An advance screening of the Entourage movie is about to play for a theater full of excited, bro-y University of Southern California students. I’m in the audience, sitting next to Scott Vener, the man responsible for half of the long-running HBO series’ entertainment value: its soundtrack. A moderator introduces the movie, but Vener’s busy showing me his secret Instagram, the rare social media account not associated with his brokemogul moniker. He uses this account to follow a bunch of hardcore music nerds who post weird, left-field songs. We laugh at clips until his girlfriend, Allison, seated on his other side, gently puts his phone down. The movie is starting.
In a post-film Q&A, series creator Doug Ellin jokingly compares Vener to Vince’s beleaguered older brother, Johnny Drama. But during our afternoon-long conversation at his home in the Hollywood Hills the previous day, Vener less jokingly compared himself to Turtle, due to their professional ascensions. To me it seems as if he might actually be more of a Vince type on the low: talented, blessed, respected, successful, but nonetheless moving day-to-day as if what he does is no big deal. After getting to know him over the course of two days, though, it’s clear that as chill and Vince-like as he may be, he is indeed opinionated and passionate about his ear and his instincts in a way that supersedes any of the drive and work ethic of Entourage’s stars. “He’s a pain in the ass, but he knows what he wants and he trusts in his ear,” Ellin jokes with me later. (Ellin maintains that Vener, who mostly keeps to himself with Allison and their two dogs, would probably never actually hang with any of the four characters he’s helped make famous.)
A photo posted by Scott Vener (@brokemogul) on Mar 22, 2014 at 3:09pm PDT
A photo posted by Scott Vener (@brokemogul) on Mar 10, 2015 at 8:22pm PDT
Vener’s come-up is now the stuff of legend. A longtime friend of Ellin’s, Vener didn’t hold back when Ellin asked why he wasn’t laughing when his buddy showed him a cut of the Entourage pilot: “Because the music’s so bad I can’t pay attention to the jokes.” “It was super pop rap,” Vener recounts. “I was like, ‘They’re supposed to be cool guys from New York. They wouldn’t listen to that. You’re killing your show before it gets started.’”
Ellin, who’s known Vener for years through his ex-wife, only showed him the pilot as one of many close friends whose reactions he was gauging. “I showed it to him just to get his opinion,” Ellin says. “He just kind of honed in on the music.” Not long after, Vener played Jay Z’s recently released “Lucifer” during a car ride with Ellin, who was so into the song he declared it should score the pilot’s final moments.
Incidentally, a Jay Z song serves as Vener’s all-time favorite musical moment from the show. (Coincidentally, mine too.) It comes from “Give a Little Bit,” the Season 6 finale—you know, the one where E finally proposes to Sloan and Ari goes on a fuccboi-slaying paintball spree in his old office—an episode so good and, well, conclusive that it felt like the series finale. It ends with E happily hanging back from the next Vince-adventure with Sloan while “In My Lifetime,” one of Jay’s first songs, guides us into the end credits with that ethereal “What’s the meaning of life?” refrain. Jay and Ty Ty later ran into, or rather ran up on, Vener at an industry party and saluted him for his “genius.” Vener happily describes this as a rare groupie moment life highlight. It’s me who mentions that an earlier episode in the same season ended with another of his heralded genius moments—Empire of the Sun’s “Standing on the Shore.” When Empire’s Luke Steele appeared on the hook for the intro to Jay’s Blueprint 3 that same year, he cited “Sunday night HBO” as the influence for the collab. Vener isn’t a boastful guy though, and the only time he comes close is when introducing me to his brother, also a professed music nerd. “But I understand the swag,” he teases.
And that’s how it goes with Scott Vener. His influence and his reach are not lost on him, nor is he fake-humble. But he’s not ego tripping, either. It’s merely factual. Thanks to him having great taste, a good ear, and some key connections (and to The Sopranos for jumpstarting the art form of the end-credit song), he's been able to create a lifestyle that he describes as “getting paid to listen to music on his couch.” After the Entourage pilot, Vener still wasn’t officially a part of the show. Instead, he was still in New York at the management job he held before the show took off—a firm that, ironically, specializes in helping noteworthy musicians transition into acting. It's at that job where he built lasting relationships with the likes of Pharrell and Justin Timberlake. Despite that, Ellin continued to unofficially source Vener’s opinion with a list of songs he and the show’s first music supervisor planned to include. Unsurprisingly, Vener would more or less rip that list to shreds.
