Indie labels on the right track with movie music


Even though the majors have been releasing soundtrack albums since the advent of the LP, the idea of devoting a label specifically to film music is relatively new. In fact, only one contemporary label -- Studio City, Calif.'s Varese Sarabande, founded in 1978 by Tom Null, Chris Kuchler and Scot W. Holton -- can boast that it has existed since vinyl ruled the day.

Executive producer Robert Townson, who took over operations at Varese Sarabande in 1998, still remembers those early days. A veteran who has produced more than 800 albums himself -- including some ambitious rerecordings of classic film scores and film music concert series -- Townson originally became involved with Varese to get distribution for his own newly launched Masters Film Music label and its initial release of Jerry Goldsmith's score for the final film in the original "Omen" trilogy, 1981's "The Final Conflict." And in the nearly 10 years that's he been running the label, which has released more than 1,800 albums, Townson says he has witnessed a tremendous amount of change -- not only at the label itself but also in the film music world as a whole.

"Varese was unique from the get-go because it began in an era when there were soundtrack releases on major labels, but the whole notion of a label devoted to film music was an utterly foreign concept," Townson says. "So Varese establishing an initial dominance in that world wasn't because they were so successful but because they were the only game in town.

"From the point where I started producing all the Varese albums, the first six months was business as usual," he continues. "We put out the latest 'Nightmare on Elm Street' movie and the latest 'Halloween' movie. But by the latter part of 1989, I worked on both 'Driving Miss Daisy' and 'My Left Foot,' and those two films dominated the Academy Awards that year. Then my phone started ringing even more."

The following summer, Varese released the scores for seven of the top 11 movies at the boxoffice and has since averaged 50 albums a year.

Despite Varese's success, the odds are still against labels that focus on movie music. While some of the biggest-selling albums in history -- think 1977's "Saturday Night Fever," 1987's "Dirty Dancing" and 1994's "Forrest Gump" -- have been soundtracks, those are the exceptions that prove the rule. For smaller labels that want to base their business around movie music, the best strategy is to think small, be willing to partner with other labels and narrowly target your audience.

These days, defining an indie label can be tricky. While some soundtrack labels are truly independent, many are divisions of studio music departments designed to create marketing synergy between film and album releases. Still others are literal labors of love aimed at a niche within a niche -- avid music collectors obsessed with movie music, a group that only numbers around 3,000.

Of course, a label that functions as part of a larger studio enjoys access to ready capital and marketing muscle. Studio-based labels like New Line and Lakeshore Records typically begin as ways to better control the handling of a studio's movie-related musical product, but they can grow into entities that can confidently release projects from outside studios.

"Instead of partnering with a major label and being a royalty payer, we wanted to develop an infrastructure where we could do it all ourselves and work closely with the theatrical marketing of the movie and try to have it as a more strategic partner," says Jason Linn, executive vp music at New Line, which currently has a solid hit on its hands with the soundtrack to "Hairspray."

Brian McNelis, senior vp music and soundtracks at Lakeshore Records, had similar goals for the label he manages. Lakeshore is an outgrowth of Will Records, which Skip Williamson founded in 1993. By 2000, executives at the imprint had abandoned their initial plans of competing with other indie labels to sign alternative bands and instead opted to focus on servicing the studios as a music division that could release and market scores and soundtracks.

Williamson wound up as a producer on 2003's "Underworld," helmed by music video director Len Wiseman, and the resulting Lakeshore soundtrack album was a smash.

"That was the tipping point where we started reaching out to other studios and production companies and saying, 'We think we have this figured out,' " McNelis says. "Unlike a lot of our competition in indie labels, we're a movie production company, so we have more far-reaching relationships. The same people who work on music and clearing music for our films are the same license and clearance people, the same lawyers, the same creative people that are putting together our soundtrack albums."

Although the idea of one studio-based label releasing the soundtrack or score from another studio's film would seem to raise questions about potential conflicts, Linn and McNelis agree that such arrangements are fairly routine.

"I'm always eager to do that," Linn says. "We've done two that I'm glad to say have been successful -- 'Sideways' in 2004, which is a Fox Searchlight movie, and last year we released 'The Departed' soundtrack, which was (composed by) Howard Shore. Because of the relationship we had with him on (the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy), we were happy to put that out, and ('Departed') was a Warner Bros. picture. So I'm always looking for other studios' films when they have potentially interesting musical components, and the people I work for at New Line love that idea too."

"In the early days, the majority of our releases were from Lakeshore films," McNelis adds, "but today the majority of our releases are soundtracks for other production companies. Lakeshore releases about six films a year, but we'll release 20-30 plus soundtracks or score albums a year."

And some of those have gone on to become multimedia success stories, such as Lakeshore's 2004 Grammy-nominated release for "Napoleon Dynamite," which featured score, source music, inspired-by tracks chosen by the filmmakers and even dialogue.

While the most lucrative soundtracks are typically compilations of songs heard as source music in a film or "inspired by" a movie, the majority of albums associated with films are scores, which tend to appeal to a core group of devotees. Those fans might follow individual composers or just appreciate movie music in general; but some of them, like Townson, go on to form their own labels.

Labels like Film Score Monthly, Intrada, La-La Land Records, Perseverance, Percepto and Monstrous Movie Music release everything from contemporary scores to material written and recorded 60 years ago.

