How Movie Soundtracks Came Back From the Dead With 'Fifty Shades' & 'Fast & Furious' Leading the Pack

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades Darker.
Doane Gregory/©Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades Darker.

When four soundtracks, including Moana and La La Land, landed in the Billboard 200 top 10 this January, it marked the first time in nearly 19 years that music from the movies had placed so prominently on the Billboard 200. And with recent soundtracks like Fifty Shades Darker debuting at No. 1 (on the chart dated March 4), movie music looks to be entering a new golden age.

“It feels like a resurgence, without question,” says Kevin Weaver, president of film and TV at Atlantic Records, home of the Suicide Squad soundtrack, which spent two weeks at No. 1 after its August release. “Any record label that says they aren’t looking to put out more soundtracks isn’t paying attention to the charts,” adds Tom Mackay, exec vp/GM of West Coast for Republic Records, which released Fifty Shades Darker. “We’re creating a new generation of soundtrack buyers.” 

Driving the phenomenon is film studios’ commitment to original music in movies beyond the usual end title track. Fifty Shades Darker and its predecessor, Fifty Shades of Grey, contain almost all new material. Similarly, the Feb. 24-released Atlantic soundtrack for The Shack comprises 14 new tracks from artists like Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. “We’re seeing that the right music specifically created and tied to the right media really has value,” says Weaver.

Six years ago, movie soundtrack sales were down 40 percent from the prior four years, and collections from Glee clogged the charts despite bright spots like the Twilight Saga soundtracks.

Today’s curated collections appeal to fans as “souvenirs” of their moviegoing experience, says Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing Mike Knobloch, who helmed the Fifty Shades, Pitch Perfect and Fast & Furious soundtracks. “You can deliver a more unique, satisfying experience when you bring an artist in and create something from the foundation up,” he says, citing Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” featuring Charlie Puth from Furious 7 and Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” from Fifty Shades Darker as original songs that helped propel soundtrack sales and became an integral part of marketing the film. "'I Don't Wanna Live Forever' really became the anthem for the movie's campaign," Knobloch says. The song dropped in mid-December and got people's attention as the run-up to the film."

Even though creating a track from scratch can cost much more than licensing a pre-existing song, the studios also own a portion of the publishing on songs created for their films, so they become an ongoing revenue source. Universal Pictures makes tens of millions of dollars annually from its song publishing catalog, including songs like “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.

While soundtracks composed of previously released material still occasionally connect -- including Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and Sing over the holidays -- most studios have little interest in creating a streaming playlist for existing copyrights. “Because streaming is expanding and becoming part of our every lives, you see [studios] saying, 'If we’re going to go through the exercise and expense of doing this, don’t we want to create [something] unique to the film?'” Mackay says. 

For The Shack, the idea was to create an ecosystem where “the film and songs are inseparable, which would not have happened if we simply tapped previously released tracks,” says the movie’s music supervisor, Anastasia Brown. The filmmakers invited songwriters and artists from around the world to screen the movie. “Every song written for the soundtrack reveals just how the story impacted that songwriter,” she says. 

The movies are also serving as an introduction to new acts: The Weeknd started his mainstream breakthrough with his appearance on Ariana Grande's "Love Me Harder" in 2014, but it was "Earned It" from Fifty Shades of Grey that pushed him into the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. 

“You are seeing an entire generation going to a theater and discovering a new artist they wouldn’t have discovered any other way,” Mackay says. The immediacy is so great, he adds that Republic’s research reveals that fans are Shazam’ing during the movie, “and start streaming the soundtrack once they walk out of the theater.” 

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 11 issue of Billboard.