By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood February 18, 2011 at 6:18AM
The heyday of the movie soundtrack--once a powerful marketing tool for the studios--has waned. But Oscar nominations can boost a soundtrack into big sales, reports Anthony D'Alessandro:
When it comes to recent soundtracks and film scores, consumers have been powering down their stereos. Over the last four years, SoundScan sales for the genre fell from 27.2 million in 2006 to 16.4 million last year -- a 40% drop.
What was once a dependable ancillary for a film’s theatrical launch is now seen as a business gamble; record companies can no longer depend on the wallets of single males. Aside from burgeoning digital downloads and piracy, the major studio music executives also gripe that there’s a disconnect between radio listeners and movie crowds. Rap dominates the Top 40, leaving no room for a pic’s adult-contempo "love theme." MTV limits soundtrack music vids to a small percentage of film footage-- so that it doesn't play like a second trailer.
It’s extremely difficult to get record labels to focus on soundtracks. It was once a boom business,” says Fox music president Robert Kraft, recalling the ‘90s, when romantic epics like The Bodyguard -- the highest-grossing soundtrack in the SoundScan era – racked up sales of $11.8 million. “Today record companies prioritize their artists’ careers,” adds Kraft.
Thank God for the Oscars. While the Academy skipped performances of the best songs last year, they'll be back this year and the kudocast always puts a spotlight on score and song nominees. This year’s contenders can bank on a much-needed boost in weekly sales.
Current sales for some song and score nominees number as follows: Hans Zimmer's Inception score (62,000), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ The Social Network score (61,000+), Disney’s song-nominee Tangled score (74,000) and A.R. Rahman’s song-and-score nominee 127 Hours (under 7,000 units). In 2009, song/score Oscars for Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire tracks propelled that album’s sales to 403,000 while the 2008 best song win for “Falling Slowly” from Once jumped that disc’s weekly sales up 143% in the frame following the kudo telecast.
As bad as film music execs think they have it, the upside is that their old business formula still works, just not at a rhythmic pace: Both a film and its soundtrack/score album can simultaneously peg high on their respective box office and Billboard charts. Recently, the No. 2 bow of Paramount’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never triggered a 145% sales bump for the singer’s “My World 2.0” to the No. 3 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart. That’s not all: a re-release of his >b>Never Say Never album was rereleased with a remix cut on Valentine’s Day; it is projected to also churn out decent sales.
The major studios’ ability to harness serendipity lies in syncing a score or soundtrack to the soul of the film. And when the marriage between sound and big screen emotion strike the right chord, it’s fireworks.
A rundown of how film and music have successfully intersected:
--It may not be the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, but Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith’s music video “Never Say Never” topped YouTube’s download list in early June, arguably luring Bieliebers to spend $55.7 million to see The Karate Kid opening weekend.
--Carefully curated by music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, Twilight album’s alternative romance tracks by Muse, Paramore and Iron & Wine have plucked the hearts of 3.5 million globally, not to mention the album debuted on the Top of Billboard’s top 200 in 2008.
--Apart from swooning Academy voters who’ve awarded the classic label three straight annual best song Oscar wins (for Once, Slumdog Millionaire and Crazy Heart), Fox Searchlight’s soundtracks continually speak to a wide crowd who’ve snapped up Garden State (1.4 million), Juno (1.05 million) and Crazy Heart (320,000). “I wish I could tell you that the success with the product was by some grand design, but Searchlight offers high class pictures with high class songs,” says Kraft. Many of the albums’ tracks are from fresh faces, a frugal way to meet studio chiefs’ demands for cost cuts.
--Projects where music is inherent to the property are prime. Of the Top 50 ranking SoundScan soundtracks in 2010, eight belonged to Glee records which collectively rang up 3.6 million sales.
--A score is worth its weight in licensing. Says Warner Bros. music president Paul Broucek, who supervised the Lord of the Rings albums for New Line, “You know a film score is in the popular zeitgeist when you receive calls from trailer houses and ad agencies who want to use it.”
--Popular recording artists' newfound love affair with film composing is paying off, particularly when the project jives with their oeuvre, i.e., Euro synthesizer duo Daft Punk with Disney’s Tron Legacy. Elton John’s music and producing credits spurred the $25.4 million weekend ticket sales for animated feature Gnomeo & Juliet. Such combos appeal equally to both the film and group’s fans.
In recent years, studio music execs have rejected the idea of leaving a score to a rock/pop artist, even though such maestros like Zimmer and Danny Elfman segued from that arena. Rock stars have earned a bad rap for being devoted to their personal projects and tour schedules, not to mention they’re reluctant to change-up cues at the behest of a studio committee. Of late however, waning record sales has left rock stars strapped for cash and more open-minded. Working for the studio isn’t the worst deal in the world – it can also reawaken a band’s image.
Disney savored its creative partnership with Daft Punk to the point that they used the motorcycle-helmeted duo’s likeness in their print and outdoor Tron campaigns. The outcome: Tron debuted in the No. 10 spot in Billboard’s Top 200 albums in its first week and is set to sell 1 million copies worldwide. Says Disney’s live feature music president Mitchell Leib, “It is a great kismet combination when the studio and the filmmakers’ are aligned with the band’s philosophy.”
Even though Oscars drive sales, some insiders fault the Academy music branch for the divide between the recording and film industries. In an effort to laud those songs which are true to a film, the branch has changed its rulings, thus swaying voters’ tastes from Top 40 to obscure fare; the exception being 2002’s “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. So if a Best Song isn't playing on the radio or the internet, its exposure becomes limited following the ceremony. But no matter how offbeat the tunes, if the audiences relates to them, then a music suit has done their job.
Disney boasts two contenders this year in the section: Alan Menken/Glenn Slater’s “I See the Light” from Tangled and Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3. Many are betting that the latter tune wins based on Toy Story 3’s recent Grammy as well as Disney's 37-nom best song track record. “It’s not a song any more, it’s a film’s melody,” observes Kraft, “crowbar a song into a film and the audience will smell a rat.”
Similar to their tastes in songs, the Academy favors period epic scores over blockbuster ones. Given its award season traction, King’s Speech could win not to mention Alexandre Desplat is long overdue.