Movie soundtracks find audiences on their own Music: Box-office hits help, but many CDs can survive a bomb.

July 28, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

This summer, the hottest trend in music is movies.

Since June, the best-selling albums in America more often than not have been soundtracks. Over the last eight weeks, "City of Angels" has spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, while "Armageddon -- The Album" spent two. Furthermore, the few albums that have bumped them aside quickly fell out of the Top 10, while the soundtracks remain fixtures in the Top Five.

Nor are they the only soundtrack albums selling well at the moment. Scan through this week's Billboard charts, and you'll find "Dr. Dolittle: The Album"; a collection of songs from the Sandra Bullock romance "Hope Floats"; "Bulworth -- The Soundtrack"; "Godzilla -- The Album"; and the soundtracks from "Can't Hardly Wait" and "Titanic."

All told, 10 percent of Billboard's Top 200 albums are movie soundtracks. So it must be a big movie summer, right?

Not necessarily. A close look at this summer's movie music madness suggests that soundtrack sales are not quite as simple as one hit begetting another. Where soundtracks were once little more than aural souvenirs, they've become a business in their own right. (Sometimes, of course, they can be both, as with the year's biggest soundtrack, "Titanic.")

True, a number of this summer's films have taken in more than $100 million, including "Deep Impact," "Godzilla," "Armageddon," "The Truman Show" and "Dr. Dolittle." But it's hard to draw a direct correlation between box office success and CD sales.

Some hit films are flat-out CD flops. "The Truman Show" may be a hit onscreen, but on album it hasn't even dented the Billboard 200. Disney's "Mulan" is doing Top-10 business at the multiplexes, but the soundtrack languishes in the mid-40s on the chart. And while the audience is out there for "The X-Files," something mysterious seems to be keeping the conspiracy buffs out of music stores, for the soundtrack sits half-forgotten at No. 89.

Meanwhile, though "City of Angels" has been a strong and steady seller on CD, the movie has all but disappeared from theaters. Sales for the soundtrack to "Hope Floats" has been bubbling higher even as the movie sinks, and if the soundtrack for the low-budget comedy "We Got the Hook Up" depended on movie-goers, it wouldn't even be on the charts.

Have movies and soundtracks become two separate businesses? Glen Brunman, executive vice president at Sony Music Soundtrax, doesn't think so. Brunman has a pretty good handle on the soundtrack business -- he helped produce "Armageddon -- The Album," and oversaw the release of "Godzilla -- The Album" and the "Titanic" soundtrack -- and although he agrees that a hit song can give a soundtrack album a life of its own, he feels that fortunes of movies and movie music albums are inextricably intertwined.

He cites "City of Angels" -- not his project -- as an example. "The reason it's still in the Top Five in the country is because it has these two enormous hit records on it," he says, referring to Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited," and "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. "A lot of people say, 'Well, it's not so much the movie that's selling the record. It's really the hits.' I don't agree. I mean, 15 or 16 million people saw that movie. So there's a pretty nice base to sell to."

Part of Brunman's point is that the movie and music businesses operate on different scales. If 10 million people see a movie, it's a modest success; if 10 million buy an album, it's one of the year's best sellers. So even if a movie has done only "respectable" business in theaters, it still ends up reaching an audience large enough to push a soundtrack album to the top of the charts.

Brunman also points out that the thinking behind what goes onto a soundtrack album has changed. Obviously, the music has to support the action and mood of the movie. "If you're not satisfying the movie, you might as well not be in business," he says. But that means more than just putting creepy music behind the scary bits, and perky songs beneath happy scenes.

At Sony Music, he says, the goal is "to help the movie be better," and in many cases, that means taking an idea that's in the film and underscoring it through music. Take "Armageddon," for example. "Here's a movie that's about a bunch of renegades who came together to do something patriotic," he says. "It's about a renegade spirit that's still alive, and it's reflected in rock music, which has always had a renegade spirit to it."

Indeed, "Armageddon -- The Album" is chockablock with mainstream rockers, from Aerosmith (which does the main theme, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing") and Journey to Bob Seger and ZZ Top. Granted, these acts don't dominate the airwaves these days, but that doesn't mean they no longer have an audience. "A lot of people really were waiting for a record like this," says Brunman.

"In a way, soundtracks are filling a void in the music marketplace."

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