How A Soundtrack is Made
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.”