“It’s not that the music wasn’t good,” says Vener. “It just wasn’t the type of music that I listened to. I was like, ‘Why don’t you guys just make me a music consultant? I don’t have to get paid. [It's] just so I can get some credit for what I’m doing. I’ll do the rest of the season with you.’ I would send them the music that I liked, and they would try to edit the music that I liked into spots.”
By Season 2, he was getting paid $700 an episode and took the title of the show’s original music supervisor. “I was like the real-life Turtle because Doug would look at the music supervisor’s pitches and then look at me and be like, ‘What do you think?’” And, well, we all know how that went. But the transition wasn’t so swift.
“He was very helpful in the early going, but I didn’t trust him yet,” Ellin admits. That all changed when Vener was first to champion Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay,” arguing for its place as season 2's promo music. HBO went with “some rock song,” Vener recalls, and later, as we all know, “Pon de Replay” became the hit record he said it would, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The trust set in, and the former supervisor soon left. However, Vener is quick to clarify: “We joked about it later. He’s an awesome music supervisor. It had nothing to do with his musical taste. It was just, I think, different than what I was listening to because I was living [on] the East Coast listening to East Coast hip-hop, being around the music scene in New York, and just wanted it to feel like my friends felt.”
It’s those friends—10, to be precise—who influenced much of his early work. Those were the people he was trying to impress with each episode, like a DJ using a premium cable channel as a turntable. Once Entourage caught on and people started emailing Ellin “What was that song?” Vener developed a three-pronged strategy for song selection: “I either want something that no one else has used, which is brand new, or something nobody’s heard of yet because I found it on my own. Or reintroduce an amazing song that people loved, but so it could be seen through the eyes of this new world.” In other words, making Philistines on the Net freak out over “Lady Don’t Tek No” as if it were brand new, earning the series enough clout to get the very first copy of “Good Life” from Kanye and Gee Roberson (see: Season 4’s “No Cannes Do”), and paying a grip just for a snippet of “Luchini” in the series highlight “Vegas Baby, Vegas.” (The sample was never cleared.) And then, of course, there’s the end credits where Vener truly flexed his tastes. “It always ended on a cliffhanger-ish vibe, and the end credit song usually had some sort of undertone of a darker element to it. That was what made the end credit stuff so fun. Most of the stuff in the middle of the episode is generally energy to push the story forward, to push the scene forward. Those songs are cool, but to me, the most interesting music is the stuff that was darker and had different changes in it that made it either more eclectic or interesting.”
As the show’s quality waned during its last two or three seasons, the soundtrack grew even better and bolder, to the point where Vener remembers Ellin happily passing along a press clipping that declared “the only good thing about Entourage right now is the music.”
Even as his profile rose with the series, Vener, a hardcore poker player, who headed to the World Series of Poker a few days after our chat, viewed it as more of a game than anything else. “Stumping” is his favorite verb to describe his overall goal, which is to subvert the expectations of eagle-eared viewers who tried to predict which songs he’d use and where. The stumping takes place in the house he’s invited me to, in a backroom that serves as his office. A twin speaker setup and an iMac with an extra monitor make up a workspace littered with various musical instruments and a couple of framed stories, one from Billboard with the pull quote: “Anything that is currently charting, if it's been in our show, it's because I had it first, and it wasn't charting when I locked the music in.” A massive “"history of music” poster that he’s excited to finally receive will probably adorn the far wall. And, of course, two or three pairs of headphones, given that his preferred work process begins around 11 p.m. and extends into the wee hours of the morning.
