'Pitch Perfect 2' Soundtrack: The Inside Story of Why It's Been Kept Under Wraps

pitch perfect 2 illo 2015
Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

A soundtrack franchise was born with the unlikely success of “Cups" -- 3 million downloads sold -- so why the sequel’s radio silence? Surprise is everything, says the film’s music team.

The 2012 soundtrack to Pitch Perfect was a rare gold-cup winner in the sales sweepstakes, thanks in part to the viral success of Anna Kendrick’s "Cups," the flukiest of fluke hits. Now, with a Pitch Perfect 2 album arriving just three days before the movie’s May 15 bow, the challenge for the team behind the sequel’s music is not to clone "Cups," which was "a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that’s really not replicable," as Mike Knobloch, president of film music at Universal Pictures, puts it. It’s to remind people the first soundtrack did fine without that late-breaking hit.

Indeed, there has yet to be a buzzing prerelease tune from Pitch Perfect 2, even though the sequel has something the first one didn’t: an original song. "Flashlight," a "Firework"-style inspirational ballad, is a recurring plot point in the film. It is sung by Jessie J on the soundtrack and Hailee Steinfeld onscreen (rumor has it the actress wowed music executives and has been signed to Republic Records). As a single, the recording has already dropped off the Pop Digital Songs chart, where it debuted at No. 46, since Republic released it in late April (it’s No. 24 on the Billboard-Twitter chart dated May 16). But Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music’s UMe division, says any action at radio would be "a bonus -- an additional bump to what the soundtrack will do." It’s all about the full song score, he insists, saying the Pitch Perfect films are to millennials "what Grease was to a prior generation."

While the marketing behind the film has been aggressive, the pregame push for the soundtrack has been virtually nonexistent. Fans looking for a song lineup for Pitch Perfect 2 on services like iTunes or Amazon have only seen blank spaces, as UMe aims to keep the 18-track lineup under wraps until its actual street date, a level of secrecy not even Taylor Swift strives for. The reasoning: A huge chunk of the film’s biggest laughs come from hearing the first bar or two of a musical cue, whether it’s -- spoilers ahead! -- the Green Bay Packers doing "Bootylicious" or Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy wooing her ex-boyfriend with a comically melodramatic "We Belong to the Night."

"Neither the first movie nor the soundtrack album opened with spectacular numbers," says Resnikoff. Pitch Perfect grossed a respectable $65 million in U.S. theaters (according to Box Office Mojo) before proving its mettle post-theatrically; the soundtrack debuted with a mere 9,000 units on its way to selling 1.3 million albums, according to Nielsen Music. "Cups" did not hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart until October 2013, more than a year after the film’s release.

"We went through two Christmases marketing the music to Pitch Perfect 1 without ever thinking it was close to the end," adds Resnikoff. "Some of that came out of ‘Cups,’ but there was already viral success for this music well beyond that." Resnikoff notes that the 3 million downloads for "Cups" in the United States only represented half of the 6.4 million overall individual tracks sold from the album; globally, Pitch Perfect moved 8 million tracks, according to the label. In other words, the first soundtrack was hardly a one-song phenomenon, although, six months after the movie opened, "taking ‘Cups’ to radio and making a video extended the life of something that was happening on its own."

That success led to preconceptions about how big Pitch Perfect 2 would be, and with that a bump in asking prices from writers and publishers, creating hurdles on the way to licensing nearly 60 songs. To be sure, there was more money to work with -- Pitch Perfect 2’s budget was $29 million, compared with $17 million for Pitch Perfect 1. "On the first one, no one had ever made an a cappella musical before, so we had to explain so much," says Julia Michels, who re-upped as music co-supervisor with partner Julianne Jordan. "On this one, everybody knew the film, so people either wanted a bigger piece of the pie or more money, and we didn’t have it."

They could pay more for some songs than others, but the "riff-off" mashup sequences dictated that every song used in a medley pay the same amount. For instance, in one scene, a cappella teams compete with spontaneous arrangements of hits in several different categories, one being "I Dated John Mayer." One team does a Vanessa Carlton tune, while another busts out some Swift, to big laughs. If you’re expecting Katy Perry as a third choice, the scene stops short of that. (The film did successfully procure a Perry song for another scene -- for a "low six-figure sum," says an insider -- but, like about 40 other licensed tunes, it got cut.)

Their toughest get? Muse’s "Uprising," as performed by the villainous German singing troupe Das Sound Machine, with bad accents and nearly fascistic choreography. "Empirically, you just don’t see Muse songs licensed all over the place," says Knobloch. "So it was a bit of a coup to have them say yes, not just to licensing ‘Uprising’ but mashing it up with another song." Muse finally softened after director Elizabeth Banks wrote a personal plea to singer Matt Bellamy.

Odd as it seems to keep a tracklist under lock and key, "you can’t follow the normal formula in this case," says Resnikoff, noting that surprise is key. "It would be a disservice to have fans hear what’s on the record without understanding how it fits into the movie. The plot is in the music." 

This article first appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.