The Latest Movie Marketing Trend? Original Songs

The movie has been out now for almost two full months and we’re still talking about Lady Gaga’s performance in A Star Is Born. More broadly, we’re still hearing one or more of the songs she performed for the movie on the radio.

Gaga was a big part of the film’s marketing campaign, as was music as a whole. Early publicity focused on how director Bradley Cooper and the producers filmed in-character performances at a few music festivals over the preceding year and while a few songs were released early, the soundtrack as a whole was considered such a big card to play it wasn’t put out until the movie’s opening weekend.

Soundtracks have been an increasingly prominent part of movie marketing campaigns for a while now, with tie-in albums for Black Panther, Superfly, The Greatest Showman and other recent releases playing large roles in appealing to audiences. Studios want to reach people where they are, regardless of what media they’re consuming, so putting out a soundtrack that’s on-brand and clearly relevant to the film’s subject matter and story makes a lot of sense.

In the wake of A Star Is Born, the tactic seems to be shifting from soundtracks as an album to making it clear to audiences there is one specific song from a popular artist that is new to the film and which, then, makes going to see the movie that much more appealing. This is seen in a number of recent and upcoming campaigns.

Vox Lux – Sia

“Wrapped Up,” the new song performed by Sia debuted in the second trailer for the movie, just released yesterday. NEON didn’t want anyone to miss it, though, and so has been heavily promoting the imminent arrival of both for several days.

On the Basis of Sex – Kesha

The second trailer for the upcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic starring Felicity Huffman doesn’t differ substantially from the first one released months ago except for the fact that it prominently features a new song from Kesha, “Here Comes the Change.”

Bumblebee – Hailee Steinfeld

The actor/singer’s new song “Back to Life” hasn’t appeared in any trailers or TV spots just yet (there’s still time, of course) but it did get its own lyric video earlier this month to make sure fans of hers knew there was more than one way she was involved in the movie.

Green Book – Aloe Blacc

Late in the campaign Universal released a music video for “I Count On Me” from Aloe Blacc, a song about not being knocked down by adversity or conflict but finding the strength within to go on. That’s very relevant to the movie’s story and is a great song to boot.

Dumplin – Dolly Parton

It makes sense, given that the story of the movie involves a character inspired by Parton’s music and life, that she would not only contribute a new song to the film but also be a big part of the pre-release publicity campaign. You don’t find personalities bigger than Parton’s, so she’s certainly getting people talking.

The Grinch – Tyler The Creator

No version of The Grinch’s story is complete without someone doing a version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” first performed by Thurl Ravenscroft in the 1968 animated special and then by Jim Carrey himself in the 2000 live action film. Bringing the song into the present is popular singer Tyler, The Creator, lending a bit of tough credibility to the venture.

The influx of original songs this late in the year – ones that are being featured in trailers and other videos leading up to release – seems as much about creating another category for the film to contend in come time for awards as it is about turning out audiences. With the exception of “The Grinch” all these are original songs that will be contending for accolades in the coming months.

Other movies aren’t sitting out completely, though, even if they don’t feature much in the way of new material. The cross-media potential of movies like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Bohemian Rhapsody and others certainly can’t have been overlooked, each tapping in to the vast catalog of popular artists to help get audiences excited and in theaters.

What’s notable, though, is that this seems to be something studios have just caught on to. Looking back at the late month releases from the last couple years, very few examples of this being overt tactic employed to increase buzz and awards changes present themselves. Mary J. Blige released “Mighty River” for Mudbound, but that’s roughly it.

Based on other recently-adopted marketing trends, it’s one I expect will continue to be used. Studios, including Netflix and Amazon Studios, have embraced various aspects of the content marketing ethos in recent years, releasing a steady stream of interviews, featurettes and other material prior to release along with trailers and at the same time talent is engaged in press interviews.

Original songs are part of that. They provide another opportunity for conversations about the movie and have the added benefit of often appealing to different segments of the audience. And if they have some potential to raise the movie’s profile with an awards win, so much the better.

Soundtracks Could Be Uniquely Positioned To Succeed

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

black panther soundtrackOne 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

greatest showman soundtrackThe 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.