The Agonising Death of the Physical Soundtrack Album

The Agonising Death of the Physical Soundtrack Album

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the issues surrounding getting hold of physical copies of the Dune soundtrack albums in physical form. In summary, two of the three (!) are available as CDs, but at surprisingly high prices, and seemingly not mass produced at traditional CD pressing plants.

A Digression Into Producing CDs

Broadly speaking there are two main methods of making CDs – “CD Replication” and “CD Duplication.”

“CD Replication” is the traditional mechanism for doing it. You take your master copy and a factory will make a glass master that is electroplated with nickel creating a stamper from which discs are made. If you’re producing more than a couple of hundred discs or so, this still tends to be the most cost effective production method, and it’s what you nearly always get with shop (or internet) bought CDs.

“CD Duplication” is basically burning CD-R discs, of the type you might have used at home up until a few years ago. Companies offering this service have bulk CD-R burners that can do the job, and for short runs, it’s cost-effective. However, one manufacturer I looked at suggested that anything more than 300 discs would be better off using the traditional “CD Replication.”

There are also question-marks over the lifespan of these discs, although the consensus seems to be that it’s very much down to the quality of the blank discs that are used.

Anyway, in the case of Dune it seems that WaterTower Music is issuing its soundtrack discs in relatively low quantities utilising the “CD Duplication” method, without any printing on the actual discs. This in turn has resulted in some wondering whether they have been sold fakes! They haven’t – it’s just a manufacturing decision taken by Warners’ subsidiary, WaterTower Music.

[Update: Despite all of that, I bought the two CD packages that are available, and it looks like, right now, WaterTower Music is using CD Replication for its discs. Discs in both albums look properly reproduced to me, and not “burnt” CD-R style discs. I imagine that sales have been strong enough to encourage this. I’ve still not seen physical versions of the discs in shops like Fopp though.]

Soundtracks and the Compilation Album

Which brings us back to other soundtracks. At the weekend, I went to see Edgar Wright’s recent film Last Night In Soho, a kind of time-bending horror film set in and around both a contemporary and sixties version of Soho. I loved it, of course, not least because I could point to the precise location of every single scene shot in the film, having worked in the area for more than 20 years.

As with many of Wright’s films, music plays an important role in the film, with a many sixties classics being used alongside Steven Price’s original score. One of the film’s stars, Anya Taylor-Joy, performs a couple of versions of the classic Downtown, made famous by Petula Clark.

Coming out of the film, I went off in search of the soundtrack(s).

If you head to Spotify, you won’t have any problems. There are two separate albums – Last Night In Soho (Original Motion Picture Score) and Last Night In Soho (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).

The former is an album mainly comprised of cues by Steven Price from the film, coupled with a couple of songs, covers performed by Taylor-Joy, and a particularly evil-sounding mix of Sandie Shaw’s (There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me called the Soho Version.

The latter album is a collection of songs that feature in the film, alongside a single Steven Price cue, and a couple of the tracks recorded by Taylor-Joy.

As I say, on Spotify, everything is there and playable. But it’s a different situation elsewhere.

If I head over to YouTube Music, the Steven Price Original Motion Picture Score is all there and intact, with every track playable. But the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is essentially unplayable. It’s “there” but only the tracks recorded for the film – the Price cue, and the Taylor-Joy covers, are playable. The rest have exclamation marks and are unavailable.

Head over to Apple Music and it’s the same situation as with YouTube Music. The Price Original Motion Picture Score is there, but the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is mostly greyed out tracks with again only the handful of new tracks available to play.

So what’s happening?

Well, licencing music for films and soundtracks is complicated – and usually quite expensive. Film soundtrack albums largely made up of pre-existing songs tend to fall down the cracks.

It looks like the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on Spotify is actually something of a Playlist rather than an Album – although it’s certainly categorised as an album. If you play the Album, the artwork for each track is different and relates to the album where the song actually came from.

In the above example, Wishin’ And Hopin’ actually comes from the 1964 Dusty Springfield album, A Girl Called Dusty. And that’s the version they’re using.

And indeed, over on Apple Music there’s something called Last Night In Soho – Official Playlist created by Universal Pictures subsidiary Back Lot Music, which gathers together tracks from their source albums.

As it happens, that same Dusty Springfield track, Wishin’ And Hopin’ this time comes from the US-only release, Stay Awhile/I Only Want To Be With You, since the US never got the original release of A Girl Called Dusty.

Over on YouTube Music, that same Back Lot Music compilation can also be found, although another playlist by someone called Rocky, gets higher search billing.

