Exclusive content key to reviving soundtrack biz

Sales may have sunk like the Titanic since the success of that 1997 movie’s phenomenal, 11-time platinum soundtrack, but film music supervisors and executives have come up with a number of ways to try to keep the genre afloat.

“Without question, the most important dimension is to have something exclusive to offer” on a soundtrack, says Jason Linn, head of WaterTower Music, Warner Bros. Pictures’ inhouse label, and home to the “Sex and the City” and “Valentine’s Day” soundtracks. “Nothing makes us happier than reading through a script and seeing the opportunity for two or three music (slots).”

The past decade has been so dismal many studios no longer release soundtracks, especially for films that emphasize previously released songs readily available on iTunes.

There are some notable exceptions, such as the “High School Musical” and “Glee” franchises, but nowhere has the value of exclusives been more evident than with the trio of “Twilight” releases.

The first “Twilight” soundtrack (2008), featured a number of exclusive tracks by alternative acts. The success of the movie and the companion album (Chop Shop/Atlantic), which has sold 2.6 million copies in the U.S. alone, led to the decision to feature all new music from the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Muse and Grizzly Bear on the sequel, 2009′s “New Moon,” and third installment, 2010′s “Eclipse.” Those albums have sold 1.17 million and 395,000, respectively, to date. Anticipation for who would appear on the “Eclipse” soundtrack was so great the announcement became an event, with iTunes time-releasing the news of each act per hour.

“With ‘Eclipse’ and ‘New Moon’ we had the time and interest to have only unreleased songs for the soundtrack,” says music supervisor/Chop Shop founder Alexandra Patsavas. There were hundreds of submissions to choose from, she says.

When it is appropriate (and it often may not be for a period piece), “it’s always a better experience for the music to be introduced the first time you’re experiencing the drama,” Patsavas says. “The music you’re hearing is always going to be linked in the audience member’s mind.”

Bigscreen vampires aren’t the only ones drawing in fans. Elektra released “True Blood — Music From the HBO Original Series Volume II” in May. The collection offered new and exclusive tracks from “True Blood” fan Beck, Robbie Robertson and Lucinda Williams with Elvis Costello.

“Having exclusive tracks works on so many levels,” says soundtrack supervisor/KCRW DJ Gary Calamar. “For business, you know that’s a great way to direct them to the soundtrack because that’s where they have to get (the Beck song) from. It’s also great for the artist when you commission a song. It’s a fun creative challenge for them to write on assignment like that.”

While many soundtracks, such as “True Blood,” don’t allow individual songs to be sold via iTunes (fans have to purchase the complete soundtrack in an effort to boost album sales), others take a different tack: offering many of the exclusive songs on iTunes as individual downloads.

For the “Sex and the City 2″ collection, WaterTower allowed for two exclusive tracks, Alicia Keys’ remake of Blondie’s “Rapture” and the Jennifer Hudson/Leona Lewis duet, “Love Is Your Color,” to be sold separately on iTunes.

“It’s two different customers,” Linn says. “A superstar single and a soundtrack compilation album featuring other superstars can co-exist. The Keys’ downloads aren’t oversized to where they are cannibalizing (the soundtrack).”

WaterTower (in conjunction with Big Machine) also allowed for Taylor Swift’s “Today Was a Fairytale” and Jewel’s “Stay Here Forever” to be sold as individual downloads as well as part of the “Valentine’s Day” soundtrack.

Such a strategy has also worked well for the wildly popular “Glee,” which has landed three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 since its 2009 launch. Gleeks have snapped up more than 4.3 million copies of the five albums released and more than 12.3 million individual song downloads, per Sony Music.

The majority of tracks are available on iTunes as soon as the episode ends, regardless of when the physical CD ships, so fans can strike while the iron is hot.

“From the very beginning, Ryan (Murphy, the show creator) and Fox and Columbia decided that we should make available all of the key musical performances from each episode for immediate download purchase,” says Glen Brunman, soundtrack consultant for Sony’s Columbia Records. “We considered that our responsibility to the show’s audience.”

As fewer overall soundtrack units are sold and artists increasingly value the exposure (and media budget) a movie or TV soundtrack placement affords them, the business deals have changed. While superstar acts can still command as much as seven figures for usage of a vital song to a movie, the studios are generally offering 25% of what they may have paid 15 years ago, a source says. Different rights allow for various usages: A company may have a limited window to sell an individual download, but will have the rights to the song for inclusion in the soundtrack in perpetuity.

Deals are structured between the studio and releasing label, which pays the studio for the rights to the soundtrack, and with the participating artists, with many labels keeping a close eye on the bottom line.

Elektra/Atlantic, which released the soundtrack to “Step Up 3D,” with new songs from Trey Songz and Flo Rida in July, “uses realistic figures and they don’t overpay anybody,” Calamar says. “They make good deals and they’re able to profit from it. They’re very creative all around.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more