With more than 1 million album sales, an Academy Award, hundreds of millions of YouTube views and battalions of middle-school girls attempting the “Let It Go” high notes, the Frozen soundtrack today seems like an obvious smash. “When a musical grosses a billion dollars at the worldwide box office and features an inspirational album, why should we be surprised?” asks Glen Brunman, former head of Sony Music’s soundtrack unit. “Even in 2014, [when] soundtrack sales are starting to remind us of a bygone era?”
Yet Frozen took forever to develop — and that was part of Disney’s marketing plan. A few weeks before the album made its debut last November 25th, the company’s music division put out reliable pop star Demi Lovato’s version of “Let It Go” — and it barely earned any radio play.
But somewhere around early January, the album hit a tipping point, shortly after Disney began pushing the version by Idina Menzel, who plays Elsa in the animated film. “You don’t really want to go out [first] with a clip of the film,” says Ken Bunt, president of the Disney Music Group. “The idea was to go out with the Demi version and follow up with the Idina version. It’s a non-traditional pop song for radio. We’ve been working it for a while, but radio is realizing, ‘This is an undeniable song.'”
The soundtrack album didn’t hit Billboard‘s Top 10 album chart for more than a month — just before Christmas, it made its debut at Number 10. By mid-January, it was Number One; by mid-February, it had sold 1 million copies; earlier this month, Menzel’s “Let It Go” won an Oscar for Best Song; and “Let It Go” has racked up more than 128 million YouTube views and nearly 19 million Spotify streams. “Did we know it was going to become a phenomenon, like it has? No. You can’t really plan for that,” Bunt says. “But we definitely knew we had a special film with incredible music that was emotional.”
And Frozen had a secret weapon: the weather. With frigid temperatures confining Americans to their homes, the album became the soundtrack to more than a movie. According to Disney, fans have posted 30,000 versions of “Let It Go” on YouTube, for a total of 150 million views — one of which came from Menzel, Jimmy Fallon and the Roots. “People would joke about the ‘Polar vortex marketing campaign.’ Psychologically, did that play into it?” Bunt asks. “That’s a hard thing for us to put a finger on.”
Less hard to discern, however, is the extent to which the song and film has infiltrated the minds, and voices, of millions.