RCA's Karen Lamberton talks Pink's 'Just Like Fire' and Blockbuster-Fueled Singles

Peter Mountain / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
A promotional still from Alice Through the Looking Glass

The past few years in particular have seen a renaissance of high-profile, blockbuster singles from film soundtracks by the likes of Pharrell ("Happy" from Despicable Me 2), Idina Menzel ("Let It Go" from Frozen) and Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth ("See You Again" from Furious 7). But this year's slate has turned the mega-movie fad into a full-fledged trend, with films like Alice Through the Looking Glass, Trolls, Me Before You and Suicide Squad (the soundtrack to which is headed for a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 chart this weekend) turning film releases into multi-media events.

Already in 2016, that's proven a boon for RCA Records, which has seen success with both Pink ("Just Like Fire" from Alice) and Justin Timberlake ("Can't Stop the Feeling!" from Trolls) landing top 10 hits on the Hot 100 at No. 10 and No. 1, respectively. But what's the secret alchemy behind achieving soundtrack success? Billboard speaks with RCA senior vice president of film & TV music and strategic marketing Karen Lamberton about Disney, Pink, Trolls and more.

How does a soundtrack opportunity like Pink's "Just Like Fire" from Alice Through the Looking Glass come together?

Mitchell Leib at Disney is a great colleague who we work with regularly, and Disney has a couple of huge, huge film opportunities each year. He called me ages and ages ago and we were talking about the film and the project and about female artists who present sort of a badass vibe. Pink is, within our roster, an obvious choice for that genre of song. She's an incredible woman, she's just got so many sides to her and she's just kind of a badass, which was sort of the theme of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Honestly, I think he called me thinking about Pink. I can't remember exactly what the conversation was, but to both of us that very much seemed like an obvious; she just seemed like the perfect person for that film. 

And from [RCA's] perspective, she was between projects. That's always a great time to do a single with a film company, because it sort of gives the artist visibility during a time where they might be a little more dormant. But we weren't working a brand new or existing Pink album, so it just seemed like it would be a great moment for her. And we love working with Disney. 

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I reached out to Pink's manager, Roger Davies, and said,'"Listen, she's off right now doing other things, but gosh, Disney's got this film and it's a huge franchise for them, and it could be a fun thing for her to do while she's between projects. Would she be interested in writing for it?' And Roger went away and came back and said, 'You know what? She's interested. Let's see if she can see the movie.' It took a couple of weeks to get that together, and one of the executives at Disney went to Pink's house and played her the movie and she was, honestly, inspired right off the bat. I know that her first meeting that she did with Mitchell, after we decided we were going to do this, she came with a notebook full of notes, things she had written down while she watched the film, themes that she wanted to touch upon. She got with Max [Martin], who's obviously an incredible writer and producer, and they wrote an amazing song. 

How is planning and putting together a soundtrack different from how you would plan or put together a regular album?

"Just Like Fire," from RCA's perspective, was really more of a single exercise, where something like Trolls for us is going to be a full album project. For "Just like Fire," RCA worked with Disney, but Disney actually released the full soundtrack album. It was mostly the score and then the Pink track, and then we handled it as a single. We worked it to radio, and we were responsible for the success of the single, if that makes sense. 

So, for us, very different projects, because with Alice Through the Looking Glass, we were focused on this one song, this one sort of huge look tied to a kajillion dollar franchise from the Disney side. So much of these kinds of deals are about timing: What is the artist doing at that time? Is it a good moment for them to have something in the marketplace? But when we heard the song, we were like, 'Oh, my gosh. It's perfect for the film, it's perfect for the story of the film.' And it sure sounded like it would work on Top 40. Our head of radio thought it was incredible, and he took it, and it went No. 1 at Top 40 and it led directly into the release of the film. 

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Everything we planned for and wanted to do worked out perfectly. But that really all goes back to Pink and how involved she is and how when she says she's going to do something, she delivers 110 percent. And when you're given that kind of tool, when you have an artist who is so engaged like that, it's our job to execute. And our radio team did it beautifully.

Why do you think this song in particular resonated so well? 

I mean, I think female empowerment songs -- gosh, you know, it's interesting, because I'm the head of licensing so oftentimes I look at these things from a licensing perspective. And female empowerment songs always work for us. There's always a need for that. But I think for this song, it had a great hook. It was a great time of year to go with something. It was in the marketing for the film so we had a lot of exposure, but honestly, it's a great song with a great performance, and the video that Disney made was stunning. Pink did her thing. It's colorful and bright and fits with the film and she still found time to hang upside down. [Laughs]

This year in particular, it seems like there's more big blockbuster singles that are coming from these types of soundtracks. Is there particular reason, in your experience, that these one-off songs keep exploding in this way?

It's an interesting question; I don't know. I think when you do a song for a film, you get to be creative in a very different way than when you're making your own record. When you're making your own record -- and I'm speaking on behalf of artists -- you're trying to be true to your own self and your own artistry, whereas you get to step out of your box a little bit when you're making a song for a film because you're trying to help somebody fulfill their vision. So you're working with the directors, you're working with the producers to augment what they're doing, and I think it gives artists an opportunity to try something a little bit different. I don't know if that's why these have broken through this year. I don't know if that's directly related, but it's certainly an interesting point. You're allowed to do different stuff, take a different angle when you're working on soundtracks.

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The film itself, Alice Through the Looking Glass, didn't get great reviews, it underwhelmed at the box office. But the song itself was a top 10 Hot 100 hit. In your experience, to what extent are songs and films tied together? 

It's funny, I've been looking into this recently trying to find a direct correlation. I think if both are successful, they feed off of each other. And the more hype that's created by consumers watching a movie, they get excited about the music and vice versa. That's the ideal scenario, where everything is hitting and you're going at the right time and everything is working out well. With Alice, of course we would have loved to see the film do better, but the truth is, we were already sort of in it. We had something to work around. We had a focus, we had a goal. There was a date and we went after that date because that's when the trailer was hitting, and then we went after the next date because that's when the film was coming out. So you're given this opportunity to work with precision, because there are confines that you don't always necessarily have when you're working on an artist album.

I would say with soundtracks in general, I think there was a lull in the interest in doing soundtracks and the success of soundtracks that lasted a good long time. And in the last few years, soundtracks came back. You had Guardians of the Galaxy and you had Pitch Perfect and you had Fifty Shades of Grey -- all these soundtrack albums, and some of them were doing these blockbuster numbers, which you really hadn't seen in a long, long time. So I think we as a label, and artists, are getting more excited about doing soundtrack albums again, because it seems like they were working. We're interested in anything that works. Anything that will help us get exposure and turn some profit. Also, artists like to do it. It's fun for them. 

And the Justin [Timberlake] thing for Trolls, there's sort of no precedent for what ["Can't Stop the Feeling!"] has done. To me, that song was the perfect summer anthem. That song, when we first heard it, felt so summer time. It was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be incredible.' And we put it out far before the film, but the rest of the soundtrack album is incredible. We're so excited about it. That one was truly Justin's vision from beginning to end. We can't wait to get that one out the door because it's a great album.

A version of this article appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.