How Today's Blockbuster Soundtracks Are Launching New Artists to Stardom

Industry insiders on why, now more than ever, placement on hit soundtracks like 'Black Panther' is a key step in a rising act's pop breakthrough

NOW PLAYING
How Today's Blockbuster Soundtracks Are Launching New Artists to Stardom

When the Black Panther soundtrack debuted at Number One in February, it was another triumph for executive producer Kendrick Lamar – the fourth consecutive album he has steered to the top of the charts. But the soundtrack also quietly gave the Bay Area rap group SOB x RBE their first Hot 100 hit, a springy, boisterous record titled "Paramedic!"

In a moment of renewed enthusiasm for soundtracks, these albums are serving as an increasingly common springboard for young acts. "We're pretty good at utilizing them as stepping stones for our developing artists," acknowledges Atlantic Records' Kevin Weaver. "We try to do that as much as possible."

Weaver would know: He's a soundtrack guru who has overseen hit albums for the Fast and Furious franchise, Suicide Squad and, most recently, The Greatest Showman, which knocked Taylor Swift out of the Number One spot in January. Since January of 2015, soundtracks have topped Billboard's album chart for 13 different weeks, making them more successful with the general public than several popular genres, including country and electronic music; during the week of March 17th, movie soundtracks occupied the top two positions on Billboard's albums chart for the first time in 20 years. "There seems to be a resurgence of people interested in soundtracks and a newfound excitement about them," says Republic Records' Dana Sano, who worked on all three Fifty Shades of Grey LPs.

Much of that fervor is reserved for soundtrack albums that feature new music, rather than compilations of licensed songs that have been previously released. "The big win when it comes to the compulsion factor – putting out a soundtrack and having somebody say, 'I have to buy that,' whatever 'buy' means – is when something is new-slash-original-slash–exclusive to that title," says Universal Film Music head Mike Knobloch.

In this vein, soundtrack albums have spawned massive hits for established acts like Swift ("I Don't Wanna Live Forever" with Zayn Malik from Fifty Shades Darker) and Justin Timberlake ("Can't Stop the Feeling" from Trolls). But they have also played a crucial role in the rise of major new artists. The most famous examples are Charlie Puth, who was an unknown songwriter before going Number One with the Furious 7 song "See You Again," and the Weeknd, who scored his first solo pop hit with the Fifty Shades of Grey cut "Earned It."

Other rising singers also appear to have benefitted from soundtrack exposure in the last three years. Sometimes the placement leads directly to a hit: Both the rapper Logic and the R&B singer Kehlani achieved their first major singles via the Suicide Squad soundtrack in 2016. Sometimes, even if the soundtrack record isn't a smash, that placement still creates the environment for hits to come. J Balvin's "Ay Vamos" appeared on the Furious 7 soundtrack in March 2015; he earned his first Hot 100 hit later that year. And after Anderson East appeared on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack in February of 2017, his next single became a Number One radio hit in December.

The success of Black Panther has positioned at least two more acts for potential breakouts. First is SOB x RBE with "Paramedic!" Second is South African artist Babes Wodumo, who scored a kinetic hit in her home country in 2016 with "Wololo." "She is part of a really exciting sound call gqom," explains the Guild of Music Supervisors' Thomas Golubić. "She had a single that got some radio play but wasn't hugely known [in the U.S.] – hopefully that [placement] will act as a door opening." None of Wodumo's previous singles have more than 500,000 streams on Spotify; her Black Panther contribution "Redemption" racked up 13 million in three weeks.

Mike Caren of Artist Partners Group believes that films have a unique ability to kindle this kind of interest in a new act. "There are very few global drivers for music," he says. "Radio stations are either local or national; Internet companies like Spotify have different programming and editors in different territories. Blockbuster films touch corners of the earth that are hard to get to."

Along with wide reach, soundtrack placements also allow rising artists a low-risk soft opening. "With a new act, you don't want to put singles out there and potentially have a bad sales history attached to your name," says Matt McNeal, a veteran manager and A&R for J. Cole's Dreamville Records. "If you have a song on the soundtrack that doesn't do well, people just don't even know about it. If it becomes a hit, you can ride that wave into your album cycle."

That's exactly what happened for Puth and Kehlani. "We utilized the platform of the soundtrack to have a hit and we quickly followed up with our own artist project," says Weaver, who worked with both artists. SOB x RBE took the same approach, releasing a new album the week after the Black Panther soundtrack came out.

Soundtrack placements may be especially valuable for rappers, R&B singers and Latin acts. Pop radio is playing fewer hip-hop and R&B singles than it used to, and it has never shown much interest in Spanish-language pop, limiting an important avenue of exposure for artists operating in these areas. Daniel Zawadzki, who is part of the M3 management team for the Colombian group Bomba Estéreo, says sync opportunities like the Pitch Perfect 3 soundtrack can serve as an important counterbalance to the close-mindedness of some gatekeepers. "In the U.S. and other Anglo markets, Bomba does not get the support of mainstream radio, so this has been a way of promoting the music," Zawadzki notes. 

And in some cases, having a song on a major movie soundtrack may also help a rapper or Latin American act make that jump to pop radio. "[A soundtrack placement] helps program directors that may not be into the 'urban' atmosphere take a look at those acts and say, 'OK, this person can actually cross over,'" McNeal says. "It widens that base; you're getting out of your niche of being 'just a rapper.'" 

Even though the soundtracks that make the biggest splash feature new music, the power of these albums is such that older acts can benefit as well. The release of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack in 2017 led to a 388 percent sales gain for songs included on the album, a sales bump large enough that both Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" and George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" appeared on Billboard's rock chart decades after their initial release. This clout – combined with the deep pockets of movie companies – has lured seemingly retired artists back into the spotlight as well. Stevie Wonder's first new song in seven years, "Faith," appeared on the soundtrack for the 2016 animated musical Sing, and Sade also recorded her first new song in seven years for the A Wrinkle in Time soundtrack, released earlier in March.

But next to Sade on A Wrinkle in Time's soundtrack, listeners also found a pair of up-and-comers: Chloe x Halle, who were signed by Beyoncé on the strength of their YouTube covers in 2015, recorded the swooning, martial ballad "Warrior." And, in line with the new soundtrack paradigm, the duo are not wasting their moment – they'll release their debut album, The Kids Are Alright, on March 23rd.