Over the past few weeks I’ve been bugging people to vote for two panels that I proposed for the 2013 South by Southwest Film, Music and Interactive Festival (and hopefully come December I’ll get to tell you all that they were accepted). One of these panels is on a topic that I’ve been interested in for quite some time, The Future of The Soundtrack, and I am nerdily excited to get the chance to moderate a discussion between experts.
In my time working around and on soundtracks and various marketing initiatives for film and television, there are also certain observations I have made that I hope to debate, to get an official opinion. Until I (fingers crossed) find myself in a position to consult those supervisors and executives that I admire so much, here are my thoughts on the topic.
Many industry professionals believe that the soundtrack is a dying (if not dead) art form. Just read this piece from 2009 in The Wrap, where author Dominic Patten cites example after example demonstrating that basically, consumers just don’t care anymore.
He’s not wrong. The trend of digital singles might have been the most detrimental to the soundtrack, a product designed to be a complete listening experience, capturing in song the journey a viewer went on while watching the film or television show. To split it into individual singles…well, then there’s nothing really to separate that version from what you can find on the artist’s album.
But if the soundtrack is dead then what’s to explain the fervor over each Twilight soundtrack, full of artists many mainstream fans may not have heard of? The Hunger Games soundtrack was the number one album on the Billboard Top 100 for weeks with only one of the songs on it actually heard in the picture. Gary Calamar manages to craft interesting and appropriate (and Grammy nominated) soundtracks for every season of True Blood, despite the fact that music does not play a prominent role in the series (though every episode is named after the end title song). Project X, not a series or a film with a rabid following, hung out in the top ten for weeks, even making it to number one.
Yes, compared to ten, fifteen years ago, the idea that there were only a handful of successful soundtracks out of the vast amount of films released is embarrassing. It used to be that every film had a soundtrack, and every soundtrack (even score soundtracks) sold pretty well. Well enough to keep releasing soundtracks. But hey, we all know that albums just aren’t pulling the kind of numbers they used to all across the board, soundtracks not withstanding. “Death” is a strong word. Maybe what’s gone is just the idea of a traditional soundtrack album as a dependable source of ancillary revenue. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not worth pursuing the use of music as a marketing tool. Or even that there aren’t ways to look differently at what a “soundtrack” means and create a product (physically or digitally) that consumers want to buy.
Handled properly, music can be an indispensable ally to any marketing or sales campaign, even now. Like all aspects of the music industry the soundtrack must reinvent itself to adapt.
1. Zero in on your audience – Most of the soundtracks that make it into the top ten (especially those that stay there) can be connected with a pretty specific audience. While doing a bit of research for this article, I read an interesting counter to the above-referenced Patten article on Idolator, where the author had contacted Courtney Smith (author of Record Collecting For Girls, and who spent almost a decade as a music programmer for MTV) to get her response on the piece. She made the point that successful soundtracks are almost always for films that are targeted towards women (Titanic, The Bodyguard, Twilight). As I perused a sampling of the top ten soundtracks from this year, it actually seemed to me that the type of films with soundtracks that sold were actually for teens; releases from Big Time Rush, Shake It Up and The Fresh Beat Band have moved units. Same with Project X, full of party jams for adolescent boys. A few years ago the soundtrack to the Hannah Montana movie went platinum. Yes, The Hunger Games and Twilight are just behemoth franchises period, but a huge faction of both audiences are teens.
But it’s not only teens. The soundtrack to the Bob Marley documentary made an appearance in the top ten. As did the soundtracks for Think Like A Man, and Act of Valor – all films that target specific demographics. That said, I think the secret isn’t necessarily connected to one gender, age group, or tax bracket…it’s understanding precisely who your audience is, what it is about the film or television show that appeals to them, and then creating a soundtrack that caters to that. To just put out a compilation of songs used in the picture it not enough unless it is all music that appeals to one group of people. Maybe two. But try to go broad and no one will care.
2. Exclusive content…and a lot of it. In Smith’s response to Idolator, she also pointed to the fact that audiences turn to film and television to discover new artists – as such, they are less interested in new music from aging bands (citing the Linkin Park single in the under-performing Transformers 2 soundtrack). As far as I can tell, this all depends on the band (or bands) involved. Beck is not a new artist, but everyone got excited to hear his collaboration with Bat For Lashes on the Twilight: Eclipse Soundtrack. Florence and The Machine is old news by now and yet her song in Snow White and The Huntsman got plenty of press coverage. Is Florence and The Machine more popular than Linkin Park? I think probably a majority of people would say no.
The key take away, however, is exciting, exclusive content. Not only does each Twilight soundtrack installment feature tons of original and unreleased content from current buzz bands, but tracks from several artists still under the radar. A track written for and only available on that soundtrack. An unexpected collaboration between hip artists. And if you can fill your soundtrack (or even film) with these gems that is something that will incentivize buyers.
3. Create a collectors item. If you find that your film’s audience is has a penchant for souvenirs, it could be a good idea to make the music into one. Maybe someday the CD will go the way of vinyl and become cool again, but until then a plain old CD is not a collectors item. With all the films and television shows coming out that are capitalizing on already popular properties – comic books, cult classics, etc. there is an absolutely an audience who still likes stuff.
If producers can create a soundtrack that taps into the nostalgia in a unique, authentic, and exclusive way (exclusive artwork, for example) – basically something that fans will want to add to their collection – they might be able to sell some records. Now that the epic San Diego Comi-Con is no longer about just comic books, fantasy and sci-fi, and broad enough even to include “Gleeks,” I wonder if there is a way to calculate which franchises attendees spent the most money on…There must be, right? I’m curious.
4. Identify an aesthetic (and capitalize on it). As I mentioned earlier, The Hunger Games soundtrack succeeded with only one song that was actually used in the film. Is the series so huge fans would have bought any associated merchandise? Maybe. But T Bone Burnett still created a solid album – diverse while still appealing to its mainstream audience, accurately evoking the rustic, Appalachian feel of the film.
Similarly each one of the True Blood soundtracks is a cohesive listening experience with all the sex and grittiness of the show. The folks at Lionsgate know that a huge part of the allure of Mad Men is the glamorous swinging sixties; fans all over the country have “Mad Men-themed” parties completely independent of when it actually airs. As such, there have not only been several volumes of music from the series, but companion pieces featuring other tunes that define the era, as well as a score album sold exclusively at Target as part of their “lifestyle” merchandise. Especially if the aesthetic is a huge part of why fans tune in (or buy a ticket), tying in music in a creative way and then using that to market the show is an opportunity not to be missed.
Iggy Pop and Bethany Cosentino “Let’s Boot and Rally” (from True Blood)
5. Look beyond the album. This area is probably what excites me the most, and the most difficult to get a handle on since technology is constantly evolving. While the industry as a whole seems to still be struggling with how (or if it’s possible) to make good money from all the various digital streaming sites, I see them all as really fun, powerful marketing tools that have barely been used. Mad Men teamed up with Pandora to create a station of music inspired by the series. 8tracks ran a promotion featuring a playlist for each character in Moonrise Kingdom.
As I said earlier, people turn to film and television to discover new artists…so why not find creative ways to collaborate with music discovery sites like ex.fm? Spotify? Rdio? Could a character DJ a Turntable.fm room? A web series be written to occur in a Turntable.fm room? But I digress…I’m still learning all the tools, tricks and limitations with all the various streaming platforms myself, but I do believe there is a great deal of potential that has yet to be tapped.
What do you think? Can money still be made from soundtracks? Are there other criteria for a successful soundtrack that I missed? Any points where I am completely off base?