Who Killed the Movie Soundtrack?

July 1, 2014

Growing up some of my favorite CDs were movie soundtracks. The good ones always had a collection of great songs that perfectly encapsulated the mood of the film. Some were a handpicked selection of Top 40 hits (“Saturday Night Fever,” “The Big Chill”) while others were eclectic mixes of songs I had never heard before (“Trainspotting,” “Natural Born Killers”). The best soundtracks gave a great variety of music and were huge sellers for record companies and studios alike.

Then in the late 1990’s the format hit a wall. Interest waned, numbers plummeted and the quality left a lot to be desired. The first “Transformers” soundtrack didn’t even sell 500,000 copies. “Spider-Man 2,” the 11th highest-grossing film of all time, couldn’t sell a million soundtracks. Although the audiences for those films were huge it didn’t lead to soundtrack sales.

Sure there are the occasional outliers like “Garden State” but those are few and far between. How did such a successful genre fall so far, so fast? It’s a mystery even a gumshoe like Sam Spade would have difficulty unraveling. There is a trail of evidence however. Let’s examine the clues …

Although they had much to gain by the success of soundtracks, entertainment conglomerates always saw them as just another ancillary revenue source. When cost-cutting hit the studios hard in the ’90s, it was easy to scale back on original music. The new strategy was to throw in a bunch of filler music with a single original song by a name artist. Trouble was that song was usually under the end credits and often missed by audiences. Although a cheaper way to make soundtracks, consumers didn’t respond.

Licensing music has become an expensive proposition over the last 20 years. Songs from popular artists like The Beatles are impossible to find due to price. Add a shrinking catalog of artists that studios could get affordable access to and suddenly there was this repetition of music on soundtracks. Do a search sometime and see how many times “All Along the Watchtower” appears on a soundtrack. Great song, but it’s worn out it’s welcome.

One explanation might be that people don’t buy soundtracks anymore. Around the world, music sales have declined precipitously this decade. That’s partially do to iTunes and later file-sharing networks like Spotify and Pandora. Much like in the 1950s, we’re in a time where the single is more important than the album. If the album itself is a weaker concept, it stands to reason that the soundtrack is too. Why buy the whole soundtrack when you can download the one or two songs you really want and create your own movie playlist?

The creative side of film also shares some blame. Music has become an overlooked part of a film and left to the music supervisor to figure out. Just contrast the music for “Transformers” with the decades biggest soundtrack hit, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”  With a clear strategy and hitless bluegrass music we rarely heard, “O Brother” went on to sell 7 million copies. When directors and producers get lazy on music, the movie soundtrack is bound to suffer.

Who killed the soundtrack? It can be argued that it was a collaboration of all. Have faith music fans because all is not lost. Movies like “O Brother,” “Magnolia” and “About a Boy” provide a glimmer of hope. All were not only fantastic soundtracks but integral parts of the film. More than providing color or revealing shifts in mood, the music was part of the action onscreen, speaking through characters.

Soundtracks will survive, although it is on life support. Certain films lend themselves to excellent music like the band-focused “Once” or others with a strong musical vision like “The Life Aquatic” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The key to continued cultural relevance of the soundtrack is in good original compositions. The good news is that there are a host of talented musicians out there just itching to get a chance to compose music for a soundtrack. Let’s hope the studios and record companies give them a chance.


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