It’s all a bit of a mess.

And this is with a new release, where everyone is surely incentivised to maximise revenues, streams, downloads and sales!

With older releases it gets worse. This year was the 10th anniversary of the Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive. It has a classic soundtrack made up of an original score by Cliff Martinez alongside tracks that were acquired for the film at the time. It’s a soundtrack I’ve repeatedly returned to over the years.

But listening to it today is not easy. On both YouTube Music and Apple Music, only the Cliff Martinez tracks are available on the Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) album.

Even on Spotify, which has it’s “album that’s really a playlist workaround” for some reason is missing Desire’s Under Your Spell.

So short of creating your own playlist, or searching for a pre-existing playlist (which may or may not include anything the creator decided to throw in there), you’re out of luck with Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music.

Over on Amazon, you can buy the mp3 download for £7.99, although you might instead want to buy the physical CD which is still in print for £5.75. And Invada Records and Lakeshore Records this year released a lovely vinyl set. (Electronic Sound magazine had a great feature on the soundtrack in issue 80 earlier this year, and the print edition is still available. Sadly you’ve missed the copy that came with a 7″ vinyl release of A Real Hero by College & Electric Youth).

Where all this is going to leave classic soundtracks from film-makers like Quentin Tarantino in years to come is unclear. Spotify’s soundtrack album for 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nearly complete – but is missing one track. The situation is, needless to say, worse on Apple Music and YouTube Music. The same goes for Pulp Fiction.

Your safest bet is to buy physical copies of these albums, because as of right now, they may not even be for sale as mp3s.

Vinyl Will Save Us?

Returning to Last Night In Soho, the only physical release seems to be a limited edition vinyl pressing which has nearly all the tracks on the digital download. One Anya Taylor-Joy track gets bumped off, one assumes, for space reasons.

Obviously, you can’t actually buy the vinyl pressing right now – what with all the world’s vinyl plants busily churning out copies of new releases from Abba, Adele and Ed Sheeran, alongside every album you already bought in the 90s or before.

If there’s a film that does need that vinyl soundtrack, it’s this one, with Thomasin MacKenzie’s character playing lots of records on her Dansette in the film.

But these vinyl releases are nearly all “limited” – with runs relatively short, and no guarantees of re-pressings down the road. Collectors will be snaffling up copies as soon as they come out.

So if you just want to be certain that you can listen to an album in years to come, your best bet is probably to buy the digital download. Because I certainly wouldn’t rely on any of the streaming services having it available at any point in the future.

(Note that I tend to upload my mp3s to YouTube Music which does allow me to stream albums in the app – even if they’re not available in the main part of the app, and just the uploads section of my Library.)

[Update: I did buy the vinyl release of the Last Night In Soho soundtrack, and because I bought it from Amazon, they gave me mp3s of the 21 tracks on the double LP set.]

State of Play

Based on the availability of physical soundtracks – or lack thereof – for Dune and Last Night In Soho, it would seem that we’ve reached a point in physical releases, where soundtracks for anything beyond the most massive films are just not worth bothering with. Certainly not with CDs. Warners is treating Dune as a niche that can be dealt with almost on a disc-by-disc basis, while Universal isn’t bothering at all with Last Night In Soho.

The only market segment that continues to do well is vinyl, where you can’t help but wonder if it’s a collector’s market with albums not really meant to be played? The Dune limited edition sold out before it was even released, and Last Night In Soho will probably do well too.

I’ll end by noting that while physical products beyond pricey vinyl albums are getting hard-to-impossible to buy, owning digital copies is still relatively easy. I can buy downloads of all five (!) soundtrack albums from Dune and Last Night In Soho.

And beyond that, even tiny releases, that might never ordinarily get physical releases, often find their way onto composers’ Bandcamp pages and the like. Want the soundtrack to that documentary you watched? You may well be able to pick it up if the composer has got their act together. They might not be about to get rich from sales topping out at a couple of hundred downloads, but at least they’re available.

The streaming workaround is the playlist. The original studio album may not be available, but a fan somewhere has carefully recreated it as a playlist and shared it. Except, that they might have “augmented” it with their own choices, or replaced/removed tracks that they personally don’t like. So buyer beware.

I realise that it’s somehow outdated to want a souvenir of a much loved film, and that me wanting a shiny disc is a product of another century. But then, nothing is forever, and I’ve seen the same things resold to me enough times in my life to realise that just because I can listen to something on Spotify today, I may not be able to tomorrow.

And liner notes are cool – as many are discovering as they buy vinyl copies of the same music.