Throughout the Netflix docuseries Cheer, we learn so much about the sport and the athletes dedicating their lives to it. Each athlete faces unique struggles, on and off the mat, raising the question: Who cheers for the cheerleaders? Enter, Patrick Avard, a.k.a. CheerMusicPro.
Along with his team at New Level Music Productions, Avard creates over 100 mixes a season for college and All Star cheerleading teams, including the Navarro College Bulldogs, who are featured in Cheer. Mixes are a combination of songs, voice-overs, and sound effects used to pump up the crowd and build drama throughout a performance. From the introductory “It’s a dog-eat-dog world!” to one of Avard’s personal favorite lines, “Tastes like chicken” (a reference to Navarro’s rivals, Trinity Valley Community College, whose mascot is a cardinal), the remixes are all created by New Level Music.
“The judges and everyone else, they hear the music one or two times when they see the performance or whatever,” Avard told Vulture. “But the kids have to hear it over and over and over and over and over and over at practice and every time they perform. So my job is to inspire them to perform.”
Avard has created 65 Cheerleading World Championship–winning cheer mixes since about 2005, on top of the Daytona-sweeping mixes he makes for Navarro College. This year, at another All Star cheerleading competition called the Majors, Avard created 23 of the 26 competing teams’ mixes, including all six winners. He has four tracks featured in Cheer, including two practice tracks called the “New Level Music Soundtrack” that you can hear in the background, the mix for Texas Tech University, and Navarro’s own mix. (You know, the one you find yourself singing along with as you anxiously wait to see if the pyramid will hit.)
“People who haven’t been exposed to cheerleading, they don’t really understand it,” Avard laughs. “So, hearing this cheer mix, they’re like, Man, what is this? I’ve never heard anything like this. For us, it’s normal.” Vulture spoke with Avard about what goes into making a cheer mix and why it has us all yelling at our laptop screens.
What was your introduction into cheerleading music?
It happened by accident. I was still in college, cheering myself at Florida Atlantic University, and I was coaching at a small All Star gym. I needed someone to make music and I didn’t know anyone who could do it. A teammate of mine said, “Well, there’s these computer programs where you can make and mix music yourself.’ This was back in 2000. I bought the computer programs, installed ‘em on my computer, and I started learning how to set pieces of music together and put sound effects in.
How has cheerleading music changed since then?
It’s changed enormously in every single way, honestly. Back then, people were just cutting and pasting pieces of songs together. Now, we’re doing full, all-original production. We write and produce and arrange and compose virtually every piece of music in every mix. It’s all customized and soundtracked to the performance. The other thing that’s changed is, we’ve built a fan base for it, if you will. We have music releases and lyric videos and people follow the music of the teams that they love.
Can you explain the key elements of a cheerleading routine and how they’re typically represented in a mix?
So, the main components are your stunting — sometimes people combine that into one stunt section, sometimes two stunt sections — and then there are basket tosses. Then, they have standing tumbling and running tumbling, which is exactly what the name says. You have your dance component, and then you have your pyramid, and then you have jumps. Those are the main components. Whenever I build a mix, I sort of identify all the different sections and I try to coordinate the music to line up and change with transitions of the choreography. The main components of a cheer mix will be really powerful and energetic drums, sound effects that match the skills, custom vocals. Typically, for me, tumbling needs to be fast-paced and really amped up and energetic. The stunt sections are typically a little bit more open, a little bit more melodic. Then, pyramids. Sometimes people like to put a big emotional ballad in a pyramid. It makes it feel more dramatic and heartfelt. Then, the dance is just whatever the team feels like they can get down to.
With Navarro as our example, what are some of the themes you try to touch on when writing lyrics?
So, Navarro’s always had kind of an edgy, masculine sort of sound. They are co-ed, so I try to make sure there’s a good mixture of guy and girl artists. We don’t want anything that’s too soft or sounds like a ballad, so that’s one of the components that gives the mix the Navarro feel. From a sound-design standpoint, you’ll notice that they always have the dogs barking in the background, different things like that. Navarro, they’ve created a dynasty. They’re a 14-time national champion. So we always make sure that we write about their history. We talk about how many grand champions they’ve won. We talk about the titles in some clever and creative way. They always have a hip-hop dance, so we always make sure that their dance is a hip-hop style. Sometimes we might find ways to say clever or funny things about one of their biggest rivals that was brought out in the show. Maybe a bird reference. This year, we said, “Tastes like chicken,” which I thought was pretty clever.
