Blood on the tracks

Lackluster sales figures for film soundtracks have some experts wondering if the time has come to completely rethink the business model.

It doesn't take a math wiz to understand that numbers can be deceiving. According to information from Nielsen SoundScan, sales of film and TV soundtracks were up nearly 20% this year over 2005 figures -- with many of the highest-grossing titles geared toward kids. "Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies for the Film Curious George" moved more than 1 million units, while the soundtrack for Disney Channel's sensation "High School Musical" sold more than 3 million copies to become not only the top-selling soundtrack of 2006 but the second-highest-selling album of the year behind Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts."

If one removed television from the equation, however, the outlook for soundtrack sales appears far gloomier: Film soundtracks actually fell off from 2005's numbers. And that has many in the industry concerned about the future. "The soundtrack is in an era of reidentification," Fox Music president Robert Kraft says. "I'm exploring on every level what it means. Soundtracks may look very different in the next year or two."

Adds Paramount executive vp motion picture music Randy Spendlove, "The whole model is going to be rewritten."

Soundtracks already look much different today than they once did. For one thing, there aren't as many of them -- studios are releasing 50% fewer soundtracks than they were five years ago. For another, the CDs that do make it to retailers aren't just compilations of songs that have little to nothing to do with the actual film. Executives across the board say that the only way a soundtrack can make an impact in today's climate is if it can tap into the moviegoing experience and enable fans to recapture the feeling of watching a film they loved.

"Unless the music means some fabulous amount to the movie and is genuine and authentic to the movie, no one cares," Kraft says simply.

Mitchell Leib, president of music and soundtracks for Walt Disney Pictures and Television, agrees. "It's not cramming 13 or 15 songs into a movie," he says of the art of assembling a soundtrack. "Music is a fundamental element of these properties."

The overall slackening of sales has led to a new business paradigm. In the glory days, labels would often give studios large advances -- rumors run as high as $3 million -- to secure soundtrack rights. Those days, however, are long gone.

Witness how Touchstone and Jive worked together on the soundtrack for Buena Vista's late-summer release "Step Up," a teen dance movie with a very strong musical component. There were no big names in the film, so the music became the defacto star. "The music would determine whether this movie played in the theaters, and it would make or break the marketing and identifiability of the movie," Leib says.

Leib approached Jive because the label's roster so closely dovetailed with the movie's themes. "Mitchell said, 'I have a budget -- you cut me below master rate (on the songs), and I'll put up the money to make the videos," says Jonathan McHugh, vp creative development for Zomba Label Group.

In return for making a deal on the licensing, Jive put up no advance. It also was able to strategically plan how the songs in the film and soundtrack fit into the development of its artists. For example, Ciara was working on a new album and renamed a song initially called "Get Up" to "Step Up." Additionally, Jive placed Chris Brown's fourth single from his label debut on the soundtrack to give it a head start. "By the time the movie opened, we had three videos on BET," McHugh says.

Jive/Verity and Sony used the same approach for the movie "The Gospel" in 2005.

While some studios miss the advances, others say the balance has shifted in a way that makes it just as easy -- if not easier -- to do their job.
"Artists more than ever see the value of having their music in film and TV -- it's much more affordable," Universal Pictures and Universal Music Group president of film music Kathy Nelson says. "It used to be that the artist demanded such high fees. It's even easier because record labels are having to be far more lenient in allowing artists to do film work and be on a soundtrack album, no matter who's putting it out because they haven't figured out how to make money for their artists."

The diminishing of advances has led to an opening for indie labels that previously had been locked out of the soundtrack derby. Indies aren't new to the arena -- labels such as Milan and Varese Sarabande have released dozens of scores and some soundtracks for decades for classics like 1962's "Birdman of Alcatraz" and current titles such as Sony's "The Holiday" and Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth."

However, now newer companies like Lakeshore or indie rock labels like Record Collection are making a serious impact. In their two years of existence, Artist's Addiction and Treadstone, indie rock labels run by Jonathan Miller and Jonathan Platt, have released 18 film and TV soundtracks. "We don't have 100 people to make simple decisions," Miller says about the company's ability to bypass corporate red tape.

