Who doesn't recall the cultural contagions of Grease and Saturday Night Fever? Or the boost in Motown's popularity after The Big Chill was released?
Incredibly popular as those soundtracks were, they stand out even more in memory because in the '70s and '80s, soundtracks were pretty rare. Not anymore. Record companies are releasing not just music from current films but reissues of everything from the Bernard Herrmann score of Taxi Driver and John Williams' Close Encounters of the Third Kind to compilations of themes from B-Westerns and collections of Doris Day's early film music. Even The Big Chill soundtrack will be reissued this month to commemorate the film's 15th anniversary.
Can the market support all this plastic? When you hear about deals like the $2 million advance for the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas soundtrack—a record that sold less than 15,000 copies—you have to wonder.
"The perception is that soundtracks have become popular, even though there's infinitely more out there, so there's a better chance you're going to see one on the charts," notes Skip Williamson, president of the local label Will Records, home to critically acclaimed acts like Joey Altruda and Granddaddy. Over the past year, Will has released soundtracks for indie films such as Dream with the Fishes, Box of Moonlight, and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss. The label's new direction is a result of joining forces with Lakeshore, a division of Paramount Pictures that buys foreign rights for many indie films.
For the current film Buffalo 66, Will has released a remarkable collection of songs mostly composed and played by Vincent Gallo, also the film's writer and director. His intimately recorded prog rock fits well alongside chestnuts from King Crimson and Yes, plus the odd lounge standard by Johnny Mercer or Eddie Sauter. "On a small-budget film, it's much easier financially and logistically to get a preexisting track," Williamson says. "Most soundtracks—especially the ones that we've done, because we don't do these huge-budget ones—contain tracks that've been around forever."
Using previously released songs, a label can't rely on the usual marketing routes—reviews and radio play—and instead has to piggyback on the film itself, a difficult proposition. "Most films are only in the theater for six weeks at the most," Williamson points out. "It's like having a band on tour in every one of those cities simultaneously for six weeks." The VCR has prolonged this shelf life, however; Will's Dream with the Fishes soundtrack has sold more since the film's video release than in the 10 weeks it was in theaters across the country.
Indie film, like indie rock, has become a genre rather than a description of the means of creation and distribution, which can be a double-edged sword: The resulting loss of authenticity comes hand-in-hand with widening opportunities for unknown bands and small labels. If involved in the soundtrack from its early stages, a small label can even lobby the director to include its own bands. Not only do the label's bands come cheap, but inclusion on a soundtrack can break an act to an international audience. Will, for example, is handling the soundtrack for the upcoming Lake- shore film Arlington Road, a $40 million movie, and Williamson hopes to get the label's newest signees, the Souvenirs, signed on to do the end title credit. "That [would] expose the band to way more people than could ever get exposed to them over AAA radio.
"A lot of times, though, we're involved with films that somebody bought at Sundance or somebody bought at Cannes," he continues. "They're already done. The good thing is, there'll be 25 or 30 songs in a film, and we get to work with the director to pick what we think are the 12 best songs that tie together to be in the soundtrack."
Another local label, Loosegroove Records, had a lot of say in the soundtrack for the new film Chicago Cab, which previews at Bumbershoot, Intiman Playhouse, Sunday, September 6 at 4, and opens Friday, September 11. "When they came to us, they didn't have all the music," recalls Kim Robbins, the label's general manager. "The only criteria was that it fit the film."
The film's music supervisors, Susan Jacobs and Lynn Geller, approached Pearl Jam about using its song "Who You Are." After singer Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard, who co-founded Loosegroove, saw a rough cut of the film—which details a cabbie's travails during one Christmastime shift—they also offered Jacobs and Geller the previously unreleased PJ song "Hard to Imagine," a highlight of the band's live set. Gossard eventually wound up producing the soundtrack, acquiring new songs from cult heroes Supergrass, Fu Manchu, and Helmet leader Page Hamilton (who wrote the film's live-wire score) and mixing in older tracks from the Grifters, Joey Altruda, Hovercraft, and Sparklehorse.
Even though the soundtrack also includes one of Loosegroove's own bands, Hi Fi Killers, and label-related bands like PJ and Brad, Robbins spent nearly a year navigating a maze of lawyers and contracts. For every song used in both Chicago Cab and its soundtrack, he had to obtain four licenses: two different publishing agreements, a mechanical and a motion-picture synchronization; and two master-use licenses, one for the film and a separate one for the soundtrack.
It's not just licensing that causes logistical problems. Musicians working on soundtracks must be flexible enough to follow the director's dictates. "Critters Buggin and Stone went into the studio to record for a scene—where the cab driver's really frustrated, he turns on the radio and starts playing air guitar—so it had to fit the rhythm," Robbins recalls. "There was another scene where Hi Fi Killers re-did a track to give it a more eerie feel."
In the end, the compromises might be worth it. Whether or not soundtracks are the cash cows major labels perceive them to be, both Will and Loosegroove can distance themselves from Hollywood's test-marketing frenzy. "It's crazy now," opines Will's Williamson. "We just try to stay down under the radar, work with records that we either know from friends or that come highly recommended, and get with the distributor and make sure they're going to really push it."