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A Soundtrack Is Withheld: How Interscope Gambled and Won, Delaying ‘A Star Is Born’ Album

Conventional wisdom once dictated releasing soundtracks before their respective films. But with "A Star Is Born," songs constituted spoilers.

With horror films, there’s always been a maxim: Hide the monster for as long as possible. Now movie musicals have a similar wisdom of their own: Hide the music.

At least, that was the thinking in the buildup to the release of the soundtrack of “A Star Is Born,” which came out day-and-date with the Bradley Cooper-directed, Lady Gaga-starring movie. The conventional wisdom used to be that you’d put out any kind of soundtrack album in advance of the film, to help juice anticipation for any heavily music-focused film. But that wisdom has lately been turned on its head. In the case of “A Star Is Born,” early release of the songs would have constituted that most dreaded of things in 21stcentury fandom: spoilers.

The decision to withhold the music certainly hasn’t seemed to spoil soundtrack sales. Numbers won’t be in till later this week, but as of Monday night, the so-called explicit version of “Star is Born” held down the No. 1 spot on iTunes, while the edition that has some of the dialogue from the movie slightly censored was at No. 5. This bodes well for its chart-topping prospects when final results for the week are announced, even with the Oct. 5 release date also seeing some of the year’s most anticipated albums coming out, including new ones from Twenty One Pilots, Eric Church and Steve Perry, plus a strong second week from Lil Wayne.

Cherry-pickers are also having their way, as seen on the iTunes digital singles chart, which on Monday was hogged by “Star is Born” tracks holding the first four slots, and six out of the top eight.

“There were a lot of discussions about how the marketing of the music would play out,” says Steve Berman, Interscope’s vice chairman —ongoing talksbetween the label (which is also home to Lady Gaga), the studio and the Cooper and Gaga camps. “This is a special film and the music is not just a soundtrack; all the music is part of the story of the film. And so it was very important to give people a chance to take that in (in theaters) and then have the soundtrack hit. That was a big, big gamble.” He pauses. “I don’t want to say ‘gamble.’ That was a big discussion. And it really boiled down to the confidence in the film, confidence in the music, and let’s follow this vision all the way through.”

They did renege, slightly, on their hold-everything-back strategy, when they decided to release “Shallow” as a single one week before the film. That was a last-minute decision — the longtime intention had been to hold even that till Oct. 5.

“You really have to treat it like a living, breathing organism,” says Anthony Seyler, the EVP of film and TV marketing and licensing for Interscope. “To put the music out so far ahead of people being able to experience it how Bradley and Gaga intended them to experience it, up against the picture, would be underserving the experience. But ultimately it came down where we shifted our strategy very recently on ‘Shallow,’ for several reasons. Up until very recently we were going to hold back everything until October 5, so that we allowed the audience to have that same discovery that we had. But the demand for that song was incredible, after people had experienced the emotion of that scene in some parts through the trailer.” (An excerpt from the tune provided the climax of the preview… and it was the only example of Gaga’s belting seen in the advertising.) “On top of that, you’re dealing with a global release — the film had already been premiered in several countries — so it felt right.”

If you want to know how things have changed, consider the release of the last soundtrack album for a “Star is Born” movie — the one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, in 1976. As the film was coming out in mid-December of that year, the album had already been in stores for three weeks… meaning that for a lot of Streisand fans, “Evergreen” was already an evergreen, before they ever saw her act out the process of writing it on screen. (The Streisand-centric album was eventually certified four times platinum.)

It may be interesting to watch whether more people choose to experience this new soundtrack as a whole or a la carte. The album includes significant amounts of dialogue from the film between tracks, which could be a boon to movie lovers who want to re-experience the arc of the film at home, or a turnoff to music fans who prefer the idea of a Lady Gaga album with occasional country-rock interruptions from Bradley Cooper’s character.

“Between Gaga and Bradley,” says Seyler, “they thought it was the right thing to do, to extend that experience through the soundtrack. And a lot of those dialogue moments really do lead right into the songs.”

Adds Berman, “We’re approaching it that we want to service everybody in this. Gaga has a massive fan base, but this movie is such a great piece of art that we feel it’s going to touch so many different audiences, and we want to be prepared to serve all of those audiences with the way that they consume music. There will be people that see this movie that never buy a piece of product anymore that take it because it’s a memory and souvenir of the film. And then there are people who are going to gravitate towards songs. We wanted to set it up where all fans could be served equally.”

What consumers who buy it may or may not be aware of is that they’re buying a live album… in a manner of speaking, at least. “The vocal are live, and that was obviously a challenge,” says Seyler. “Warner Bros. and and the filmmakers brought in the best of the best as far as the tech team that needed to come in to capture the live vocals, not just in the studio and on sets but in very open spaces like the Greek and Coachella. It was really important to Bradley and Gaga that this was not a lip synch situation.”

Interscope is on a roll with soundtracks making a comeback after having been seen as dying on the vine since their ‘80s and early ‘90s peak. Their success isn’t just making soundtracks feel relevant again, but the very concept of albums, too.

“These albums we’ve done are all so different,” Seyler says. “We just did ‘Black Panther,’ which was a massive success. ‘La La Land’ was an amazing ride. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ out of nowhere was just magical. ‘Across the Universe,’ some people don’t even know about it, and others are obsessed. ‘Great Gatsby’ was a priceless moment in my career. I just put out a soundtrack recently with a small film, ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ that I was mostly drawn to because we had an incredible director that had a vision… Relying on a big hit single, it’s nice when it happens, but I’d rather much have a full, cohesive body of work, and something like ‘A Star Is Born’ gives you that.”

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