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As ‘Billions’ Wraps, a Look at the Wealth of Music References and Synchs on the Hit Show

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Few TV series show off their creators’ favorite songs and artists as explicitly as Billions, which outfits its characters in Metallica and Slayer T-shirts, makes a point of airing a Bob Dylan song every season, lovingly quotes Bruce Springsteen lyrics and integrates rapper Killer Mike into elaborate storylines. Writer and co-creator Brian Koppelman has a history in the record business, having worked A&R for Elektra in the late ’80s, then as a senior vp for EMI in the ’90s; he and longtime friend and co-creator David Levien unashamedly plug their influences into the show, through synchs, character development and dialogue.

As the show winds down — the 10th episode of the seventh and final season airs Sunday on Showtime — the showrunners discuss their musical choices, and clearing the rights for them, in a call from their New York-area homes.

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Brian, I’ve spoken with your father, the late record executive Charles Koppelman, a couple of times, including once about how rich the business had become during the CD boom in the ’80s and ’90s. What do you recall about working at labels at that time?

Koppelman: My father’s love of music was something that, despite his success and his business-side accomplishments, he would always default to. The thing that mattered to him was the music and I grew up listening to music through that prism. Even when I went off on my own and started finding my own enthusiasm, I would never forget the way he would look and sway to music when he was listening to it. When I was an A&R executive, my attention was with the artists and the songwriters and the people making the records. That’s what engaged me, so I can’t even speak to what the economics were like.

In episode 10 of this season, two characters quote Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and debate the song’s meaning. How much of that sort of thing in Billions is based on real conversations about music?

Koppelman: David and I have been best friends since we were 14 or 15. We’ve probably been on every side of the conversations [about] these artists that are referenced in the show. If you’re a serious music fan, you’re not just listening to it, you’re thinking about it and talking about it and arguing about it.

Levien: Early on, we got a few notes to the effect of, “Why are there so many pop-culture references? I don’t think people really talk that way.” We were saddened by that, because we do think people talk that way.

Koppelman: One of the absolute highlights for us, in an earlier season, is a moment where a character sings a line from “Atlantic City,” in an episode called “Chicken Town.” We needed to get Bruce Springsteen’s permission. We heard he was on vacation somewhere and read the scene outside and personally approved it. For us guys who know “Nebraska” by heart and spent countless hours at his concerts, that just meant the world to us.

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How challenging is it to get the rights for well-known songs, like Billy Joel’s “I Love These Days”?

Koppelman: [Music supervisor] Jim Black is the person who goes out and gets the clearances. The fact that Dave and I have a deep well of relationships in the business has been helpful a few times along the way, if there happens to be something that is tricky. We had many conversations with some folks in Billy Joel’s camp. That process has been incredibly smooth for us the entire run. Early on, we couldn’t get a Zeppelin song, but then, the next season, we did. Their process was so particular. You have to show everything.

In episode 3, you use KISS’ “A World Without Heroes” — not the best-known KISS song. What made you choose it, and what was the band’s reaction?

Koppelman: That song has always meant a lot to me. It’s co-written by Lou Reed, and his songs, both with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, have been in the show in meaningful ways. “A World Without Heroes,” off their [1981] album Music From “The Elder” — often that album is looked at as this moment in KISS’ career where they took a risk that backfired. But there are a couple of real gems on that record.

Levien: We don’t know exactly what their response was outside of the approval. We didn’t get any personal anecdotes that it meant anything to anybody.

Koppelman: Because we were on strike, we couldn’t promote the show, and it was important to us to keep fealty with our guild. [The Hollywood writers’ strike ended earlier this month after 148 days.] Normally, when that episode hit, [we] would have been on social media talking about the song and interacting with KISS people. But we couldn’t respond. If they would tweet at us or write on Instagram, we had to let it go. If it weren’t for the strike, I would have engaged with [KISS members] Paul [Stanley] and Gene [Simmons] in some public forum encouraging KISS to talk about the song. But that wasn’t able to happen.

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“Blind Willie McTell,” used in episode 8, when several main characters are at a shady, ritualistic meeting of political donors, is my favorite Bob Dylan song. Because it’s not as well known, does that make it less expensive, or easier to clear the rights?

Levien: We had a Dylan song in a big spot in every season — “Visions of Johanna,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” ending a season. With this one, even though it’s on a bootleg album, we’ve listened to it for years. The dark tone that gets at the heart of the corruption of the United States is so palpable on that song, even though he’s talking about a different era. It just seems so apt today. With the backdrop of all those privileged elite people playing those games with everybody’s lives, it just felt like the right choice.

Koppelman: [Dylan’s manager] Jeff Rosen, who obviously was involved in executing that sale of the rights, loves the show and expressed to us early on that he liked the way we used the songs and that we should not hesitate to ask whenever we wanted to. Even when they sold the catalog, it was clear to us that everyone understood the way we were using these Bob Dylan songs was something that worked for everybody.

Levien: There were a few times we wrote personal notes to the artists about what the song meant to us. Jim would come to us and say, “This one might be a little more challenging” and “share your personal connection.”

Example?

Koppelman: We wrote to Neil Young and explained why “Old Man” was a perfect song for the moment [in Season 5] and what the point of the scene was and immediately got a yes.

After the Billy Joel ballad dominates episode 9, in Episode 10, you start with the Jam and end on Slayer. Why “Reign In Blood”?

Koppelman: Every single season, Axe [Bobby Axelrod, the central billionaire] has worn a heavy-metal T-shirt and that band’s song has played. In Season 1, it was Metallica, in season 2, it was Megadeth. The way the song is used in this episode just felt right to us. Sometimes it isn’t really an intellectual process, it’s about a feeling.

We’re almost out of time. What’s different about working in the music business vs. the movie business?

Koppelman: Well, I’m 57. I was 29 back then. I did leave that business at 29. I don’t feel like an answer I give you in 30 seconds is going to speak to that.

Let’s end on a different note: How would you say the musical tone of this final season is unique?

Koppelman: You’re trying to distill it to its essence — who these characters are, strip stuff away.

Levien: And you’re running out of spots, and you want to use spots with maximum impact like [the Clash’s] “London Calling” [which closed the season 7 premiere], or a lesser-known one like [Jackson C. Frank’s] “Blues Run the Game” that we were carrying around forever. Spots were finally showing themselves where we could use these songs.

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