Why Are Soundtracks Suddenly Back? Because They're Better Than Ever

Shelves of compact discs in a record shop
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Big selling soundtracks of 2014 and 2015 on shelves in a record shop.

How are tie-in albums to "Furious 7" and "Fifty Shades of Grey" doing so well? By offering smarter all-around products.

The Furious 7 soundtrack drove to the top of last week's Billboard 200 albums chart, as the compilation bumped up 2-1 in its fourth week of release and moved 111,000 equivalent album units in the week ending April 12. The sales surge makes sense: Furious 7 is a box office monster, notching the biggest domestic April debut in history, and its soundtrack is peaking during the film's first few weeks of release. But the fact that the Furious 7 compilation is the fourth chart-topping soundtrack in the past year -- following the Empire season 1 collection, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 album and Frozen compilation -- is eyebrow-raising.

Last year was the first year since 2009 in which multiple theatrical film soundtracks reached No. 1 on the chart; throw in the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has produced two Top 10 hits on the Hot 100, and it can be concluded that we're in the middle of a full-blown soundtrack revival, nearly two decades after the format's late 90's heyday. Cue the Celine!

Soundtracks were all the rage before the turn of the century, when music consumers couldn't go to iTunes and select individual songs for purchase. Although they were sometimes featured as standalone physical singles, buying the full Titanic, Armageddon and City of Angels soundtracks was the easiest way for a listener to own radio smashes like Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" and Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris," respectively. It didn't matter what else was offered on those soundtracks -- they all had at least one hit single and a semi-intriguing mix of artists, so each of those soundtracks sold millions of copies.

"There was an era where you didn't have to try as hard," says Mike Knobloch, Universal Pictures' Film Music President, of pre-iTunes soundtrack curation. "There was a guarantee where, if you banked on selling a soundtrack because of the value of a compilation, it didn't have to be a uniformly great album. You'd have three or four tracks and a bunch of filler, and people would still buy it because it was a great deal."

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That changed with the introduction of digital music retailers in the early 2000's, which encouraged a la carte purchasing and made the concept of the one-killer, lots-of-filler compilation obsolete. There were a few film outliers -- big-selling soundtracks for Y/A fare like the Twilight and Hunger Games films, as well as out-of-left-field hits like the Garden State album -- and music companions for TV hits like High School Musical and Glee thrived. But aside from association with popular teen franchises, the number of bankable soundtracks (and hit singles produced from those soundtracks) largely dwindled in the new millennium, right along with all album sales.

Although general album sales are not close to rebounding, the recent success of the Furious 7 soundtrack -- which has already outsold the soundtracks to Fast Five and Fast 6, in the span of four weeks -- is the latest piece of evidence that new soundtracks can move units and manufacture breakout singles. "See You Again," Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's ballad from Furious 7, hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 last week; meanwhile, two songs from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, the Weeknd's "Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)" and Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," have been in the Top 10 of the singles chart for multiple weeks. The mega-selling Frozen soundtrack notched a smash hit with Idina Menzel's version of "Let It Go," Charli XCX's "Boom Clap" hit the Top 10 after being featured on The Fault In Our Stars compilation, Pharrell Williams' "Happy" rose to No. 1 after leading the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and season 1 of Empire launched a handful of singles that appeared on the Hot 100 chart.

More splashy soundtrack releases are coming with the summer blockbusters: the a cappella extravaganza Pitch Perfect 2, for instance, will hit theaters on May 15. Two years ago, Anna Kendrick's "Cups (Pitch Perfect's When I'm Gone)" became an unlikely Top 10 hit from the original film's soundtrack, which has sold 1.2 million copies to date, according to Nielsen Music. "We expect the soundtrack for [Pitch Perfect 2] to be a big customer favorite when it is released," says Steve Boom, Vice President of Digital Music at Amazon. Boom adds that there is "a lot of anticipation" for the soundtracks to Avengers Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road, to be released April 28 and May 12, respectively.

