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A guide to film music labels: commercial releases

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Our last article described the ever-popular concept of limited edition private releases in the world of film soundtracks. Its complement is the older, much more traditional notion of commercial releases.

Commercial CDs are the kind you can find at your local shop. As opposed to private releases, the price of commercial CDs will vary vastly depending on a variety of factors, including special sales, new release prices, and the scruples of the retailer. As opposed to the limited run of private releases, these CDs will stay in print as long as the sales are steady, and thus take much, much longer to become collectibles. When a recording label goes out of business however (such as Big Screen, Angel Records and Bay Cities) this of course immediately increases the value of its titles all at once.

Commercial CDs can have very stylish covers and inserts, but don’t expect a lovingly edited 16-page booklet crammed with information. Instead of an in-depth musical analysis, the only text one can expect to find is a short note from the movie’s director, commenting on the work of his composer. Always positively of course. No one has yet seen liner notes saying something along the lines of: “John Debney really wasn’t my first choice, but he did what he could with the skills he had. I’m sorry.”

Don’t expect a complete release of a movie’s score, either. In order to save money on production costs and musicians’ union fees, unnaturally short commercial releases are frequent, although the situation is thankfully not nearly as bad as it was in the early 90s.

Commercial labels don’t have vastly different personalities and mission statements from one another, as private labels do, but here is nonetheless a list of common names in the industry.

Varèse Sarabande
Varèse Sarabande (digitalart)

Varèse Sarabande

Named after composer Edgard Varèse, Varèse Sarabande has released a number of highly successful private releases, but it is known first and foremost for being a leader among commercial soundtracks since the 80s.  If any one company deserves an award for the preservation of contemporary film music, this is it.  Its logo has left fans in the midst of conjecture as to its intended shape.  Is it a stork?  A battleship?  A leaky gutter?  In truth, the famous blot shape is apparently nothing more than just that: a blot.

Sony Classical and Decca
Sony Classical and Decca (thephotoholic)

Sony Classical and Decca

Sony Classical attempts to aim for scores that carry a sense of sophistication and class.  It is, after all, primarily a label of classical music.  Titles like “Titanic”, “Shakespeare in Love” and “War Horse” come to mind.  Decca Records usually goes for similar contracts, with equally selective titles in their catalogue.

Walt Disney Records and Dreamworks Records
Walt Disney Records and Dreamworks Records (David Castillo Dominici)

Walt Disney Records and Dreamworks Records

Walt Disney and Dreamwork are among those film studios who release the soundtracks for their own movies.  Thus, the titles showcased are very predictable.

Misc. (stockimages)


Labels such as Hollywood Records, Atlantic, ColumbiaMCA, Milan, RCA, and Warner Bros. are more like the “grab-bag” of commercial soundtracks.  They will snatch up opportunities passed up by the more “classy” labels.  Although this sounds second-rate, we do have them to thank for certain incomparable gems (“Crimson Tide”, “Michael Collins”, “Bram Stocker’s Dracula”, “Jurassic Park”, “Brazil”, “Chicken Run” just to name a few).  But one look at their websites and the popular music that proliferates there will make it clear that film music is far from being their priority.

Lakeshore and Watertower
Lakeshore and Watertower (stockimages)

Lakeshore and Watertower

Lakeshore and WaterTower Music might not be as big as Varèse but they are very much dedicated to film music.  They do feature a few non-score soundtracks in their catalogue, as well as some recording artists not related to film at all, but one still gets the feeling that they treat film music as a serious music genre that deserves full attention.


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