By Courtney E. Smith
It started in the ‘60s with Frankie & Annette in a series of beach movies. The standard was set in ’73 with a soundtrack of teenage doo-wap hits from the 1950’s jukebox in American Graffiti. It was perfected in the ‘80s with John Hughes oeuvre of soundtracks that embraced, and made the careers of, new wave tracks so underground that MTV was hardly even playing them — when MTV played everything they could get their hands on. It became an industry in the ‘90s when everything from Clueless to Cruel Intentions required a soundtrack album release, to varying degrees of sales success. Today the Twilightfranchise are the sales leaders in teen movie soundtracks, achieving multi-platinum success.
Most movies, teen or not, license pre-recorded songs, perhaps save a lead single that will be unique to the soundtrack. Or they did, until the Twilight franchise upped the ante with the soundtrack to its second film, New Moon, by filling half of it it out with new songs commissioned and composed specifically for the film.The Hunger Games is doubling down on Twilight’s bet, and doing it while creating a 100% original album soundtrack with music that does not score the movie, except a songs by the Arcade Fire and Taylor Swift with the Civil Wars.
Several things about they way Lionsgate and Universal Republic went about crafting this soundtrack are unorthodox. Considering that very few movie soundtracks make their money back, spending more than the norm to record, mix, and master entirely new songs which are custom written for a film is a gutsy choice. But Tracy McKnight, the Head of Film Music at Lionsgate, says this was the plan from the start with The Hunger Games. McKnight says, “The process is — there’s a process if something is pre-recorded if you will, like your salad…but we knew we were never entering the process that way so it moved organically. T-Bone Burnett was a big part, he had those conversations and made the plan. He really was the over-seerer of all things on this album.”
And that’s another unorthodox thing: having T-Bone Burnett serve as executive music producer for a teen film. Almost as unorthodox as creating a teen movie soundtrack of post-apocalyptic alt-country and bluegrass songs. McKnight credits Burnett with developing the Appalachian sound of the film, although director Gary Ross had to be leaning that way from the start to select Burnett for the position. His Oscar-nominated song in Cold Mountain and Oscar-winning for Crazy Heart, along with his critically and commercially lauded soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? spoke loudly to Burnett’s abilities in the genre. The film and book are set 300 years into the future of a post-nuclear version of North America called Panem. The first Hunger Games book takes place largely in District 12 (which would be in the general area currently known as Appalachia), in The Captial (their seat of power, located near current day Denver), and in the arena where the Games are played. Since we can’t know, and aren’t particularly guided to know in the source material, what the music of the future might sound like, Burnett assumed it sounds a lot like bluegrass.
What does T-Bone Burnett know about appealing to the sensibilities of the ravenous fans of a young adult book? Quite a lot, according to the 6.2 million YouTube views generated by the lead single, “Eyes Wide Open,” by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars. Laura Rodgers of the Secret Sisters, an act Burnett personally brought in to the project, said of the track they contributed, “That was the sound he was looking for, he wanted it to sound like real roots music 300 years from now. That was the concept that everyone had in mind when writing for it and he did a great job…it was a cool challenge to have that mindset while writing.” Burnett worked with the Rodgers sisters before, executive producing their first album which was released by Universal Republic.
The ecosystem for soundtrack albums is driven by the aesthetic the director wants to achieve, but it is a business proposition for the record label who releases it. Universal Republic are the label behindThe Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond. The functional side of placing songs on soundtracks and in films involves licenses, which are paid out to publishers and record labels with a contractually agreed amount from both sides going to the artist. Traditionally soundtracks are heavily stacked with artists who are signed to the label releasing the soundtrack, because the label can reduce the cost of licensing if they’re paying that cost back to themselves. They also have access to their own artists, which means the leverage to present the marketing plan to an artist in exchange for a lowered or waived fee. The Hunger Games soundtrack bucks this tradition as well, featuring a hodge podge of artists from all sorts of labels with almost as many owned by the Warner Music group as by their own parent company Universal Music.
The promotional landscape for bands has changed dramatically in the post-Napster world. A lot of lip service is given to the normalizing of artists to licensing music to commercials for a pay day. Not as dissected or looked down upon are the lucrative licensing and promotion deals that come attached to allowing your music to be used in film and TV — or how having a sync in a tastemaker TV show or franchise film can be a valuable part of a band’s marketing campaign. Being part of something as big asThe Hunger Games appeals to a lot of artists and both McKnight and Universal Republic Executive Vice President Tom MacKay, the A&R man who oversaw The Hunger Games soundtrack, mentioned that bands came out of the woodwork to solicit a place — sending demos, cold emails, whatever they could think of. MacKay said, “I’ve never been involved in a project in my career where the organic desire to get involved was as strong as this was. We were getting cold calls from Grammy winning multi-platinum artists.”
MacKay told me that the process of narrowing down started, after Ross and Burnett set the musical tone for the soundtrack, with himself, McKnight, and Burnett making their wish list of artists to have on the soundtrack. At the top of his list was Kid Cudi. Cudi is a standout on the soundtrack as the only urban leaning artist in a sea of apocalyptic bluegrass. MacKay explains, “We were in the studio and were having discussions — the soundtrack was 70-80% done. Internally we were discussing what are we missing…ee didn’t have that song, that menacing, God-awful racket-in-your-head that was in a sense completely inspired to and dedicated to President Snow — exactly what [Cudi] wrote about. That music carries that kind of horror that [Donald] Southerland captures in the character. It is a homage to what President Snow represents.”
The curation, effort, and money put into this soundtrack show that Lionsgate and Universal Republic think The Hunger Games will become more than just a teen movie based on a young adult book. They expect it to be nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. Based on advance ticket sales their bet appears set to pan out.