Lukas Kendall spun an indie film music label off from his Film Score Monthly magazine in 1996 with the release of David Shire's score to the 1974 thriller "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." He says the high costs associated with Musicians' Union reuse fees had kept him out of the business for many years, but when a sliding scale was introduced, he was able to launch the label.

"The fees were structured for mass market albums, and they were extremely prohibitive for things that would only sell a few thousand copies," he says. "In the 1990s, due to the foresight of several people at the studios and at the Musicians' Union, they were able to work out a reduced archival rate for older material with something of a sliding scale that would get the musicians paid something and help facilitate these albums."

Labels like FSM -- which has released almost 150 albums -- Intrada, Percepto and others focus on releasing scores that are at least 25 years old and market to a specific collectors' mentality. But reaching that audience can be tricky, Townson warns. "I've never put much faith in actual print advertising," he says. "I've never done it from the standpoint of expecting it's going to bring any particular number of additional sales. It was more to acknowledge a certain number of titles, like 'look at what we've got coming out just next month.' "

Kendall points out that for smaller labels, advertising is simply cost-prohibitive for the potential results. "I read once that businesses have one of two models: They look for new people to sell their products to, or they look to sell more products to the existing people," Kendall says. "Because there are only a certain number of people who like to listen to and collect soundtracks, it's made more sense to us to concentrate on producing the albums and trusting the audience will find us."

Michael Gerhard, whose La-La-Land Records has released for contemporary projects like Sci Fi Channel's acclaimed series "Battlestar Galactica" and director Eli Roth's 2003 release, "Cabin Fever," says the soundtrack market has been seriously impacted by the demise of major retail stores like Tower and Sam Goody. But Taylor White of Percepto -- whose offbeat catalog includes a number of Vic Mizzy scores to old Don Knotts movies like 1968's "The Shakiest Gun in the West" -- says the loss of Tower actually helped some of the smaller labels, which now can focus solely on marketing online.

"The market's so small and the Internet's so big, you can find your audience without a lot of work," White says. "The Internet has allowed everybody to survive."

Either way, the changing environment has led some labels to adopt some innovative new marketing strategies. Milan Records started its business in France roughly 30 years ago but now operates out of Burbank, Calif., and has released hits including 2002's "Monsoon Wedding," 2003's "Bend it Like Beckham" and 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth."

"We've been greatly affected (by the closing of Tower) to be honest," says Nick Bobetsky, vp sales and marketing for the label. "Tower was a huge supporter of soundtracks, and they had the biggest catalog. It's shrinking real estate in every account with DVDs. ... But in Borders and Barnes & Noble, where they have a really strong DVD department, they're finally starting to cross-reference the product. Traditionally, the DVD and music departments don't cross promote, but we've worked to get CDs in with the DVDs."

Even with the new marketing possibilities, launching a label with a soundtrack is still a risky proposition. Sony/ATV Music Publishing president Danny Strick manages the Hickory Records imprint, which launched earlier in the year with a full-length effort from "American Idol" finalist Elliott Yamin. Hickory recently released the soundtrack for ThinkFilm's "The Hottest State," and Strick saw the project as an opportunity to promote one of Sony/ATV's artists.

"Jesse Harris has been a writer at Sony/ATV Music Publishing for a number of years," Strick says. "He presented me with the soundtrack he had created for 'Hottest State,' which he recorded with amazing artists. The music was pivotal to driving the film, so I suggested to Jesse, since we were his publisher, we could help and put it on Hickory."

Although Hickory is not designed to function as a film music label necessarily, Strick concedes that today's marketplace affords music executives some exciting new opportunities. "The ability to get to the consumer as an independent, there's much more opportunity than there was five years ago," Strick says. "It's the ability to get to consumers with things like Starbucks, the ability to get people's eyes and ears in new ways as opposed to the traditional structure you had a few years ago."

Varese developed that direct marketing approach early on with a "CD Club" catalog mailed directly to consumers -- an idea that was later revived for the Internet age. "There were titles that absolutely deserved a release but weren't particularly better-served by producing an overly large quantity of them," Townson says. "It started me thinking we should market those titles directly to collectors. We could spend that extra money on production values and charge a little more and receive the price of the disc directly rather than it going through the whole retail process."

Speaking directly to those consumers most likely to appreciate older releases is really the only cost-effective strategy when it comes to issuing classic scores. "Newer titles, stuff from the '80s and '90s, seems to sell better because there's a generational gap," Gerhard says. "It's a travesty in terms of the Golden Age stuff. We just did (1968's) 'Hang 'Em High' and (1958's) 'The Big Country.' 'The Big Country' is just one of the finest scores ever written, and 'Hang 'Em High' is an absolute blast. (But) our sales on those just don't compare to sales on things like (1989's) 'Tango & Cash' and (1987's) 'Spaceballs.' "

In the end, a small label's ability to thrive is based on how well its exec team understands the specialized market. "It's actually a really great time to be an independent or niche music company," Linn says. "There are more opportunities than there were even two years ago because majors have to be so focused on a certain kind of record and a certain kind of strategy to break that record.

"For a major to sell 200,000 or 250,000 records doesn't mean anything," he continues. "But for an independent or niche label to sell that much, it's a home run. You just have to have people who are focused on that and not worried about getting their record on Star 98.7 or whatever. It's a sea change in that it's really becoming a better and better time to be a nontraditional model."