According to Kevin Weaver, Atlantic Records' president of TV & Film, high-profile soundtracks and soundtrack singles are back in vogue because companion albums are finally meeting modern consumer demands. "The process has really evolved," says Weaver, who A&R'ed and co-produced the Furious 7 soundtrack with Warner Music Group president of worldwide A&R Mike Caren. "The public got wise to [what soundtracks were] and didn't care about them anymore, and over the past handful of years, films have started using music in a really meaningful way. There have been songs specifically created for films, and rolled out and marketed in the right way, and used in the advertising around the release of the pictures."

So how does one create a soundtrack that people actually want to buy in 2015, like Furious 7? By following these five simple rules:

1. Not every movie deserves a blockbuster soundtrack, so choose wisely. "It's not a given that you can do this on every movie -- the movie itself has to be the right vehicle for a soundtrack to be compelling," says Knobloch. Before Furious 7 was given an all-star soundtrack, Universal experimented with the Fast 6 soundtrack in 2013, launching the track "We Own It (Fast & Furious)" by 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa as the lone new single from the Def Jam release. Although the Fast 6 soundtrack has sold only 80,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music, the film's boffo box office and the draw of "We Own It" -- which sold 1.37 million downloads -- was palpable enough to commission a fully original compilation for the franchise's next installment, headed by the Atlantic team that gave "We Own it" to Fast 6.

2. Marry customized music with memorable scenes. For Furious 7, Universal wanted new songs paired with key sequences in the film: for instance, "See You Again" by Khalifa and Puth was designed as a Paul Walker farewell, and "Payback" by Juicy J, Kevin Gates, Future and Sage The Gemini was written as a gritty revenge anthem for Jason Statham's opening sequence. In order to mine these perfect-fit music moments, Universal brought in a stable of Warner Music Group writers and producers early in the post-production process. "It was sort of a writers' camp with a movie screen," says Knobloch, "and we laid it out as early as we could, to go spot-for-spot with a theater full of hit makers."

3. …Or pair classic music with memorable scenes. Although recent soundtrack successes like Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games have relied on original tunes, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart last summer thanks to a mix of hits released in the late 60's and 70's like Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" and the Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child," nearly all of which were played in the film on the main character's Walkman. Expect more of these throwback soundtracks that tie directly into the movie music and encourage fans of the film to relive their old favorites. In July, Minions, a spinoff of the Despicable Me franchise partially set in the 1960s, will be unveiled with a soundtrack full of previously released classics.

4. Make sure the right artists have signed on. "See You Again" is the biggest hit from Furious 7, but the full soundtrack -- which includes new songs from Prince Royce, T.I. and Young Thug, Khalifa and Iggy Azalea and Dillon Francis & DJ Snake -- shares the multicultural authenticity of the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, and crucially so. The soundtrack curation was less about assembling a group of stars, but the correct group of stars. "When we put different artists on these songs, it was almost like casting auxiliary cast members," says Knobloch. "We have to be very careful to go with artists that make sense for the movie. People who were loyal to the franchise would reject songs if there were artists on them that didn't feel like they belonged in a Fast & Furious movie."

5. Make it "meaningful." It's a word that Weaver, who also helped the Fault In Our Stars soundtrack find a breakout hit with "Boom Clap," keeps returning to when describing the impact of "See You Again," a salute to Walker that has touched a nerve with filmgoers. "It's really connected with folks in a meaningful capacity," he says. "It was an important moment in pop culture, and a real relevant moment in film history."

Modern soundtracks have started finding more success, Knobloch professes, because studios are doing a better job at locating these powerful moments and delivering genuine musical impact on the viewer. That's why the emotional closing of Furious 7, featuring "See You Again," has resonated so strongly. "We're finding that what is working for us are movies where part of people's experience is walking out, and parts of their brains are lit up, and they want the music from it in order to relive their experience of that movie over and over again," he says. "People should walk out of the theater and want this thing. It starts at the movie."