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Movies, malls, and Musicland: How Minnesota fueled the '80s soundtrack album boom

Apollonia and Prince in 'Purple Rain.'
Apollonia and Prince in 'Purple Rain.'Warner Bros.

by Michaelangelo Matos

December 20, 2021

Fully apart from music videos — or, rather, synergistically along with them — the mid-eighties were when movies both about and featuring rock and popular music exploded. It wasn’t just because of the larger-than-usual number of offerings starring musicians. Rock’s big-screen synergy was manifesting in concrete marketplace ways. In 1984, ten soundtracks went platinum — more, Billboard noted, than in the years “1978 and 1980 — the two previous best years for soundtrack activity — combined.”

It wasn’t only big hits whose soundtracks made waves. Repo Man (1984) — which, as director Alex Cox has mentioned, took fifteen years to clear a profit, despite a budget of only a million and a half dollars — was buried at first by its distributor. It wasn’t until the soundtrack album sold 50,000 copies on its own, once the picture moved to cable and video, that the studio was forced to give it a wider release. “Not until K-Tel goes hardcore will you find Black Flag’s ‘TV Party,’ Suicidal Tendencies’ ‘Institutionalized,’ and Fear’s ‘Let Have a War’ on the same LP,” critic Robert Christgau wrote approvingly; this was at a time when there was no guarantee of finding all three of these U.S. indie-label punk classics in the same record store, much less on the same slab of vinyl.

Oldies are new again

A soundtrack didn’t have to have new or even new-ish songs on it at all to be a hit. When Tom Cruise’s rich-kid Risky Business character slid out into his parents’ living room in his boxers to dance along to Bob Seger’s recording “Old Time Rock and Roll,” from 1979, it became a standalone MTV video and sent the reissued single into the top fifty (it had gone to number twenty-eight the first time around). And for Lawrence Kasdan’s boomer melodrama, The Big Chill, producer Michael Shamberg said the soundtrack, heavy on Motown oldies, “was always part of the conception of the film. The music is like a character in the film.”

The Big Chill’s soundtrack, released in September 1983, a few weeks ahead of the movie, didn’t just sell decently. It became a phenomenon, to the utter surprise of Motown Records itself, which issued it at the same time as another, teen-oriented movie, Get Crazy, featuring songs by the Ramones and power-popper Marshall Crenshaw. “Oldies soundtracks, from American Graffiti through American Hot Wax and Diner, have sold modestly — because, among other things, there are no new songs to provide radio plugs,” the Washington Post noted.

But Get Crazy, album and movie alike, stiffed, while The Big Chill soundtrack was certified RIAA platinum at the end of March, prompting the release of the poignantly titled More Songs From The Big Chill, in mid-April. (The sequel went platinum in June of 1985.) “One big plus is that we were ahead of the game in the stores,” a Motown VP told Cash Box. “The product was in a lot of the mall stores early, where a lot of the theatres are. So when people came out of the theatres, they went into the stores looking for the album.” Most of them were adults. In August of 1984, Billboard reported that “people over twenty-four [make] up roughly a third of record buyers.” As Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler put it’, “Rock isn’t the best possible tool for insulting your parents or establishing the fact that you are a free person. Kids are too cool for that now.”

Like they do in the Dales

All that mall-centric retail activity meant big business in the Twin Cities — the birthplace of the indoor shopping mall. Not to mention the birthplace of the mid-eighties’ biggest soundtrack album, Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain, which topped the album chart for 1984’s second half.

But well beyond the breakout success of local artists, music was a major industry here. The biggest music-retail chain of the era was the Minneapolis-based Musicland Group, which, per Billboard in June of 1984, “encompasses sixty Sam Goody, twenty Discount, and approximately 350 Musicland stores,” as well as twenty-four Harmony Hut shops the chain had purchased earlier that year. Altogether, Musicland Group accounted for an estimated 6% of all America’s retail record sales. By comparison, the second-biggest chain of the early eighties, Integrity Entertainment Corp. of California — whose shops included Wherehouse and Big Ben — had roughly one-third as many stores.

“With the headquarters of . . . the Musicland retail chain, Target discount stores, and K-Tel International located here, the area accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of all records sold in the U.S.,” Jon Bream wrote for Billboard that summer. Another writer in that same issue, Moira McCormick, noted that between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s record/tape business was channeled through Minneapolis-St. Paul. Ira Heilicher, who ran the Great American Music/Wax Museum chain — sixteen shops at the time — told McCormick, “Everybody got healthy here through good competition, not by beating each other up in price wars. We’re respectful of each other’s customer base. Musicland didn’t open in a mall where there was a Record Shop [a 25-store chain headquartered in Minneapolis]. Great American Music won’t chase a Target sale with a sale of our own.” Even the independent distributors were doing boffo that year — Electric Fetus’s distributor sales increased 20 percent that year.

