Many soundtracks are better suited to an afterlife

Tracking soundtracks and their potential in the iTunes age has started to feel like spinning the big wheel on “The Price Is Right.” One season it lands on major studio labels, the next year the indies hit the jackpot, and the next the whole thing is dead — and then there’s always the fluid issue about cost.

This year the soundtrack leader is Rhino’s “Juno” album, which has moved 1 million copies since its release Jan. 15. That record, dominated by songs from Kimya Dawson, who wrote one track specifically for the film, stands as an anomaly in a year that has been good only for musicals, Disney products, TV-based pics and holdovers such as “August Rush,” which was still in the top 200 a year after its release. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” which has sold fewer than 50,000 copies, demonstrates that not all indie compilations are equal.

“The climate’s tough out there,” says Tracy McKnight, an indie music supervisor for a dozen years and now VP of film music for Lionsgate. “I think we have seen too many albums without that whole listening experience.

“We’re seeing people thinking in a different way. Music and film and the discovery part of music will always be there. Some smaller labels are emerging — it’s a matter of having some faith, making it fun and exciting again.”

Glen Brunman, who acquired and supervised the marketing of the “Garden State” and “Once” soundtracks, notes it has been years since music worked as a marketing tool.

“It’s about resonant moments — the meaningful use of music in a film helps a movie touch people, and emotion plays an important part in whether they buy a record,” he says. “In assembling a soundtrack, some people have been reluctant to accept that.”

In conversations with music supervisors, musicians and label execs, there’s a firm sense that the emphasis in soundtracks has shifted away from marketing ploys and toward making sense within the film. The number of soundtracks issued continues to dwindle. Nevertheless, the emphasis, to hear those involved tell it, is the perfect match of song and image.

Peter Salett, who scored “Down in the Valley” and wrote for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” was presented with a rare opportunity on David Wain’s “Role Models”: Pen a song to a locked print.

“They had tried hundreds of songs and none were working to everyone’s satisfaction,” Salett relates. “I wrote a song and it was on the shortlist for a month. But when they mixed the movie, they missed the part where the song was to go. On the day before they had to (submit) a finished mix, they asked if I could add more instrumentation. I worked from midnight to 5 — with the caveat that the song was not guaranteed to go in.

“At the end, I wrote about the scene like it was part of the score. I’m singing words that have to do with the story but (with) not so much narrative that they poke out. When it works, it blends seamlessly and enhances the characters.”

Stories similar to Salett’s abound. Joel C. High, music supervisor for Tyler Perry’s pics, tells of fulfilling the filmmaker’s desire to place a Lee Ann Womack song at the center of “The Family That Preys.” G. Marq Roswell found the soul of last year’s “The Great Debaters” in Sharon Jones singing songs from the 1930s. And McKnight found Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks to set the perfect tone for the Paul Giamatti starrer “Cold Souls.”

“For the indie artist, it couldn’t be a better time to find exposure all these ways,” notes Roswell, ranging from landing in a commercial to being raved about on the right blog. “There’s so much good music available that you need to have good ears, whether you’re a blogger or A&R person or producer.”

Roswell’s partner at 35 Sound, Adam Swart, notes how a paradigm shift in tastemaking has brought about a bottom-up model from the top-down one, meaning the emphasis is on endorsements from the first wave of people who come in contact with the music rather than the traditional gatekeepers. Music supervisors are finding themselves in that role, attempting to bring the fresh and the new — not to mention potentially inexpensive — to directors.

“At the end of the day, you have to be financially responsible,” says McKnight, who has more than 100 films under her belt. “It’s not OK to discourage a director from their vision. But when you bypass money because you’re reaching out about art, it keeps you going.”

“It’s great when you’re supported,” Roswell says. “It would be nice to come across directors who say, ‘Let’s really break the paradigm.’ We’d have a real cohesive focus” among music supervisors and filmmakers.

High senses he has that with Perry.

“He’s not concerned about having chart toppers in his films,” says the music supervisor. “(On one case) we ended up using Candi Staton, not a chart-topping song or artist, but it was perfect. It’s not about being synergistic with marketing. It’s using something sung beautifully.”

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