When this week’s final Billboard Hot 200 album chart is released, either the 51st installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series or Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the soundtrack to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will be the best-selling album in the United States. If Awesome Mix Vol. 1 makes it to the summit, it will be the first soundtrack from a summer film to reach No. 1 since Mamma Mia! in 2008, and the first for a non-musical since Bad Boys II in 2003.
This would be a significant accomplishment with or without No. 1, particularly given the fact that the various songs that make up Awesome Mix Vol. 1 are readily available to stream on services like Spotify, or on YouTube. There is no single to drive sales of the album, as the film’s jukebox-style soundtrack relies entirely on songs from the 1970s. And while some Twitter conversation among colleagues made a connection back to K-tel—and we could think about Time Life as well—in regards to the album’s appeal to a nostalgia for music of this period, there’s also a wide audience of younger audiences who may not be familiar with some of the songs used in the film. But those audiences are often imagined as those who stream music on YouTube or Spotify, and who could simply create their own playlists featuring the songs from the film without needing to pay out for the album.
Given this, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack offers an interesting case study of how these platforms are being activated by labels like Hollywood Records, and how this jukebox soundtrack is being branded—if not “sold”—in spaces that won’t be counted by Billboard’s album chart.
If we are searching for logic for the soundtrack’s success, we can point to both the film itself and the discourse surrounding it. One key element is the music’s integration into the film: whereas franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight have released albums with songs “inspired by” the films, the Guardians soundtrack is entirely music that is used during the film itself. Moreover, the music—in the form of the actual cassette mixtape—plays a diegetic role in the film’s storyline, even being positioned as a point of anticipation for the film’s sequel in the midst of its conclusion. There are moments where you get excited to hear a song you know well used during a key scene (like “Moonage Daydream”), there are songs that you want to revisit with new ears after seeing them in a new context (like “Hooked On A Feeling,” which previewed the soundtrack’s success when it was used for the film’s first trailer), and there are songs you may not be familiar with but are used in ways that encourage you to find out what that song was (which for me was Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love,” used in the film’s opening credit sequence).
Furthermore, as the film’s box office success came into focus, there was more and more attention paid to the soundtrack as one of its defining elements, likely based around SEO patterns observed by sites that were seeing traffic being drawn to other coverage based on the film’s use of music. In the case of Redbone, it inspired a Vulture piece entitled “Meet Redbone, the Native American Rock Band Behind That Guardians Of The Galaxy Song,” which betrays its SEO-driven metric by its URL, which actually mistakenly identifies it as “redbone-guardians-of-the-galaxy-end-credits-song,” and a secondary title of “What Band Did Chris Pratt Dance To In Guardians” to cover all their bases (you can see all the SEO information here). It has also inspired pieces in mainstream publications like USA Today (“Guardians music from the ‘70s back at top of charts”) and from music-specific publications like Billboard (“Why a ‘70s Mixtape Propels The Plot of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’”). Marvel even used the tease of Chris Pratt singing a song from the soundtrack as the hook for a clip from its livestreamed pre-show posted on YouTube, while Regal Cinemas tried to spice up the traditional junket-style interview by editing together a sing-along.
Its place within this discourse has also been expanded by the fact that—returning to a post I wrote earlier this month—it is one element of the film over which James Gunn can claim sole authorship, as both the specific soundtrack and the introduction of the mix and the Walkman into the plot of the film have been pretty clearly marked as his and his alone. In the Billboard piece, Gunn both outright states the music was not in Nicole Perlman’s original script and explains the soundtrack was both written into the script and played on set; as Gunn puts it, they “really baked the music into the movie. Having it be part of the initial filmmaking process as opposed to something that you tack on at the end…it really made it a much more holistic experience.” Gunn also promises that he will release his full list of music in time (meaning they could potentially release a Vol. 1.5 of additional songs that were close to being used in the film), while even revealing that Tyler Bates’ score was composed before filming and played on set, which evokes discourse around scoring that I’ve seen associated with Ennio Morricone’s work (particularly on Once Upon a Time in the West).
All of this demonstrates the various factors that have people talking about the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and ties into larger narratives of the relationship between cinema and popular music, for which everyone should check out the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s own Jeff Smith’s The Sounds Of Commerce. However, in this particular case and in this contemporary moment, the question becomes how label Hollywood Records translates this buzz into album sales as opposed to, for instance, users simply revisiting songs they liked from the film on YouTube. A version of “Come And Get Your Love” appears on YouTube as “Guardians of the Galaxy Intro song | Come and get Your Love by Redbone,” and was uploaded on July 29th (three days before the film released in the U.S., but after it was released in some overseas territories). The video, accompanied by a still image of the soundtrack album cover, has garnered over 77,000 views in under two weeks; another video, featuring the same basic identifiers but posted in early July, has over 130,000. A bootleg version of the entire soundtrack posted by “Hot – new,” and featuring ads at various intervals, has over 500,000 views in under two weeks. Another, without the same volume of ads, has over 300,000.
