The Ingredients in a Soundtrack

Photo courtesy of Shinya Suzuki via Flickr

There’s a cake.

The recipe is foolproof, and it’s followed more closely than a car going 35 mph on the highway. Every step is executed perfectly. The flour is sifted, the seeds of the vanilla bean are scraped out with care, and the eggs are straight from grass-fed, locally-raised chickens. The butter never separates. The cake never burns. Food Network is on its way.

But it’s disgusting. It’s so bad it sends taste buds around the world into cardiac arrest. This cake is a failure.

What went wrong? Nothing. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and the half-eaten leftovers have to take up residence with crumpled napkins and empty milk cartons.

Because this isn’t baking. This is the music business, and that cake is a failed album.

Glamorous, right?

There’s no formula for a No. 1 song, and there’s no such thing as a hit machine. Throw in a film that may or may not succeed, and it gets even more complicated. Miraculously, people keep making records, and some of them succeed.

“La La Land” held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart at the same time that “Moana” held the No. 3 spot. Having two soundtracks in the top three at the same time hasn’t happened since May 2015. What happened in May?

The “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtracks staked their claim on the first and third chart slots. The latter had the largest soundtrack sales debut since “Michael Jackson’s This Is It.”

What made those soundtracks work? Why isn’t Lady Gaga’s song from “The Hunting Ground” stuck in people’s heads?

Just like the cake, there are ingredients. Even though there’s no guarantee of tastiness, the cake has a better shot at success if the recipe is followed than if it’s abandoned.

It’s time to look at the ingredients.

When a film dominates award season the way “La La Land” has, it’s easy to chalk it up to its box office success. It can be argued, however, that the nominations and wins have generated buzz that’s led to the aforementioned success. (It’s the timeless debate of which came first: the chicken or the egg.)

“La La Land” won every Golden Globe Award it was nominated for. Following this achievement, the soundtrack’s sales “increased 83 percent to a total of 42,000,” according to a New York Times article.

“Look at what’s happened with ‘La La Land’ upon the Golden Globe win. Of course that propels that up the chart because people are consuming the album more because of the wins that it had and the people in the media that continue to cover that,” says Alex Vitoulis, research manager at Billboard.

Award shows generate buzz, even in the case of Lady Gaga’s song “Til It Happens to You” from the movie “The Hunting Ground,” which barely charted.

“We didn’t even think it was going to hit the Hot 100 ever, but it did… You look at people who have had number one hits like Lady Gaga, and she puts out this song and it peters out in the 80s or the 90s,” says Vitoulis.

What pushed it over the edge?

“It was nominated last year for an Oscar and that spurred traction on it,” says Vitoulis.

Ingredients: nominations.

Just like any industry, deciding whom to hire is crucial. With a composer like Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s no surprise that the “Moana” soundtrack was so successful. He’s the name behind the Broadway hits “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” both of which won the Best Musical Theater Album Grammy in 2009 and 2016 respectively. Simply adding his name to the “Moana” bill brings in an already established fan base ready to buy movie tickets to hear what their favorite Broadway brain has come up with.

This move was strategic. As Vitoulis says, “people start knocking when something is successful.” In an industry where success is never guaranteed, paying the big bucks for someone as reputable as Miranda is well worth the cash.

He was also an ideal candidate for this film because he relates to the main character. Plus, since he’s an actor (he starred in “Hamilton”), he knows how to embody a character and tell their story.

“Moana and I share the notion of a calling, a little voice in your gut that says, ‘You are not supposed to be here, you’re supposed to be there,’” Miranda said in an interview with New York Daily News.

Choosing Justin Hurwitz to compose for “La La Land” was also strategic. His repertoire includes the 2009 and 2014 films “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and “Whiplash,” both of which feature jazz music just like “La La Land.” Circling back to the award show ingredient, “Whiplash” won three Oscars, three BAFTA Awards, one SAG award and one Golden Globe in 2015. Did someone say buzz?

The more commonly known Justin (Timberlake) was recruited to compose the score for the independent film, “The Book of Love.” Even though it’s purely instrumental and won’t feature Timberlake’s heart-melting vocals, Vitoulis believes it will perform better than the average instrumental score.

“Fans are going to go out and buy it because he composed it. He composed it with someone else, but they’re billing it as a Justin Timberlake release… His fans are going to go buy it because he was involved,” says Vitoulis.

Another perk of hiring Timberlake is his acting background. Just like Miranda, he’s able to jump inside a character’s mind to create music fit to underscore a narrative journey.

Ingredients: a successful musician, preferably with acting experience.

Speaking of Timberlake, Vitoulis is confident that the pop soundtrack trend will only continue.

“Artists are looking at other avenues to create and widen their value,” he says.

Because the music industry is fickle, it’s important to have a stake in more than just one project. David Lowery, Cracker band member and music business professor, says, “it’s a numbers game.” Buy enough lottery tickets and maybe, just maybe, the numbers will align.

Having a song attached to a movie can be quite the profitable deal for songwriters, assuming they have top-notch lawyers on their side. When a song is linked to visual media, a synchronization license (‘synch’ for short) is needed. In his book “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,” Donald Passman explains the payoff associated with these types of licenses.

“Motion picture synch licenses for a major studio film generally run in the range of $15,000 (for very minor usage of a song that’s not particularly well known) to over $100,000,” he writes.

When it comes to the actual soundtrack, if it’s not an instrumental score, the royalties are typically between 18 percent and 20 percent with possible escalations if the album passes certain sales thresholds. Other uses of the song can bring in even more revenue for copyright owners. According to Passman, these uses include advertising, trailers, clips, featurettes, deleted scenes and sequels.

Ingredients: a stake in the copyright.

As the saying goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If a song never hits eardrums, it definitely won’t bring in the big bucks. It’s time to make people listen.

The “Furious 7” soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart the week of April 25, 2015. Its chart-topping success can be partly attributed to the way the music was marketed. Leading up to the film’s box office debut, several of the soundtrack’s songs were released as singles. Passman notes the typical release schedule is to have a single “promoted about six weeks ahead of the film” to give it a chance to “gather steam by the time the film hits the theaters.”

Three of them, including the international hit “See You Again,” were accompanied by music videos. That way, in case ears tuned out, eyes would still be captivated.

The week of August 27, 2016 featured a No. 1 spot held by the soundtrack for “Suicide Squad,” which also had four singles released leading up to the film. One of them was “Heathens” by twenty one pilots which has been the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart since the end of August.

“If a song is a hit at radio, it will spur the soundtrack to sell. Look at ‘Suicide Squad’… because of how well ‘Heathens’ has done – it’s still the number one rock song in the country half a year later – that still continues to be consumed so that soundtrack continues to do well on the chart,” says Vitoulis.

Ingredients: a hit single.

Looking at the ingredients and the ever-present possibility of inexplicable failure, it’s a miracle people keep making records. Thankfully, they keep trying new recipes because when a cake tastes like world peace and makes its debut at a party full of gluten supporters, it’s a hit.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. This is the music business after all.


This post was written by Lexi Kelson – @lexkelson.


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