For the last couple months movie soundtracks – especially those for The Greatest Showman and Black Panther – have been dominating the album charts. That, as the THR story points out, is just the latest example of a trend that’s also included collections for Coco, the Fifty Shades movies and a number of others.
Some of the reasons behind this resurgence are identified in the story, including how they include songs by some of the biggest music talents around right now. Thus it has ever been. The Top Gun soundtrack did that with Kenny Loggins, Cheap Trick and Berlin. All you need is 15 to 20 good pop hits, after all.
There are at least a few other factors that make movie soundtracks uniquely suited to thrive at a time when music sales overall are dropping year after year after year.
They’re Branded Playlists
One of the big reasons Spotify is so popular is its playlists. Artists and their representatives fight hard to be included on the biggest ones, those with the most subscribers. If you open the app it’s going to recommend playlists to you well before it starts showing albums. The company has even recently tested a playlist-only stand-alone ad-supported app to encourage the kind of themed, hour-long listening they offer.
So what is a soundtrack like Black Panther but an expert-curated (in this case by Kendrick Lamar) themed playlist? This is exactly the kind of music experience people are looking for and by attaching it to something that’s culturally relevant in and of itself, it becomes an even hotter property.
They’re Souvenirs of the Experience
Movies are one of the few mass cultural experiences you don’t take anything away from. You might save your ticket stub (if you even got a physical ticket these days) or bring home a collectible popcorn bucket you’ll quickly throw in the recycling bin, but you don’t exit through the gift shop. For the most part, though, you can’t leave with a tangible reminder of the experience. You’re not even given the opportunity to immediately get the digital or physical home video release (which I think you should).
So a soundtrack becomes the one avenue through which you can relive the movie in any way. Turn on the album and you’re transported back to that moment in the movie when X happened to that musical cue. You can replay it in your mind while belting out a particularly inspirational or powerful tune.
They’re Attuned To The Culture
The Black Panther soundtrack wouldn’t have been as big a hit if it didn’t have Kendrick Lamar’s name attached and if he hadn’t worked to assemble a bunch of top-notch talent. The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack wouldn’t have been as big a hit if it didn’t feature a song that seemed like a rousing empowerment album but which has been kind of misinterpreted. The Empire Records soundtrack wouldn’t have been such a hit if it didn’t capture the mainstream alternative genre quite so perfectly.
These albums become time capsules of a sort, speaking to the moment they’re released in immediately and then reflecting back what was to future generations. “What was music like in 1987?” someone might ask, to which you could reasonably respond with the Say Anything… soundtrack and feel that while it might not be perfect it’s going to lead the person in the right direction.
They’re Basically Mixtapes
Along the same lines as the playlist point above, soundtracks convey a message. That’s mainly about promoting the movie they’re associated with, but it’s more than that even. The music is meant to represent the characters, stories and style of the movie in a way that’s relatable. So they serve the same purpose as the mixtape you lovingly assembled for the girl you had a crush on in high school, whether you gave it to her or not.
I’d expect to see more moments where soundtracks dominate the album sales charts, at least in those moments between massive releases from artists like Adele, Rihanna and Taylor Swift. They check a lot of the boxes for what will keep working as streaming continues to put distance between it and physical media, offering something unique to listeners they can’t get anywhere else. If this kind of activity continues I could even easily see them being withheld from streaming services like Spotify by the labels to goose sales not seen anywhere else.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.