Synergy harmonizes numbers with film, TV

While most movie studios are singing the blues over soundtracks, Disney is whistling “Zip-A-Dee-Doo Dah.”

Once a reliable ancillary revenue stream, the soundtrack biz has been out of tune. The retail market has collapsed, contributing to the 25% freefall in soundtrack sales since 2006, when the Nielsen SoundScan figure totaled 27.2 million. But for the Mouse House, music is the means to “move the meter” — raise audience awareness — for a Disney film/TV production, according to Mitchell Leib, the studio’s president of music and soundtracks for live features.

Disney’s commitment to this old-school formula has resulted in the “Hannah Montana” film/TV franchise chalking up 10 million-plus album sales Stateside, and the “High School Musical” soundtrack moving 3.7 million units in 2006, thus becoming that year’s top-selling Nielsen SoundScan album.

Granted, Disney has a historically deft touch with creating musically driven projects aimed at moppets. However, the studio’s success with its music department can largely be attributed to reaching that core demo directly through its media outlets, specifically Radio Disney (49 stations covering 60% of the nation), the Disney Channel and ABC Family (each reaching close to 97 million U.S. households).

“Disney has an inherent advantage in controlling its (buying) universe and can monetize that with its record-buying audience,” Leib says. “Our credo: Produce with marketing in mind.”

When the Mouse House shells out for a record, particularly with a performer who jives with the production, the studio reaps several upsides:

  • Potential radio hit with pic’s release. Though rare for any studio nowadays, Disney benefited from slotting Flo Rida’s rap single “Low” in 2008′s “Step Up 2: The Streets.” “Low” became a hit prior to the pic’s bow. Disney played it aggressively in ads, along with a clean remix on Radio Disney, ultimately fueling a SoundScan 4.5 million digital sales record.

  • Piquing curiosity. Disney music exec VP Glen Lajeski ensures that a pic’s music is married to its marketing campaign. One of the highlights on his resume is creating audience awareness for Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Dangerous Minds” (1995) by attaching “Gangsta’s Paradise” to the pic, fueling a mega chart stopper. Drumming up interest in the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” score, Lajeski brought in famed house DJ Tiesto to remix the title theme so that it could play in dance clubs worldwide.

  • Song Oscar bait. Despite the Academy’s eclectic tastes as of late, its music branch is continually drawn to the storytelling aspects of the songs in Disney’s animated features, resulting in 35 noms to date. Some of the titles Disney is tubthumping this year include Randy Newman’s New Orleans-infused soundtrack for “The Princess and the Frog,” along with Paul McCartney’s end titles track “(I Want to) Come Home” from “Everybody’s Fine.”

  • Attracting marquee crooners. Much like penning the opening song for a James Bond film, top-shelf performers savor the opportunity to write a Disney tune. In March, the studio will throw its weight behind Avril Lavigne’s “Alice Underground” from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” as well as Daft Punk’s sonic “Tron Legacy” score in December.

  • Cheering for the home team. Having cultivated such titans as Miley Cyrus, soundtracks also serve as a launch pad for Disney’s stable of burgeoning pop acts, freeing up their music execs from having to haggle over another label’s artist. Up next: Alpha Rev’s Casey McPherson, who will have a track on Cyrus’ pic “The Last Song.”

“We looked beyond the bottom line and saw a greater purpose for the labels as a movie studio,” Leib says. “It starts and ends with synergy.”

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