How much say does Coach Monica have over what goes in the music? Since we know she’s the boss around here.
In 12 years of working together I can’t ever remember us making a dramatic change. She really does give me a lot of creative freedom and trusts the music process to me, which I appreciate because it allows me to be very open-minded and create what I’m feeling. But whatever she wants to change, she can change ‘cause she’s the queen.
At what point do you get a video of the performance and you get to start soundtracking it?
What I do is coordinate with the team and we set a date [for me to get the video], then I typically put my production date the following week. So, I put [the video] in the session and I start marking it and making notes. And then I close it out and I let it sit. That way it’s in my mind, so I can start thinking about it, but I haven’t really started the process yet. Then, the next week, whatever the production day is that we settle on, I wake up early that morning and I start from scratch, and I build the whole mix around the skills. To actually do the entire mix takes pretty much a whole day. It’s somewhere between 8 to 12 hours depending on how fast it comes together and how detailed things are.
Wow, so all at once. How do you decide the balance between music and straight up voice over?
It’s sometimes up to the client. I actually would prefer that the music have more melodic components. In all my research and polls and listening to the fan base and clients and what the industry wants, I feel like the thing that everybody remembers is the voice-overs. Almost nobody says, “Aw, man, you remember that one song where it says this,” but everybody always remembers when the voice-over hits with the skill in the right way and created that musical moment.
Yeah, I do feel like people who are encountering cheer mixes in the Netflix doc for the first time are really shocked by the voice-overs. Why do you think that is?
I think that people who haven’t been exposed to cheerleading, they don’t really understand it. So, hearing this cheer mix that they’re like, “Man, what is this? I’ve never heard anything like this.” For us, it’s normal. [Laughs.]
At the end of the day, the music is for the athletes and for the kids on the floor. It’s to inspire them to perform. The judges and everyone else, they hear the music one or two times when they see the performance or whatever. But the kids have to hear it over and over and over and over and over and over at practice and every time they perform. So, really and truly for me, my job is to inspire them to perform. My other job is to try to train the crowd and inspire the crowd to cheer and react at specific moments, by building the energy a certain way.
Could you explain what the New Level Music soundtrack is?
The New Level Music track is just a practice track, and we create a new one every year, just so that we don’t have to use the same one year after year after year. The purpose behind it is so that the teams have music to practice to until they get their actual routine music. And the second function of it is, it’s made to a constant beats per minute. So the tempo is the exact same throughout the entire mix. We have them video their routine to the count track for us and that’s what they send us to create the mix to. The reason for the constant beats per minute is so when we put it into our session, we just line it up and then mute sound, and we have the video there to create the music.
We didn’t even know they were filming a series until Monica called and told me one day, and I guess they had already been filming and practicing to it. And they contacted me and they said, “Hey, we’re a part of this Netflix series this year. Do you think that we can work it out to be able to use our music in the series?” And I said, “Yes, sure.” So after I started talking to the music supervisor, he said, “Well, we have all of this footage with this other practice track in there. Is that your music too?” And I actually did [the mix for] Texas Tech University as well.
Does creating mixes for all the top teams make it hard for you, as someone who enjoys cheerleading, to pick a favorite team?
Yeah, they’re all my favorites. I want them all to do so well. At this point in my career, I’m inspired to work with the best, so I take on opportunities that really inspire me. There are teams that I do that compete with other teams that I do, and everybody just kind of understands that that’s the way it has to be. One of the most important things for me is, I try to make each one of my clients feel like they’re my only client.
Do you have a gold-standard favorite mix you’ve ever done?
Oh, you put me on the spot with that! I don’t even know how I would choose one favorite. Each year I’m always trying to sort of raise the bar and set the bar. Can I give you a handful of favorites? I love Top Gun TGLC [Large Coed] this year, I thought that the idea in the theme and the way it turned out to the skills was really amazing. I really like Stingray Orange this year. You know, they’ve always had the Siri voice in their routines. We sort of got away from their style, I think, a little bit the last few years. So this year, I really focused on trying to go back to their original style. And I really like World Cup Shooting Stars. They did the whole New York theme, and we basically tried to take people through a trip in New York and see all the sights. They went through all the way to the ball dropping at New Year’s and then a trip down Broadway. I think that the sounds and the taxicabs and the horns beeping and everything that we did with the stock ticker sound just really captured what New York is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.