What do The Dukes of Hazzard and Stealth have in common, other than the fact that their stars will probably have Oscar night free? It’s their stubbornly old-school approach to soundtracks: By showcasing singles by platinum-selling artists with prominent videos, the aim is to goose revenues for both the movies and the CDs. The soft results — the Jessica Simpson-aided Dukes has debuted to so-so sales, while Stealth and its Incubus songs (not to mention the movie itself) bombed — illuminate how dramatically the soundtrack biz has shifted away from Celine-style bombast. After years of decline, soundtracks have embraced a leaner model that aims for more targeted music and modest profits.
Movie soundtracks took the nation’s breath away in the ’70s and ’80s, fueled by Saturday Night Fever and, later, a burgeoning MTV. As corporations flexed more entertainment muscle, soundtracks like Footloose, Top Gun, and Flashdance were maniacs — maniacs! — on the floor, selling like they’d never sold before. But after peaking in the late ’90s, soundtracks flew into the danger zone, threatened by diminishing returns, increased competition from franchises like NOW That’s What I Call Music!, and discerning downloaders.
That’s starting to change, thanks to the creative cost-cutting strategies of movie studios and record companies. But unlike a decade ago, they are increasingly opting for niche compilations instead of betting big on star-studded movie music. That a hitless bluegrass romp like 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? could move 7 million copies to become this decade’s top-selling soundtrack might have seemed like a fluke, but it set a new tone for the business. With music sales off 12 percent since ‘99, and the soundtrack sector down 34 percent (see chart), scaling back is a necessity that has given birth to invention. Daisy Duke notwithstanding, radio-unfriendly collections are pushing single-driven discs out of the picture.
”Consumers have been let down by big soundtracks [with] a lot of filler,” says Lia Vollack, president of Sony Pictures’ music division. And in the iTunes era, consumers are less inclined to buy a movie’s mixtape when they can create their own. ”A soundtrack with one hit song and a bunch of whatever — that doesn’t work anymore,” says Universal Pictures music president Kathy Nelson. She notes that companies are favoring ”more organic” music, allowing mainstream directors and auteurs like Wes Anderson more control. As the industry works to get back on track, rules of the soundtrack game have changed:
BIG SINGLES ARE RISKY BUSINESS Having Simpson or Incubus contribute exclusive tracks is a bonus, but one that can add $300,000 to the cost of a CD. And since MTV has largely phased out videos, concept albums like O Brother or the all-Beatles-covers I Am Sam are a cooler, cheaper way to go.
KEEP EXPECTATIONS AND COSTS IN CHECK The new mantra: small and quirky. ”You can create a soundtrack that reaches the audience it needs to reach for a quarter of the money that was spent five years ago,” says Jason Linn, exec VP of music at New Line. Wedding Crashers’ soundtrack, for instance, could sell just 100,000 copies and make a profit because it was budgeted under six figures. Likewise, recent titles like Napoleon Dynamite, Elf, and Something’s Gotta Give were all considered successes without breaking the half-million mark in sales.