Attempting to control the anarchy of YouTube is challenging even for songs that can be safely stored on official Vevo accounts, but for Hollywood Records to attempt to control songs from four decades ago would be even more challenging, to the point where the soundtrack has no official YouTube presence as far as I can find. However, they’ve made more of an effort on Spotify, another space where users are able to seek out individual songs on demand or make their own compilations: Hollywood Records’ official Spotify account has created a playlist featuring the songs from the soundtrack, which is part of a larger partnership with Spotify that includes the “Awesome Mixtape Generator” website where fans can use Spotify to create their own Guardians-branded mixtape to share over social networks. The Awesome Mix Vol. 1 playlist on Spotify has a link back to the Mixtape Generator, which itself features links to Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes pages for the soundtrack album itself.
The idea of label-made Spotify playlists is similar to the “Celebrity iTunes Playlists” that emerged with that service, as it’s a chance for an artist to either develop a personal brand—as seen with Hollywood Records’ “New Country” playlist curated by Lucy Hale—or to highlight their own work based around a particular event like the “#Demiversary” playlist celebrating the one year anniversary of Demi Lovato’s album, which promises songs from other artists “hand picked by Demi herself” in addition to her latest singles and recently released live tracks. There are not a huge number of these playlists on Hollywood Records’ page, but the Awesome Mix Vol. 1 playlist is by far the most successful: while Hale and Lovato’s playlists have 2500 and 9800 followers respectively, the version of the Guardians soundtrack has over 45,000.
What’s less clear is how this Spotify playlist fits into the label’s larger goals for this album. How would Hollywood Records monetize a Spotify playlist of 70s classics? Can they? Does the number of subscribers make it more likely that those users will also follow other Hollywood Records content (which seems unlikely given that it’s largely a contemporary pop label)? Are they intending to use the playlist as a marketing tool for the release of subsequent Guardians-related music, perhaps timed to the DVD release later this year? How does the above banner ad, which actually failed to properly link me to the playlist in question, help compared to buying more traditional ads for the album on other web outlets? Are they hoping that most users are using Spotify’s free, ad-supported service, and that they’ll want a way to listen to the album without being inundated with ads? I ask these questions because due to the distinct qualities of the jukebox soundtrack, Hollywood Records is mostly only doing what various other users—including Kevin Sullivan, whose playlist has garnered nearly 40,000 followers,—can do on the Spotify platform, without any of the same claims to artist curation that distinguish other playlists on their page.
This could change if James Gunn releases the extended version of the Awesome Mix that he developed before narrowing down the songs that actually appeared in the soundtrack itself, but even then users like Kevin Sullivan can just recreate that list using the same widely available songs. In fact, Kevin Sullivan has already created a more accurate version—embedded below—of Awesome Mix Vol. 1 than Hollywood Records: either because the label may be required to select Spotify songs from artist’s officially released albums (ensuring the miniscule payout for the songs goes to the artist themselves and not the producers of a compilation album), or potentially because of simple oversight, the official version of the playlist has a different version of “Come and Get Your Love” than the one used in the movie. The version used in the film—listed on one compilation album as a “re-recorded” version of the song—would appear to be an edited version of a longer version of the song that is featured on The Essential Redbone with a different introduction and a longer outro. Either way, the choice means that the “official” playlist is less accurate than the user-generated ones, with the song that—as noted above—has become one of the biggest drawing points for the soundtrack.
The soundtrack is clearly getting play on Spotify—beyond the fact that the two playlists combine with almost 90,000 subscribers, album opener “Hooked on a Feeling” is the 68th most-streamed song in the United States according to the service, right above Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” at 71. But what’s less clear is what value this holds to Hollywood Records in a situation where they don’t own the music they’re licensing for the soundtrack. What kind of partnership deal do they have with Spotify as tied to the Awesome Mixtape generator that might incentivize their use of the Spotify platform in other ways? Are they getting a finder’s fee for directing users to the artists featured on the soundtrack, as part of the licensing deal? Or are they simply leveraging a platform the industry has decided it’s supposed to leverage, without actually having any idea of how that value inflects back into their business compared to the album sales that have more traditionally fueled the soundtrack’s success?
Labels’ navigation of these digital platforms for the purpose of their own artists has become fairly standard practice: official YouTube videos or Spotify playlists create landing points that can be linked to from social networks, and Billboard has begun tracking streaming—see both myself and the Elder McNutt on this subject—to the point that it has made a measurable impact on the Hot 100 singles charts, which remain a key measure of an artist’s success. However, when those same logics are translated to a jukebox soundtrack, the function of those platforms becomes murkier, making Hollywood Records’ relationship with Spotify a more speculative enterprise. If the album reaches No. 1, it will have done so with a label-sponsored way to listen to the same soundtrack for free existing on Spotify, in addition to the unofficial playlists on that and other platforms—that will be an impressive feat, although one that captures the uncertainty surrounding how these platforms fit into both specific soundtracks like this one and to albums more broadly.