Music

The Story Behind the Surge in Vinyl Film Soundtracks

How Mondo and other labels took a gamble on cinematic wax

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The Story Behind the Surge in Vinyl Film Soundtracks

The resurgence of vinyl as a hot commodity for fans of music has, like every format, had its ups and downs. Sales of these platters are on the rise, up 26 percent from the year before according to the analytics company BuzzAngle Music, providing a nice shot in the arm for indie stores and online retailers. But for every sweet bit of wax that gets released, there’s an equal number of wholly unnecessary records that feel less like answering a customer’s prayers than it does dudes in a boardroom trying to ride this wave until it sputters out. Like re-pressings of albums that are abundant in used bins or, say, the 7” single of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” that was available as part of this year’s Record Store Day festivities.

One of the more surprising outcroppings of this new vinyl economy has been the demand for soundtrack releases. Over the past five years or so, a number of boutique labels have emerged, re-releasing the scores and soundtracks from a wide array of films, often pressed to colored wax and housed in lovingly designed new packaging. It has become such a cottage industry that longtime major players in the music business like Universal and Varese Sarabande have started getting in on the fun, too, with offerings such as the recently announced repressing of the Bowie-starring Labyrinth (with three color options available) or the prairie sand-colored first time vinyl release of Lennie Niehaus’ score for the 1992 western Unforgiven.

While some of this growing activity has to do with both major musicians (Geoff Barrow of Portishead, Trent Reznor) recording scores for films and many producers and artists talking up the influence of movie music on their work, what has been fanning this small bonfire is the rise in profile of geek and collector culture. The majority of vinyl soundtracks that have been released in recent years tend to be the scores or songs from horror, sci-fi and cult films. And the people who bankroll these ventures often come from the world that sets up shop at Comic Con every year or are serious cinephiles.

“A lot of the things Mondo has branched out into,” says Mondo’s label manager Mo Shafeek, “whether it’s the collectible toy space or the board game space have been experiments that have been well-received. Then we go, ‘Oh, I guess we can do this now, huh?’”

One of the biggest players in this field, Mondo, got its start not through releasing music but by printing up geeky t-shirts and freshly designed variant movie posters that they sold, at first, through the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. Their foray into the vinyl business came as something of a lark.

“A lot of the things Mondo has branched out into,” says Mondo’s label manager Mo Shafeek, “whether it’s the collectible toy space or the board game space have been experiments that have been well-received. Then we go, ‘Oh, I guess we can do this now, huh?’”

Their first experiment, a vinyl issue of the soundtrack to the 1980 cult slasher film Maniac, was released in a small pressing during the 2011 Fantastic Fest and were quickly snapped up by attendees. Shafeek, a former road manager for pop-punk and emo bands, was then pushed into the role of looking after this new venture, which, by 2013, had ramped up considerably.

“Our goal was to try to do 12 records in 2013, one a month,” he remembers. “We learned very quickly the difference between making a piece of flat poster art and making something as complex as a record. We ended up releasing one record one month, then taking two months off and then releasing three all at once. It definitely put me through the wringer.”

One hurdle that Mondo had to leap was convincing some of the stakeholders involved with the films that there was a market for these records. When they reached out to Universal to discuss licensing the music for Jurassic Park for a vinyl release, the initial response, according to Shafeek, was, “No one’s going to buy that.”

“It took a couple of emails to get them to come around. And when they did, it was kind of, like, ‘It’s your money, I guess.’”

The eventual release, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the film’s release and featured lovely new art from designer JC Richard, quickly sold out. As did subsequent pressings, all of which are now out of print. And it might have helped Universal and composer John Williams see the light toward allowing Mondo to release the score for Jaws, which will be out this October.

While the vinyl arm of their multi-tiered business won’t likely eclipse their sales of posters and t-shirts, Mondo has fairly well set the template that a lot of other labels like Waxwork, Ship To Shore and the wonderfully named Swiss imprint We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, all of which came into existence around 2013 and all take much the same tack with artfully designed sleeves and eye-popping colored wax.

