The Return of the Music Soundtrack: Pulp Fiction or a New Reality?

Paul Chodirker

and by Paul Chodirker


What was the number one selling album on Billboard’s top 200 chart at the end of January 2008? It wasn’t Radiohead’s In Rainbows, or Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains. Can you guess what it was? It was a soundtrack album from “the little film that could” known as Juno.

If you’re not familiar with the Juno soundtrack, it’s basically made up of indie darlings and unknown musicians like Barry Louis Polisar and Kimya Dawson. Barry Louis Polisar is actually a musician who writes music for children. In fact, five soundtrack albums currently appear in the top 50 on the Billboard 200 charts.

So, before Juno came along to reinvigorate the industry, where did all the soundtracks go? To start, film producers and movie studios have paid far less attention to a film’s soundtrack since the world discovered how to download songs for free. In essence, people were creating their own soundtracks; whether they were based on a particular movie, or not. Thus, fewer soundtrack’s were sold and studios no longer saw soundtrack recordings as a valuable revenue stream. It was clear that the music world had indeed changed since the release of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994 (which sold more than 2 million copies worldwide). Now, Juno had come along to revive the popularity of the film soundtrack and studios couldn’t be happier.

Various media companies are now becoming increasingly interested in obtaining soundtrack album rights. On June 18, 2009, London-based First State Media Group, which already owns music publishers State One Music Group and S1 Songs, publicly announced that it would be prepared to contribute up to 5% of a film budget in exchange for control of the soundtrack. Under this particular arrangement, revenue from the film’s soundtrack would be split 50/50 between First State and the film producer after recoupment by First State of its advance.

The process for First State taking control of a soundtrack is simple — fill the soundtrack by using either its library of pre-existing songs, or employ one its own songwriters to compose the soundtrack. These music copyrights are registered with various copyright collectives who pay to the copyright owner public performance and mechanical royalties. Depending on the circumstances, there may also be other avenues of profit based on the exploitation of the music copyrights as they are embodied in a film. All of this has the potential of becoming a very lucrative revenue stream for the soundtrack owner.

Although State One could also release a soundtrack album for retail sale on CD and in digital download formats, it is more likely that the primary source of income will be generated by the public performance of the music.

One major issue with respect to a deal like the one being proposed by State One would be related to the creative choices by the film producer of the music for the film’s soundtrack. This, of course, could be addressed by the parties in the course of their deal making, but the flexibility required by film producers will always be a primary concern when a third party is providing or controlling the music for its productions.

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