The Sound of Money

One of the embarrassing moments from my youth was singing "Summer Nights" from the Grease movie soundtrack at the top of my lungs. In my best John-Travolta-as-a-six-year-old voice, I recounted Danny's summer of love, even though I had no idea what he meant when he said he "made out under the docks." With songs by Frankie Avalon, Sha Na Na and Olivia Newton John and contributions from the cast, that album is a purist's idea of what a soundtrack should be -- it contains songs which actually appear in the movie, are important to the plot and aren't accompanied by any filler.

The soundtrack to 1973's American Graffiti gave the film's '60s rock songs the same prominence as its dialogue, basically beginning the modern-era style of rock soundtracks in films. The double record featured Bill Haley, Fats Domino, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly setting the mood without using any music written for the film. That formula was duplicated in coming-of-age films from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (lots of "California rock" from Eagles members, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, the Go-Gos and Oingo Boingo) to the growing-up-in-the-'80s work of John Hughes. The Pretty in Pink soundtrack was perhaps Hughes's finest moment; the film took its name from a Psychedelic Furs tune (included on the record), and the record was full of late-'80s, gloomy bands such as OMD, New Order, the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, perfectly encapsulating the film's mood.

That same Grease soundtrack is the bestselling catalog title of the genre, according to Billboard magazine. Unfortunately, it is also something of an anachronism. The record industry is foisting more and more soundtracks (and broadening the definition of the genre by adding the phrase "music from and inspired by the film" to titles) in an effort to score a quick hit on the back of a film's brand recognition. Not to be outdone, sequels to soundtracks are not uncommon, when there wasn't a sequel to the movie. Trainspotting II, Crooklyn II, More Songs from Grosse Point Blank, Romeo and Juliet II and The Wedding Singer II looked to make quick sales while the movies and original soundtracks were still hot. Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion skipped the waiting period and simply issued a double record.

In an example of ultimate bloat, there are three soundtracks with the animated film epic The Prince of Egypt, each available for more than $15. There is an album for everyone: one traditional soundtrack, one of "inspirational" music and one from country artists. Some quick math -- say each record is an hour long, making for three hours of music. A pretty obvious money grab, huh? Especially since the traditional soundtrack is the only one of the three that actually includes music from the film.

Well, you can't blame them for trying. Some of the best-selling records of all time have been soundtracks. Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing and the Whitney Houston-fueled The Bodyguard are all multiplatinum smashes. A soundtrack can generate not only awareness of a film but also, obviously, tremendous sales for record companies. After all, the best-selling record of 1998 (which also set the single year sales record) is the soundtrack to Titanic, with nine million records sold. Featuring the ubiquitous song of the year, "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion, the album is mainly the vision of composer James Horner, but its sales can be traced straight back to the superhype surrounding the movie, so much so that there was (you guessed it) a follow-up, Back to Titanic, which suggests, more than it was supposed to, I'm sure, dredging the bottom of the ocean for more.

This collaboration with the film industry is partially the result of entertainment companies' having their fingers in many pies, so they see soundtracks as another piece in the marketing puzzle. If people see Hope Floats soundtrack posters, for instance, maybe they'll remember that they wanted to go see the movie, the thinking goes. But the film divisions of these companies aren't doing so hot, so they are putting more and more out there as bait. Universal's film group is in the red, thanks to the failure of films such as Babe II. Polygram was trying to sell its film division even before the company was purchased by Universal. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks is behind both the film and the music for The Prince of Egypt.

A comparison of music charts from the last ten years indicates how much is being thrown against the wall of late. Ten years ago this week there were four soundtracks in Billboard's Top 100, five years ago there were five, and last year at this time there were only four. This year there are 14. Recording labels like making soundtracks for the same reason that they are bad for the music industry in the long run: They are usually cheap to make, with bands often contributing songs recorded for other records.

Getting involved with soundtracks can pay off for bands, however. Take the Buffalo, New York, power pop trio the Goo Goo Dolls, for instance. Between records the band stayed in the public eye with "Iris" from the City of Angels movie. In the past three years the group has also had songs on the soundtracks to Ace Ventura 2, Tommy Boy, Twister, Son in Law and Batman and Robin. Not coincidentally, its star has risen in the same time. Even though those movies (other than Twister) weren't huge hits, they were still vehicles for the band to get some added exposure, helping sales of their latest record, Dizzy Up the Girl, which contains "Iris."

But most soundtracks are along the lines of Armageddon, which is still in the Top 100 (even after the film has gone the way of star Bruce Willis's marriage), thanks mostly to Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Though the record is geared to an older crowd rather than the movie's adolescent male thrill seekers -- there are three other Aerosmith songs, a new Journey track and oldies from Bob Seger and ZZ Top -- it's a hodgepodge of songs which don't have much to do with the movie. It's merely another cynical marketing ploy which has less and less to do with quality film or music.


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