Can the Soundtrack Be Saved?

Illustration: Valero Doval

The traditional song compilation long has been an afterthought, but after years of plummeting sales, music execs are finding new ways to connect with choosy listeners.

Here's a concept that feels pretty 20th century right now: compilation soundtracks to films. They had their moment -- 1984's Footloose (9 million copies sold), 1987's Dirty Dancing (11 million), 1986's Top Gun (9 million), 1994's Pulp Fiction (3.5 million) -- but during the past four years, sales across the category are down 40 percent, with eight of 2010's top 50 soundtracks belonging to Glee. It begs the question: In the digital age, when music fans can pick and choose individual songs to buy with a critical and budget-conscious eye (iTunes prices tracks at 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29), is a compilation that aggregates singles past and present worth the price of admission?

Warner Bros. Records seems to think so. Its June release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- The Album (they don't call it a soundtrack) follows the age-old model of repurposing from artists on a label's roster, including songs by My Chemical Romance, Goo Goo Dolls and Linkin Park, which is making its third appearance for the franchise; the latest compilation features the band's modest radio hit "Iridescent."

"Linkin Park is a large part of the sound of Transformers now," says Randy Spendlove, Paramount's president of motion picture music. "Michael Bay uses the music in a really important way. He's a filmmaker who will cut scenes to songs to bring that emotion into his movies. Gone are the days of creating a soundtrack around something that lacks a strong musical presence."

To reach its audience of "dudes," as WBR co-president Livia Tortella describes the typical Transformers fan, the label partnered with Gamestop, whose stores carry a version featuring two exclusive tracks. It's another way to hedge Warner's bets; Tortella readily admits that these days, releasing a soundtrack is a risk on par with breaking an unknown act. "It's a huge gamble," she says. "Thankfully, a lot of soundtracks aren't that expensive." (Dark of the Moon has sold 36,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)

Still, it seems fewer record labels and movie studios are willing to put in the energy to produce a musical accompaniment to a film when many of the same cues are available for purchase a la carte at digital retailers such as iTunes and Amazon. "We are still passionate about movie music," says Spendlove. "We just want to do it on movies it makes the most sense for. With Transformers, there was enough of a brand there."

Also part of the new reality: A massive movie-music success is counted in the tens of thousands, not millions, and the difference between selling 4,000 units, as Fast Five did its first week out (the movie eventually grossed more than $600 million worldwide; the soundtrack moved 34,000 units), and 200,000, as Juno did upon hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 three weeks after opening (the soundtrack went on to sell more than 1 million copies and spawned an iTunes-only B-sides collection), comes down to often-elusive qualities.


"The soundtrack is always an afterthought for the studios," says Tortella, who also has worked on soundtracks for Twilight and the 2000 blockbuster O Brother, Where Are Thou? "The score is very well thought-out because it's part of the creative, but to just put a few contemporary pieces in doesn't sell the soundtrack. When you have a great property like Juno or a great score like, say, 300, and you do 300,000, it's because people connect with the music. There has to be an experience attached to it, the soundtrack has to have a point of view, and it has to have exclusive material."

Interscope Geffen A&M hopes its forthcoming The Help compilation will make that connection with audiences after they've left the theater. The label built the soundtrack around an original song by one of its marquee artists, Mary J. Blige, and locked in distribution at Starbucks.

"We got into it so super-focused on creating a song for Mary, and in that sense we've already reached our goal of an incredible original composition," says Tony Seyler, the label's vp film and television marketing and soundtracks who worked on Slumdog Millionaire and Across the Universe. "From Mary sitting in on the first screening to her writing ['The Living Proof'] and coming up with ideas and concepts through the film to the marketing plan -- which coincided with Mary's own commitments and relationships, like the Essence Festival -- it all came together naturally."

A period piece, Help also features songs from the early '60s, some of which -- like Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" -- might already be found in the moviegoer's music collection, a fact that significantly lowers sales expectations. "Typically we steer away from compilation soundtracks because of that," says Seyler. "But with this project, we think a lot of people are emotionally attached to the book, and there will be an emotional connection to the film as well."

Perhaps there's no better contemporary example of this than the Twilight series, which has sold 3.3 million copies over three albums. Tortella credits author Stephenie Meyer's emphasis on music for driving sales and shaping the soundtrack, which had artists clamoring to be included. "It was a phenomenon," says Tortella. "There was the book itself but also the fact that the author was a music fan and dedicated books to her favorite bands -- [Warner acts] Muse and Jack's Mannequin among them. Also, there was a lot of contemporary music in the picture. Plus, [film-music veteran] Alex Patsavas was the music supervisor on the project. It was like the triple whammy."

A soundtrack hit can seem like a case of catching lightning in a bottle, but those like Seyler find that element of the unknown challenging and invigorating. "Like with any album, you have artists that connect and some that don't," he says. "But the really exciting thing about film and music is there is such an opportunity to connect. It could be Rock of Ages next or a million other possibilities. Where music is an integral part of the story, we think it still has just as good a shot as a record does."           


  • Easy Rider (1969): 500,000
  • The Big Chill (1983): 6 million
  • Footloose (1984): 9 million
  • Pulp Fiction (1994): 3.5 million
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): 7.6 million
  • Garden State (2004): 1.4 million