Soundtracks are front and center in the Hollywood system in a way they never have been in the past. A decline in both box-office and recorded music sales has placed a stronger emphasis on soundtracks with tighter integration to the stories being told, given studios greater access to music by major artists, and better opportunities in film, TV and video games to smaller musical acts.

That was the consensus in a master class on choosing music for visual media at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music conference, held today (Nov. 1) in Beverly Hills.

Though soundtracks, like the rest of recorded music, have seen their sales decline in recent years, they now claim a bigger market share, said Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's charts director and senior analyst.

"We're no longer in the era where you have record stores next door to the theaters in the malls of America," said Walt Disney Studios' president of film music and soundtracks, Mitchell Leib. Successful soundtracks - whether they be "Grey's Anatomy" compilations or "High School Musical," the top-selling album of 2006 - are featured prominently in a film or TV show and are integrated both story-wise and in the film's promotion, said Leib.

Gone are the days when a big-name artist would disdain working on a film, or when their label would insist on cramming in one of their songs that didn't fit, or when a big act would simply throw some songs together without regard for whether they actually helped tell a story, the panelists said.

"I'm working with artists and record producers who have never scored films before. It's an incredibly vital creative time now," agreed Lia Vollack, president of worldwide music for Sony Pictures.