Counter to current thinking, almost 100% of Artist's Addiction and Treadstone's soundtracks are actually compilations. "Our world's a lot different than the majors," Miller says. "(If) I sell 30,000 or 40,000 (units), I'm in profit."

Miller says that TV soundtracks traditionally sell better than film soundtracks. He cites 2005's "Charmed: The Book of Shadows," which has sold 33,000 copies, as one of its best-sellers. The soundtrack features such artists as Sarah McLachlan and Liz Phair.

Columbia Pictures president of worldwide music Lia Vollack says there are incredible opportunities for indie labels right now.

"As much fright and fear as there is in the halls of the major labels, there's much opportunity for companies that can be nimble," she says. "It's great for indie labels and for the people who handle indie artists and labels for licensing since there's a real passion for new music. Vagrant Records has talked to me about doing soundtracks. New West called me. The truth is, they can now play."

They most certainly can. Record Collection will release the soundtrack for Sony's upcoming May release "Spider-Man 3" (Sony released the soundtracks for the first two films in the franchise). Like its predecessors, the soundtrack for "Spider-Man 3" will be a compilation of songs written by artists who were inspired after seeing the film; some of the music will be featured in the movie. "It's the old idea of an 'inspired-by' record," Vollack says. "But the fans of that franchise continue to like it."

Some studios are looking at bypassing the label altogether. Fox, for instance, experimented with digital soundtracks in 2003 with its release of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which was sold on iTunes. The downside is that studios aren't geared to promote audio releases. "If we do it ourselves, no one else knows about it, and it sits in the deep, dark corner of the long tail," Kraft says.

Fox is trying a different tack with DVD bundling. For both 2005's "Walk the Line" and the October release "Flicka," Fox and the participating label created a five-song EP from the soundtrack and packaged it with the DVD. They then made an exclusive deal with retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, which did a one-way buy on the release, meaning the retailer paid for all copies purchased upfront and could not send back any unsold units to the distributor.

Of course, sales to consumers are only one way to make a profit on soundtracks. Some studios and labels are looking to ancillary revenue streams to make up the money they're losing in the retail arena. "The score is a work-for-hire," Nelson says. "It's worth it for us to put the soundtrack out so there's revenue for us from people using it for other trailers."

For a studio like the Walt Disney Co., which owns its own labels and publishing company, virtually every movie gets a soundtrack and score released because there is no downside -- especially for Disney Channel programs such as "Musical" and "Hannah Montana" (pictured at left, since much of the music is penned by writers signed to Disney's publishing company. "You can only imagine the revenue generated (through publishing)," Leib says.

Even for smaller labels, the value is clear. Miller's company has made a gold mine from licensing composer Charlie Clouser's "Saw" scores for other movies.

Most licensing deals don't cover digital downloading, though, which continues to be, as Leib puts it, "a blessing and a curse." Original rights holders seldom grant the label that is releasing a given soundtrack the rights to sell individual tracks online -- a practice that Vollack feels is outmoded. "You need to let people consume it in the way they want," she says.

To that end, Vollack is currently negotiating with labels on a compilation of previously released material for a forthcoming film that she declines to name and is trying to obtain downloading rights on the individual songs. "If you want four songs, you can just get four songs, as opposed to being frustrated and stealing them," she says.

Vollack worked out a bifurcated deal for Sony's November release "Casino Royale" that enabled fans to download Chris Cornell's theme song separately from the score soundtrack. "The fans of the rock song for the most part don't care about the score," she says. "If they had to buy the entire soundtrack, they'd steal it. This way, they can just get the single and consume it the way they want to."

Regardless of how music is delivered, supervisors say the two constants in building a successful soundtrack remain creating an emotional connection between film and audience through the music and making sure the music is an integral part of the movie. As they point out, while compilations are waning, licensed collections can work if that emotional element is there -- as it was with 2004's "Garden State," which sold through the proverbial roof.

"You're not going to sell soundtracks ever again unless that music is prominently featured and is in some way an absolute element of the property," Leib says.
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