Monday, August 02, 2004

Movie Soundtracks and the Money Trail

Warning: If you don't give a darn about music or the music industry, don't read this.

I have read Amazon's reviews of the "soundtrack" for Spiderman 2. People who bought it liked the music, but were disappointed or confused. Sony did not miss a golden opportunity; it was a calculated move.

Always having been an afficiando of movie soundtracks, over the years I began to notice something peculiar. The constraints of the amount of music that could be placed on record albums mostly limited a release to 45 minutes. All forms of music, including soundtracks, were kind of stuck to this.

Newer technologies enabled the release of more music. Cassettes were made with up to a 120 minute limit, but tended to snarl up or get stuck, so 90 minutes became the practical limit. Nevertheless, more music was not recorded onto them because it did not increase profits. (The market had already set the prices, and units, such as records, cassettes and CDs were the determining factor, not the amount of music.)

What the music companies learned was that they could maximize their profits by releasing a 45 minute album, and follow up on successful sales of soundtracks of popular films by releasing a "special, collector's, or whatever edition" 5-10 years later. So using the standards of 2004, a 45 minute CD can be sold for $18, followed by a (say, 78 minute CD or 2 CD package) special edition release in 2010 for $30. People who really want to hear the music aren't going to want to wait 6 years, and of course will want to hear all available music. I don't have statistics, but I think it's safe to suppose that at least 20% of the people who bought the original will by the re-release. That raises the average final (gross) profit from the soundtrack sales to $24. (Based on $2400 in sales for every hundred people - do the math)

Now on to an even stranger phenomenon. I first witnessed this with the soundtrack for Batman (1989); most recently, the Spiderman films as well. The tactic of releasing an album that contained mostly pop/rock songs used fragmentally or not at all in the film (and having nothing to do with the price of tea in China, either) with the film itself, and a delayed release of the actual score by at least a month. This results in a large number of people who enjoyed the film and may or may not be soundtrack buffs buying the faux soundtrack. Of course, all people really interested in the soundtrack by the 2nd CD, and so, sales are increased. My guess is that here the proportion of dual sales is higher, probably at least 50%, which means $27 average per CD profit (although it's really $36 from the poor suckers who really wanted the music).

Sony and the other music companies had already learned to cover their butts by careful use of language. In the 80's (when I became a soundtrack lover), the term used was "original soundtrack" for the genuine symphonic score. Now the term soundtrack has been divorced from score, which means you have to read the fine print and know the distinctions to know what you are buying.

Of course, this is all connected with the larger money machine that movies have become. My next entry, I think, will look at that.

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