How A Soundtrack is Made

By Nick Dawson | March 9, 2010
Gustavo Santaolalla Brokeback Mountain’s composer Gustavo Santaolalla

As part of Music Month, FilmInFocus talks to Focus Features executive Jennifer Towle about the processes behind the creation of movie soundtracks.

Music is often pivotal to a movie's success, and it's not uncommon to come away from a film still humming a melody or singing a particular song, and itching to buy the soundtrack. But that soundtrack winding up in a record store or, increasingly, online, is the result of a painstaking process that is anything but simple.

Jennifer Towle, Director, Music & Business Affairs, is a Focus Features executive involved in many aspects of film music, including overseeing the company’s soundtracks. Unlike many of today’s soundtracks, which are compendiums of hit songs barely heard in the movie, Focus’ soundtracks often showcase strong original scores by composers like Bruno Coulais (Coraline) and, currently, first-time film composer James Murphy (Greenberg). For Focus, says Towle, “the soundtrack is a companion piece to the film. It’s a showcase for the music, highlighting the collaboration between the director, composer and music supervisor. Soundtracks are also early ambassadors for our projects.  We aim to release them in advance of their films to generate awareness and conversation. In that sense, they are an important marketing tool. Finally, when we’re working with great artists, it’s a thrill to make wonderful new music available.”

For Towle, the first step in producing a film soundtrack involves setting a schedule for the release. “You want to have a label deal in place at least three months in advance of the film’s release date,” she says. When targeting labels to work with, Towle considers both the film as well as the music. “Is the content more appropriate for a major label or a soundtrack specialty label?” she asks. “Does the composer or recording artist have relationships or contractual obligations we should keep in mind?” For example, Towle cites the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack as a good example of artist/label synergy: “With Brokeback, [composer] Gustavo Santaolalla was affiliated with the Universal Music label group, as were Teddy Thompson and Jackie Greene [who both contributed songs to the soundtrack]. We ended up working with Verve Forecast, and they were a great fit. They are a label within the Universal family and really supported the release.”

And then, of course, are the more practical concerns: “Can a label get the album out in time? Is there room for it on their release schedule? And will the label support the record in the marketplace?”

Once a label is identified, a deal has to be negotiated. “For the most part, the days of robust soundtrack advances are over,” laughs Towle, referring to the upfront fees (literally, advances on future royalties) paid by record labels to studios for the right to release soundtrack albums. “Films like the Twilight sequels can probably still command big advances because there is huge built in audience based on the success of the first film and soundtrack. That audience wants a souvenir of the movie and expects that there will be great score and new songs by popular artists on the soundtrack. But with albums consisting largely of score, we looking for the best partner rather than the biggest check.”

Readying a score album master is typically a straightforward process. The composer and director will choose and sequence which pieces from the film they want. Then the composer will edit, mix, master and deliver the album to the label. Soundtracks with both score and songs require more coordination. Towle calls Brokeback Mountain “a truly integrated hybrid album," as it featured a combination of score, original songs written for the film, pre-existing tracks licensed for the film, and new versions of existing songs that were re-recorded for the film. In the latter category, Teddy Thompson dueted with Rufus Wainwright on "King of the Road" (the song made famous by Roger Miller) and Willie Nelson put his own spin on Bob Dylan's "He Was a Friend of Mine.”

Brokeback Soundtrack

For the new material, Teddy Thompson sang "I Don't Want to Say Goodbye" by composer Gustvao Santaolalla, and Greene wrote and performed "I Will Never Let You Go" specifically for the movie. The most high profile new song, though, was "A Love That Will Never Grow Old," written by Santaolalla and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and performed by Emmylou Harris; it won a number of awards including the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Though the song was ineligible for the Academy Awards, Santaolalla's lovely, Western-sounding, guitar-based score won the Oscar for Best Original Score while the film's soundtrack album also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album. 

Once a label deal is negotiated, release dates are set, and the music is recorded, the album itself is prepped. “We’ll usually discuss the track list with the composer, director, music supervisor, legal, and the label’s ‘A&R’ team,” says Towle.

Usually, says Towle, the label will wind up handling music legal clearances — the deals required to include tracks on a soundtrack album. For albums consisting solely of score, it’s fairly uncomplicated. “We typically own the scores we commission and can therefore assign album rights to our label partner,” says Towle.

Soundtracks containing popular songs by artists other than the composer are another story. “When music is licensed for a film, soundtrack rights are not usually secured at that time. Once a soundtrack label is in place, and the desired track list chosen, someone has to go back to the rights holder (usually a record label) and request permission to include their song on our soundtrack.” There are many considerations here. Some songs desired by a director may be too expensive to include in both a film and its soundtrack. Or a label may be readying an artist’s new album and may not want a competing track in the marketplace on another disc. Finally, a label may not want one of its star artists appearing on a soundtrack released by a competitor. “Think of a 12-track album,” says Towle. “Each song has to work creatively, financially and politically for all parties involved. Many stars have to align for a soundtrack to be released with the content the director and studio want.”

