Can a Soundtrack Take a Band to the Top?

Whether it’s a single song plucked from an album, or tasking a band to create an entire score from scratch, film soundtracks can have a massive impact on the direction and careers of those involved in them.

If visitors to the frigid Oxford countryside in January of 2009 had ventured a little off the beaten track, they would have come across a very strange sight: Oly Ralfe, the lead singer of Ralfe Band, tinkering with a dusty, worn-out piano that he had put out in the snow and ice. Ralfe and his band mates, including seasoned percussionist and guitarist, Andrew Mitchell, were working on the score to an independent film, Bunny And The Bull (2009). Written and directed by Paul King, it’s the story of an agoraphobic man who refuses to leave his flat following an abortive road-trip around Europe with a friend.

“The film is quite otherworldly and we were having this otherworldly weather,” says Ralfe. It’s a year later, and the slightly dishevelled musician is sipping a cappuccino in a Soho café, sheltering from weather nearly as foul as that time in Oxford. “The director drove up and his car slid on the ice, and we were kind of stuck up there. One of the guys I do music with, sorted out this space for us. We only had a couple of weeks notice, so we had to drop everything and dive in, hire a piano, get the mics set up, get some musicians and start writing music every day. As opposed to writing songs here and there or writing a tune when it grabs you.”

Although the similarity in the shut-in circumstances between the film and the recording environment were perhaps accidental, there is no doubt just how seriously Ralfe Band took the gig. And they should: an appearance on a soundtrack (used here in the general sense to mean the music in a film) can have an enormous impact on a band’s career and direction. The Recording Industry Association of America estimates that over 300 million soundtrack albums have been sold worldwide. The most successful orchestral score is that of Titanic, which sold 30 million, while Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard clocked 17 million. Even on a smaller scale, for videogames or TV series, the impact can often be slightly surreal. Imogen Heap’s strange and beautiful vocoder song Hide And Seek (come on, you know the one) originally popped up in an episode of The O.C., and went on to appear in dozens of other series and films, forever changing the direction of Heap’s career. This is a big business.

There are generally two ways a director or film company can approach the music for a film: they can license existing material from various musicians for use in the film and soundtrack, or they can hire someone to create them an entirely new score – composers like Hans Zimmer or Harry Gregson-Williams often single-handedly write the music for entire films. Although Bunny And The Bull ­– and indeed Ralfe Band ­– are quite some way from Titanic and The Bodyguard, they are a perfect example of the second approach.

Ralfe says: “The people making the film knew what we’d done on our previous two albums and then we got a chance to do a demo – an audition in a sense, where we had to record music for a rough edit of two scenes. We basically tried out a couple of ideas, and they went for it. They really liked it. It’s one of those rare things.”

Ralfe’s approach was in line with his frozen, weathered piano experiment: to not only introduce interesting sound elements to the equation, but a wide variety of instruments such as kettle drums and castanets to create an almost flamenco-style feel to some of the pieces. In many ways, this also typifies an approach that a band will take when tasked with scoring an entire film; they will throw themselves into it, with the reasonable expectation that not only will it allow them to expand themselves musically, but that their association with the film will do good things for their career.

Ralfe says that he never entered with that idea in mind, but he does say that there’s been an impact on his band since the film’s release. “It has opened a few new avenues to what we were doing. Basically, it’s pretty hard to get noticed just doing albums and songs, you know, and there’s a zeitgeist factor and new bands all the time, and you’re constantly competing against the big, cult names, so it is difficult to be heard. But doing a soundtrack is a way of getting heard in a very distinctive way that a lot of people aren’t doing.”

One band that can look back from the vantage point of a few years hence, and chart the impact a soundtrack appearance had on their career, and a perfect example of what happens when a director picks a track for licensing, is The Shins. When Zach Braff’s Garden State came out in 2004, the American band were not only featured prominently on the soundtrack, but were actually name-checked in the script by Natalie Portman. “It was very early on that Zach wanted to use a couple of our songs for his movie,” says lead singer James Mercer. “It was pitched to me as an independent film, but it was written into the script very early on in the process, way before Natalie Portman was booked in the gig. If you were to make a prediction about how the movie turned out, you would say, it would be a really small production. It obviously got some funding somewhere along the way.”

That it did. The two songs featured on the soundtrack, New Slang and Caring is Creepy, had a massive impact on the band’s career, and cemented them into the musical psyches of thousands of film fans as Garden State became an Indie phenomenon (Imogen Heap also popped up, performing with her band Frou Frou). Mercer says that it certainly allowed them to expand their audience; record sales for The Shins went right up and the growing consciousness of their music allowed them to tour extensively across the USA. It was not the first time that The Shins got a soundtrack shot (their song One By One All Day appeared in Jason Lee’s film A Guy Thing, Mercer claims he can’t remember the name of the film – and they had a song in, of all things, the Spongebob Squarepants movie) but it was certainly their biggest.

More importantly, Mercer says that although he never got too hyped-up about being on the soundtrack, he did remain pragmatic when it came to the impact it would have on The Shins. “It’s funny, I think early on I needed the money more,” he says. “I was in debt when we first started to make some money back. I had used credit cards to make the first record, Oh, Inverted World. When we did get an advance from the label, I used it to buy a van so we could tour. I wasn’t lucky enough to have money lying around. When we started having licensing offers, which was pretty early on, I think I was very pragmatic. It got more comfortable, I guess, as time went on, it allowed us to keep going. If I hadn’t done the licensing I did, we might have been in a pretty difficult situa­tion trying to tour and hold down day jobs and pay for equipment, because I was pretty dedicated to this idea of recording the record ourselves. It really made stuff possible.”

Of course, sometimes a feature on a soundtrack might not have the impact it’s expected to. Blackalicious, a hip-hop act from California, saw their bouncy It’s Going Down featured on the soundtrack to the 2002 musical drama Brown Sugar. However the soundtrack, while justifiably revered for selections from relative heavyweights like The Roots and Mary J. Blige, didn’t seem to do a huge amount for Blackalicious directly. They’ve gained a large fanbase through their long career and multiple albums, but Brown Sugar seems to be a footnote rather than a major turning point.

Gift Of Gab (Tim Parker), the emcee who, along with producer Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley) makes up the group, does say that in terms of industry experience, getting on the soundtrack was invaluable. “The experience with MCA [who released the soundtrack] took Blackalicious from being just an underground kind of group to getting played on BET and MTV and taking us to that larger audience, kind of expanding our audience. The MCA situation was a tool in terms of expanding our audience. Sometimes when you’re underground, you don’t have the same political ties that a big machine like MCA would have, so that was a great experience.”

The long-term impact of Bunny And The Bull on Ralfe Band is yet to be seen; there’s no guarantee that such an Indie project will grant them a massive career-changing turning point. But any film can be made or broken by the quality of its music, and – as was the case with The Shins – being small-scale doesn’t always mean it has to stay that way.

For more information on Ralfe Band: The Shins: Blackalicious:

Rob Boffard