“Before the seasons start, the physical producer will come to me and say, ‘Can you make a library of stuff for the editors to choose from?’” Vener says of his process. “I’ll basically build a soundscape. I’ll put in 50 hip-hop songs, 50 rock songs, 50 weirdo songs. I’ll have a folder for transitional cues, where maybe the whole song isn’t good but maybe there’s a cool riff in it that would be good for a three- to five-second transition. Then I’ll make another box for cheap songs that have good energy to them, so when you’re trying to be conscious of the budget this is what you should use. Then they usually do a pretty good job of lining up where the cues should go in, when they should start, and they’ll cut to [the song]. Then, the director does his thing. Once they’re done with that cut we’ll get a producer's cut, and that’s when I see it for the first time. I usually take out every single song that they put in [from my own folder] and put in my music.” Which is to say, both newer music that’s closer to the episode’s premiere date and weirder choices that he knew would never survive the first round of the process to begin with.
“YOU’VE GOT TO FIND PEOPLE WHO ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT MUSIC. I’VE BEEN CURATING PASSIONATE MINDS. THAT’S HOW I DISCOVER MOST OF MY NEW MUSIC.”
Then comes the stumping. “What I like to do—I’ll give away my cheat sheet because I’m getting old now and I want to retire—is when I find a song that’s brand new that is breaking, hasn’t broken yet but you just know that it separated itself from every other song because it’s a hit, I’ll go and look on SoundCloud, Tumblr, and blogs and reverse-engineer it. Let’s say on Tumblr I’ll type in the name of the song, and I’ll go and see which kids have it the earliest. Then I’ll go to their blogs, and I’ll be like, ‘OK, they were onto this that early. What else are they onto that no one knows about?’ and start following those kids. That's how I create my filter of where to listen and find stuff. You’ve got to find people who are passionate about music. I’ve been curating passionate minds. That’s how I discover most of my new music.”
There’s no stumping in the Entourage movie, which he admits was one of the downsides of scoring the Queens boys’ adventures for the big screen. After all, this is the same guy who’d throw out his own music picks before a season of Entourage in favor of more current tracks. Films are typically finalized much earlier than TV episodes—trying to keep up with pop culture would just render it a time capsule. (Case in point: Vener appears in the film alongside real-life friend Pharrell, who insisted on wearing his then-trademark Vivienne Westwood hat in his scene. So, now no one will ever question when the movie actually filmed.) The solution? Eschewing hyper-currency for older classics. At least, that was my initial perception of why welcomed but unexpected songs like “We Fly High” pop up. Vener’s explanation is even more practical. “Today’s rap is cough syrup,” he says. “If the movie were a little darker, then maybe, but….” Indeed, the movie doubles down on the “everything will work out” mission statement—the final scene goes out on a ’90s classic with a vibe that arguably no contemporary song could match. (Fittingly, one of the the very few new-school voices heard during the film belongs to Drake. Because, of course it does.)
Back at USC, most of the Q&A is understandably directed toward Ellin, but the attention shifts to Vener when an audience member asks how he can become a successful music supervisor. Vener is unflinchingly honest and frank: He has no real answer. The job literally fell into his lap, and it’s one he never had much interest in, either. “It’s not like I stayed through the credits of every movie I watched to see who the music supervisor was,” he responds. (Although he does have favorite movie soundtracks, which include Harold & Maude, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Above the Rim, and The Last American Virgin.) He’s quick to add that as cool as the job is, it doesn’t pay much. “If I were a rapper, then music supervising would be my mixtape.” In other words, it’s a project to keep him current, relevant, and moving forward to bigger things. (After the Q&A, he exchanged info with the kid who posed the question.)
There are a lot of things someone with Vener’s powers could do. Despite his reputation, his music supervisor credits remain tightly curated. He’s not flooding the streets with superfluous mixtapes, as it were. The only outlier is the CW’s 90210 sequel, one of the few series he’s worked on that’s not produced by Mark Wahlberg’s Closest to the Hole productions. And that is precisely why he took it on. “When I first took the 90210 job I felt like the music had to go through so many different filters,” Vener says. “Whether it be the writer of the episode, the director of the episode, the showrunner. Then it got network notes, and there were two different networks. There’s no music that could go through that many different filters and make it through everything. It would be homogenized by the time it got through it.” With so many people to appease, the end result was often what Vener refers to as “safe music.”
“I’ve been asked to, but to be honest I don’t know if I would be a good A&R.”