 “While clearances are underway, we’ll deliver key art, and the label will fashion it into CD packaging. The final art and credits will be approved by both sides.” Once the track list is locked, and music prepped, the label sends the “master” into production and pitches the soundtrack to distributors, who see that it makes its way into both physical and digital stores. The label also pitches the album to music critics and other important press. The studio helps here too. A Focus soundtrack will be cross-promoted by the label and the studio, and it will often be featured in a film’s television and print advertising. Additionally, by being featured in not just the film but in television ads and trailers, the score will capture the ears of not just moviegoers but record buyers.

Often, a film’s first trailer will be cut to music from another film because its score isn’t ready yet. Sometimes, however, that’s not the case. Santaolalla, for example, boarded Brokeback Mountain early. He had scored two other Focus movies — 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries — and so had a longstanding relationship with the company. The result? Santaolalla’s haunting and lyrical guitar theme was firmly in the public consciousness by the time the movie opened, boosting both the film and the album.

Sometimes a trailer will feature a song, not a piece of score, and this track will make its way onto the soundtrack album. In the case of Focus Features' 2009 animation 9, the preview juxtaposed the striking visuals of Shane Acker's fallen world with the soaring, swirling guitars of "Welcome Home" by heavy metal band Coheed and Cambria. "The trailer made a big impact, and people began to associate this song with the film,” says Towle. “Even though the song’s not in the movie, we thought that it would be great to include it on the album,” she continues. “Often when you have a great piece of music in the trailer and it’s not on the soundtrack, people will ask why. In this case it made sense to include it. The band was thrilled.”

Alexi Murdoch, the voice of the Away We Go soundtrack

Alexi Murdoch, the voice of the
Away We Go soundtrack

Another film whose trailer played a big part in the success of its soundtrack was Away We Go. Prominently featured in the trailer, Alexi’s Murdoch’s soulful folk song, "All My Days" garnered a lot of attention. Murdoch had been bubbling under as a music blog favorite for a number of years after self-releasing his debut album, Time Without Consequence, in 2006. Director Sam Mendes (who had handpicked Murdoch’s music for the film) and Focus Features anticipated that the Away We Go soundtrack--on which 9 of the 13 tracks are by Murdoch--would make him an even bigger star. "Because the music already existed, we had the luxury of using it in the ad campaign and releasing the album a little earlier than usual.”

“There two schools of thought over release dates," says Towle. "The studio wants the album out as soon as possible because it’s a teaser for the film. But no soundtrack album's marketing campaign is going to outweigh the push for the film itself, so record labels usually want to release the album almost the same day as the film or even slightly after it to take advantage of our media efforts. In those cases, we are prepping the market for the soundtrack instead of the soundtrack prepping the market for the film. The usual compromise that works for everybody is to release the album the Tuesday before the film's Friday release."  

Digital releases — less costly to produce and quicker to bring to market — are becoming alternatives for studios in this day of the shrinking soundtrack market. Focus tried this approach with the soundtrack to the musical comedy Hamlet 2. “We wanted to get the soundtrack out quickly,” says Towle, “and we owned enough of the music. Also, the songs are funny and lyrically complex; we knew people would want to hear them over and over again.”

Focus partnered with a New York-based digital aggregator and distribution company called The Orchard to digitally self-release the Hamlet 2 album. Focus prepped the album and art while The Orchard worked to upload the soundtrack to digital retailers (like iTunes) and helped create digital download cards (which were handed out at ComicCon that year). The digital album went on sale in late July 2008, a full two months before the physical soundtracks were available. "We determined that the audience might be a little younger for this film, so digital downloads would most likely generate the most sales,” says Towle. "We were really pleased with our marketing flexibility and the ability to get the soundtrack to market earlier than usual." 

Although Focus doesn’t often release films with new music by high profile recording artists, that’s exactly what happened with the soundtrack of its next film. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is scored by James Murphy, the creative force behind electro dance funk band LCD Soundsystem. The soundtrack is being released on Virgin less than two months before the next LCD Soundsystem record drops. There was some initial concern that the soundtrack would compete with the LCD record, but the material is so different that it’s become a non-issue. Murphy has written music that’s very much in keeping with the story and the film’s Southern California vibe, blending easily with source cues by the Steve Miller Band, Albert Hammond, Duran Duran and the Sonics. Within the movie, the music unobtrusively supports the scenes but on record the songs have a real charm all their own. Explains Towle, “When scoring a film, composers craft for the scene, but often when they deliver the tracks for the soundtrack, they mix and edit those pieces for the audio-only experience of an album. Murphy’s original tracks for Greenberg work as both fantastic score cues and full-on album songs — he did a great job as both a composer and recording artist.”

Share This: