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The Hills Are Alive With the...

Michael Walker is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

The record industry has soundtrack fever.

Though it wasn’t released until November, the “Bodyguard” soundtrack--featuring Whitney Houston--ended up the fourth-biggest-selling album of last year. Total sales to date: more than 6 million copies.

That’s just one of more than a dozen soundtracks on the national album sales chart in Billboard’s Jan. 23 issue, seven with sales of more than 1 million. Among the others: “Boomerang,” “Singles” and “Wayne’s World.”

Since August, the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s singles chart has been blockaded by songs from “The Bodyguard,” “A League of Their Own,” “Boomerang” and the shelved Fox Television series “The Heights.” The hits include Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” a track from “Boomerang” that spent a record 14 consecutive weeks at No. 1, and Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” a song from “The Bodyguard” that is now in its 11th at No. 1.

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The commercial punch of soundtracks may be overshadowed in the media by all the excitement over the sales heat of country, grunge and rap, but record executives have certainly gotten the point. They know that one key to selling lots of albums is getting the record heard by as many people as possible--and soundtracks can be a promotional and marketing dream.

“I’m constantly getting calls from artists who want to be part of soundtracks,” says Tim Devine, a vice president of artists and repertoire who specializes in soundtracks at Capitol Records. “It’s an additional vehicle that can circumvent the normal music-business channels.”

The benefits of having a song in a movie are obvious.

Besides the normal outlets for a pop recording, a company gets additional chances to hook potential buyers when it is included in a film. The music can be featured in the film itself, in the theatrical trailers and in the TV ads for the film.

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“Let’s say a film does $100 million,” says Marshall Leib, vice president of artists and repertoire and soundtrack supervisor at Arista Records. “At seven bucks a head, that means 14 million people have seen the movie and heard my song. Then it goes to video, then pay cable, then TV syndication. You can really get some great exposure.”

The surprise in this booming business is that the record can be a hit even if the film or television series isn’t.

For example, “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” from Fox’s “The Heights,” hit No. 1 on the pop charts despite the show’s abysmal ratings.

The song that “Angel” bumped from the top--Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road"--was taken from the soundtrack for “Boomerang,” the Eddie Murphy vehicle released last summer. “Boomerang” quickly fizzled at the box office after grossing a disappointing (for Murphy) $69 million, but the hits from the soundtrack just keep coming.

Similarly, Eric Clapton parlayed the elegiac “Tears in Heaven,” a song he wrote for the “Rush” soundtrack, into one of his biggest hits even as “Rush” sank at the box office.

While Clapton’s career was hardly in decline, “Tears in Heaven” reintroduced him to mainstream radio listeners, who went on to buy more than 1 million copies of the single and paved the way for his latest smash, an acoustic reworking of “Layla,” his signature song. All this contributed to his receiving nine Grammy nominations this month.

Even if a movie turns out to be a dog, record companies are able to “ride on the coattails of a movie’s $10-million marketing campaign,” Leib says. “You have trailers, print campaigns, street signs.”

With all this promotional muscle available in a tight economy, it’s no wonder that record companies and artists’ managers are aggressively exploring ways to exploit the Hollywood connection. Sony’s Epic label and Warner Bros.’ Giant affiliate have already set up divisions expressly to handle soundtracks.

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The potency of the Hollywood-pop connection has been demonstrated over the years, notably in the 15 million sales in 1977 of the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack--one of the defining moments of the disco era.

But the recent upswing in the movie-pop partnership is traced largely to Bryan Adams’ "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” from 1991. The song, from the hugely popular film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” was the longest-running No. 1 single of that year. Estimated sales: more than 3 million copies.

The door provided by film exposure is especially valuable for new or foundering acts.

“A soundtrack album becomes a good opportunity to revive a career or to put you back in the marketplace in a different context,” says Tim Sexton, an executive with Giant’s Big Screen Records.

“ ‘New Jack City’ is a prime example,” he says, referring to the 1991 film. “That soundtrack album was what broke Color Me Badd.”

In addition to old acts, soundtracks can dramatically resuscitate old hits, such as Ben E. King’s 1961 smash “Stand by Me,” the theme to the Rob Reiner 1986 movie of the same name, and Queen’s mock-operatic 1976 hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which returned to the charts last year courtesy of the “Wayne’s World” soundtrack.

The soundtrack business is also generating substantial crossover business for “urban” acts (the record-industry euphemism for “nonwhite”).

“The movie business is just starting to figure out what the record business has known all along,” Leib says. “The urban market is the market of the future. That’s the community that’s gonna go out and wait in line and be driven into the record stores and be passionate about what they’re doing.”

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And with the rise of black-oriented movies such as “Mo’ Money,” “Boomerang,” “New Jack City,” “South Central,” “Boyz N the Hood” and the entire Spike Lee oeuvre , a spate of black acts have had their careers enhanced by exposure from hit soundtracks.

A bonus in the soundtrack sweepstakes is the continuing stimulus that home videos provide for additional sales of soundtracks, whose potentially limitless shelf life dovetails neatly with its now equally durable counterpart at the local video retailer.

It’s not implausible that the sons and daughters of the twentysomethings will one day discover “The Breakfast Club” on video, be filled with a longing to hear Simple Minds moan “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and go hunting for the soundtrack at the neighborhood record store.

“The ideal soundtrack is one that succeeding generations will want to discover at their own pace,” says Glen Brunman, head of the Epic Soundtrax label. “It won’t disappear six months after the movie.”

Brunman cites his label’s “Singles” soundtrack as an example. Released last summer three months ahead of the movie, the album quickly became a hit on its own for its bounty of such Seattle-rock stalwarts as Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains, as well as alternative-rock darlings Paul Westerberg and Smashing Pumpkins.

In the end, “Singles” did moderate business at the box office but the soundtrack, which sailed past the 1-million mark in sales, continues to sell strongly, and Epic plans to promote the album in conjunction with the release of “Singles” on video this spring. Indeed, the soundtracks to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sister Act” registered strong sales rebounds after those movies were released on home video, Billboard magazine reported in its Dec. 26 issue.

Given the potential revenue involved, there is a lot of pressure for record companies and managers to get their acts represented on key soundtracks. That has given substantial power to the labels’ movie-music supervisors, who act as liaisons between the studios and record companies.

They keep tabs on which bands are between albums (and thus might have an outtake to contribute to a soundtrack), wade through mountains of unsolicited songs and marshal acts from the various labels.

“There’s a lot of horse-trading,” says Sexton, who, like Leib, has handled music supervision on dozens of films. “Record labels make agreements for one soundtrack in exchange for reciprocity down the road: ‘I’ll trade you Pearl Jam if you promise to give me Bonnie Raitt and the Pet Shop Boys when we do our soundtrack.’ ”

Not surprisingly, he adds, the deals “can be very complicated--a half-dozen parties can be involved within a single song, and a deal has to be structured with each of them.” For these services--music supervisors also receive shooting scripts from studios in advance and are sometimes present in the editing room during a film’s final cut--fees range from $5,000 to $150,000 and more. They may also get a royalty of about 2% for each record sold--a handsome windfall on multimillion-selling soundtracks.

With so much money and exposure at stake, expect to see plenty of soundtracks in the future--with or without hit movies attached.

Perhaps the best indication of a soundtrack’s stand-alone power can be found in the experience of the hapless “The Heights.” Even as the Fox network banished it from the airwaves, Capitol Records wasted no time gearing up a follow-up single to “How Do You Talk to an Angel.” Its title, further evidence that Hollywood and the record business remain irony-proof: “I’m Still on Your Side.”


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