“That, to me, is boring. If that’s all you want then you don’t need to hire a music supervisor; just look what’s on the Billboard list of 1 through 100, pick through those songs, and go.” Luckily for Vener, 90210’s executive producer at the time, Rebecca Sinclair, was looking to push the envelope with the music choices, which is why Vener stuck around from the show’s second season through to its fourth.
But the million dollar question is, of course, why the hell isn’t a guy with an ear this fucking good an A&R? With so many platinum mixtapes, if you will, under his belt, why not sign to a major label already (literally and figuratively)?
“I’ve been asked to, but to be honest I don’t know if I would be a good A&R,” he says. “I’m not sure that I am the person who can hear a song and say, ‘If you took this out it would be better.’ I know when I like [a song]. If you told me, ‘OK, this is my final song. Do you think I should put this out?’ I can give you an answer, yes or no. I couldn’t tell you, ‘If you just change this chord progression, change this top line part of it,’ and all that. I don't know that I would give the best instructions.”
For now, Vener’s future lies with Undrtone, the free app he helped create which he describes as Instagram for music. Once again, he came upon it incidentally.
“I had this idea," says Vener. "I was single back then, and I kept noticing every conversation that I was having with girls would either take place on Facebook Chat, Skype, or Instant Messenger.” He noticed that the conversations eventually led to an exchange of music across the various platforms. His solution was to develop a service whose main focus is the conversation around the exchanging of music.
Vener carried the idea with him to Myspace in 2012, where worked as lead music editor and curator, at Justin Timberlake’s personal invitation. He mentioned the idea to one of his co-workers in passing right before Christmas, and when they returned to the office after the holiday, said colleague had some news. “He was like, ‘I prototyped the app.’ I was like, ‘What? You prototyped the app?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m going to do this meeting, and I’m going to come back and show it to you.’” remembers Vener. “I'm sitting there stunned in my office waiting for like two hours for him to come back. He showed me the first build of it, then we took it from there.” At the time, Vener and his crew saw that streaming services were the future of the music business. They got the idea to aggregate all the services into one place so users could easily discuss and exchange any song regardless of where it was housed. “What I thought was happening in the business, and I still think is happening, is that all these different services are fragmenting the relationship between artists and fans,” he says.
The Undrtone interface is clean and fun. There are some big rollout plans underway that he can’t discuss in detail. If he ever flips it, the plan is immediate retirement. His first purchase with his new fortune will be the social media handle Richmogul, which someone already has.
He also says he would quit as soon as his payout was issued if he ever won the grand prize at one of the World Series of Poker tournaments. He doesn’t have one foot out the door, though. I watched him reverse-engineer his end credits process for an episode he’d just submitted for Ballers, HBO’s upcoming half-hour dramedy starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an Entourage of sorts for the football universe. On top of that, he lent his talents to upcoming Sundance darling Dope, for the fun moreso than the money (“I did it for nothing and had a great time”). And mixtapes or no, he still has goals for music supervising. Despite his accomplishments, dude still hasn’t been offered (or rather offered the right) opportunity to do a one-hour drama, a project he aspires to take on. Preferably something gritty, a true successor to The Sopranos’ legacy.
That dream gig may come soon enough. For now, Vener lives a normal life in Hollywood with his girlfriend and their two dogs, not as Hollywood as one would assume. But, just like his work life, he’s surrounded by Hollywood types. “A-Rod lives over there,” Vener says, pointing, “the house with the tree that’s fucking blocking my view.” And across the street is none other than notorious bad-boy jetsetting womanizer Dan Bilzerian, himself a record poker player, whose pet goats can be heard bleating at random day and night, to say nothing of the sleaze parties Bilzerian hosts regularly. Yes, the man known as brokemogul lives in a normal house between two rich douchebags with even douchier properties. But with a reputation that only keeps climbing, and more opportunities arising like Undrtone, Vener may soon level up, from brokemogul to richmogul. (Relevant spoiler alert: in the Entourage movie, Turtle’s since joined Vince’s tax bracket.) Until then, though, Vener’s, perhaps half-jokingly, thinking about leasing his roof to the paparazzi unless his rich neighbor finally cuts that damn tree.