The other thread connecting these entities is that they’re all passion projects for the people who run them. The owners are all record collectors and film geeks themselves and generally are trying to bring into existence the soundtracks that they’ve longed to see on vinyl.

“We release titles that we absolutely love,” says Waxwork Records co-owner Kevin Bergeron. “We either love the movie or we love the music attached to it. Some of these soundtracks were often never intended to be released commercially. Our method has been: do we love it, has it been released, and can we re-release it in a clever deluxe manner.”

The New Orleans-based label, run by Bergeron and his partner Suzy Soto, has proved that out. In four short years of existence, they’ve landed some impressive white whales, such as a reissue of Christopher Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby, the first release of the music for slasher classic Friday The 13th (including a clear vinyl variant filled with fake blood) and the full Bernard Herrmann score for Taxi Driver.

“I was particularly sweating bullets over that one,” Bergeron says of that last soundtrack. “I had to send off the artwork to Martin Scorsese to approve and I was sure he was going to come back with, ‘You guys have ruined my vision!’ Instead we got a phone call from him praising it, saying we had an interesting view of what Taxi Driver is. That’s been very rewarding. We really want to make the people involved happy as well as create something that the fans are going to love.”

Naturally, larger labels from around the world caught quick wind of this opportunity and started trying to seize their own bit of the action. Some, like Fire Records, are dipping their toes gingerly into these waters. Having already decided to get into the film production business, the company decided to branch out into soundtracks with the same geeky fervor of Mondo and Waxwork. Managing Director James Nicholls chose to release an LP edition of the score for Richard Linklater’s 2006 sci-fi oddity A Scanner Darkly primarily as a fan of composer Graham Reynolds’ music.

“I think film merchandising arms just underestimated the potential of vinyl,” Nicholls writes via email. “Much in the same way that major labels underestimated vinyl. It’s the same thing. I think that’s a positive though for everyone involved. The more creative parts of the process, coming up with creative packaging, working with the artists/composers themselves…and tying all that in with everything the artist is currently doing, well, that wouldn’t get a look-in at a much bigger operation. It would be at the bottom of a list of priorities that’s topped by the next big superhero movie.”

That’s certainly been borne out by the scattershot way in which a lot of soundtrack reissues have been handled. To date we’ve seen everything from a plaid picture disc release of the Clueless soundtrack to the rather unnecessary re-releases of the soundtracks for Top Gun and Footloose (both sold over nine million copies in the ‘80s). Also on the shelves are LPs connected to newer films like the music from Disney’s recent Beauty and the Beast remake, the packed-solid double disc set featuring all the songs heard in Baby Driver and, of course, the “mixtapes” from both Guardians of the Galaxy adventures.

For Cary Mansfield, the manager of longtime soundtrack source Varese Sarabande, their return to the vinyl game has been primarily to take advantage of both Record Store Day and Black Friday or to give particular stores something special to sell.

“If there’s a demand for something, we’ll approach a retailer to do an exclusive with them,” he says, citing the upcoming Unforgiven release, which will be available only through Barnes & Noble. “Retailers don’t buy as much if there’s no big thing about it. Outside of that, we’ll try some new releases if it makes sense for us. If it’s a catalog release, it becomes more of a demand type thing.”

Mansfield may not sound like he has a 10,000 piece vinyl collection at home but having been in the record industry for over 25 years, he’s being a lot more pragmatic and cautious than most. He, better than anyone, knows that this spike in vinyl sales could soon reverse as tastes change and consumers get older. They’ll, at least, have their deep catalog of digital and CD releases to keep them afloat. Same goes for Mondo, who will likely keep selling movie posters as long as movies are being made. Waxwork, too, has been setting themselves up to survive a softening interest in vinyl, commissioning original stories and art for a new comic book series they just kicked off. And as for the vinyl junkies and producers/DJs looking for that next great sample, they’ll happily pick at the bones of dried up market as they’ve done for decades now and wait for the sequel. Roll credits.

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