. But some of the music mentioned in this piece is available.

You can find Atlanta Monster and Up and Vanished Season 2 in digital stores. Pusti has the latter on his MAVS Bandcamp page and it joins the former in the streaming and download realm. There doesn’t appear to be any physical release for these yet. Binary Reptile’s score for The Narrow Caves, repurposed as Crawl into the Narrow Caves, is available from Lakeshore Records through those aforementioned digital realms. Dorn’s Serial score is also available.

It’s great that these are accessible — if listeners enjoy the music they should be able to get it outside the podcast space. Millions of people have been exposed to the likes of Makeup and Vanity Set and Adam Dorn/Mocean Worker because of their respective gigs. Releases are a great opportunity to service both those new fans and existing ones.

When Lindsey’s team wrapped on Atlanta Monster, Pusti approached HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot TV with the proposition to release the soundtrack. Such releases were few and far between, Pusti says. His pitch was that they could release the soundtrack under MAVS and put it out there for the fans and the seekers.

“On one hand, you have people a little curious to listen to a soundtrack from a podcast — they’re into the cinematic aspect of it. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how people who are fans of my work on records and things done in past respond to the soundtrack,” Pusti said. “It’s a different animal, a collaborative thing.”

Atlanta Monster was easier for the typical MAVS fan to digest.

“It was within the wheelhouse,” Pusti says. “It was a track-based, synthesized release.” Contrast that with Up and Vanished. “When it came time to compile and collate the record, it became clear it was going to be more of a headphone thing.”

Whether he’s crafting typical MAVS fare or headphone music, it’s clear that Pusti has found an important avenue for self-expression and for furthering the exposure of his work to the masses. For his part, Dorn has done all right, too, and had a blast while doing it.

“The type of composers who like writing for the sake of writing music will love podcast scoring,” Dorn says. As for the Serial/This American Life team in particular, “I would love to continue working with them.”

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