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With Black Panther: The Album Soundtrack At Number One In The US, Are We Witnessing A Soundtrack Renaissance?

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

With the film sitting atop the box US office, Black Panther: The Album, executively produced by Kendrick Lamar, has managed a rare franchise feat by debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, with 154,000 in combined streaming and physical sales. This is no lone achievement for soundtracks; Suicide Squad and Hamilton’s official soundtracks both sold well throughout 2016. Yet, as the streaming transition begins to take a further hold on the charts, soundtracks are likely to become a far more frequent fixture among the year’s highest selling albums.

The conventional narrative around streaming is that it has made the music industry more single-centric than any format since the 1950s, with the 1960s ushering in an era where artists began to view the piece as a canvass for wider experimentation. Album sales overtook singles in 1968, where they remained as the industry’s top selling product until the 2010s. Of course, albums still existed prior to the 1960s, and the biggest sellers among them were film soundtracks. A quick dive into chart history reveals the biggest selling albums by year in the US and UK.


1956: Calypso1957: My Fair Lady1958: My Fair Lady1959: Music from Peter Gunn1960: The Sound of Music1961: Camelot1962: West Side Story1963: West Side Story1964: Hello Dolly1965: Mary Poppins


1956: Carousel1957: The King and I1958: My Fair Lady1959: South Pacific1960: South Pacific1961: G.I. Blues1962: West Side Story1963: With the Beatles1964: Beatles for Sale1965: The Sound of Music

In the first decade of modern recorded music from 1956 (Elvis Presley's first album feels an appropriate year-zero), nine of the year’s top selling records in the US were soundtracks. In the UK the number was eight, despite the arrival of The Beatles and the wave of rock ‘n’ roll acts that followed them.

With the success of Frozen, Suicide Squad and now Black Panther: The Album, what we are witnessing is the other end of the spectrum of a singles-driven market. Albums are becoming a premium lean-back experience, contributing to the recent boom in vinyl sales. In a culture that is far more visual, through the rise of YouTube and the micro-content offerings of Instagram and Snapchat, soundtracks give albums a visual anchor for users, which does not exist for other listening formats.

The second order effects of this will be significant. Music supervisors, who have seen their cultural cache increase in recent years, would become gatekeepers to success. Executive production or curation of a film soundtrack as Kendrick Lamar has done would become the holy grail for artists. Additionally, what may emerge is something that resembles the music industry of India, where the country’s music industry is essentially a micro-industry within the Bollywood machine. Given its influence on the film industry and considerable presence in music, The Walt Disney Company would also thrive in such a world.

Video kills radio stars, but it may well be the film industry that leads the way in preserving the album as an artistic medium.

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