And malls were where most of that growth was happening. One local chain, the twenty-five-strong Record Shop, was “totally mall-oriented from the beginning,” Billboard reported — the first store had opened in Southdale. According to Record Shop president Mary Ann Leavitt, “Most [malls] have two [record retailers] now, and we’ve been in two malls with three stores. One we pulled out of, but another has a Wherehouse and a Musicland and it hasn’t hurt volume at all. If anything, it has boosted volume.”

From movie screens to MTV

Soundtracks had been reliable sellers for decades before the ‘80s — many of the bestsellers of the pre-Beatles ‘60s were original Broadway or movie musical cast recordings. But despite the large sales afforded movie tie-ins such as Woodstock (a triple LP in 1970) and American Graffiti (1973), movie soundtracks weren’t considered a major part of the music or film landscape until Saturday Night Fever (1977) broke the bank. It was the first of numerous tie-ins, three of which — Fever, Grease (1978), and Urban Cowboy (1980) — also relied on the enormous appeal of leading man John Travolta, while the first two were equally dependent on the Bee Gees’ fecundity: They’d written Grease’s title track, sung by Frankie Valli and a surefire number one, as well as dominating the Fever double-LP.

Saturday Night Fever was, for a spell, the bestselling album in American history, its place soon usurped by an Encino hermit with a sequined glove. But by 1981, one writer would note that “if any tie-ins with rock really worked, they were in the pop or pop-country vein rather than in rock,” referring to pop’s Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer and the country-tinged Urban Cowboy (Travolta plus a country-pop hit in Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love”), Honeysuckle Rose (Willie Nelson), 9 to 5 (Dolly Parton), and The Electric Horseman (Nelson supporting Robert Redford). The soundtrack was hardly a surefire thing, and it took a few years for either the rock or film biz to fully grasp its commercial potential.

In Fever’s case, RSO Records had primed the movie expertly, issuing the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” two months prior to its opening, the cover noting, “From the forthcoming motion picture Saturday Night Fever.” The formula was set — and after the 1979-82 bottoming out of the record biz, it would come back in force with Flashdance (1983).

Flashdance was operating with a similar system as Fever had been, one crucial thing aside: a star. Travolta was already piston-hot from his TV series, the comedy series Welcome Back, Kotter, and his white-suited dancing to the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” lit the match. Flashdance had no such insurance at the ready. No one had heard of the star, Jennifer Beals, and anyway, her story — of steelworker by day, exotic dancer by night Alex making her performing dreams come true — was faintly laughable. That’s when Frank Mancuso, who assumed presidency of Paramount in 1983, lavished his attention on Flashdance, overseeing an “invisible” marketing campaign utilizing MTV, videos given to rock discos and video clubs, and an alluring poster featuring Beals’ curves plain to see in an oversized sweater. Mancuso told New York that he saw it as “my challenge . . . to squeeze every last dollar out of every movie we do. It’s a fifty-two-week-a-year job.”

By the end of 1983, the Flashdance soundtrack sold five million copies. “We thought Flashdance was an interesting idea,” a Paramount exec said with a dash of casual misogyny. “We never thought that 42 million women with ugly shoulders would see the poster of Jennifer Beals and imitate her.” After Flashdance opened, the studio reoriented its TV ads to appeal to adults as well as teenagers: “We expanded the life of that film by creating a new audience,” Mancuso said.

It could be argued that Flashdance actually converted a new audience thanks to the incessant MTV play given its big hits, Irene Cara’s “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling” and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” with their near-complete dependence on film footage. “You just have to think what advertising time costs,” a Columbia pictures publicist said. “If you do a four-minute video for $150,000 and it gets played five times on (commercial) television, you’ve already made your money back.”

Moreover, for all the bravura and trick-shooting of Beals and her stand-ins’ moves, the biggest repercussions on American dance floors came from a sequence early in the film in which Beals and a friend encounter a breakdancing troupe, New York’s Rock Steady Crew, doing stop-start mime moves that were both liquid and robotic. “Probably most people you talk to, commercially, after the movie Flashdance came out, the scene with the Rock Steady Crew — that kind of started things commercially for hip-hop everywhere,” James Allen, a.k.a. Dynamite J of Richmond, Virginia, told an oral historian.

Flashdance’s musical choices were tightly controlled by the label. Russ Regan, whose title in 1984 was senior vice-president of pop A&R and soundtracks for PolyGram, told a reporter, “It works both ways. Sometimes, you work from a script, not knowing how the film will turn out. Other times we’ll have the luxury of seeing a rough cut before making a judgment call to get involved musically. Flashdance started with the script. It was a real collaboration; we held weekly meetings on the choice of songs and artists. The edge I had there was that I had the final call on songs.” With the huge success that followed, as Marianne Meyer wrote, “1984 dawned with a new equation: Movie + Soundtrack + Video = $$$!!!”

Watching the bottom line

In Paramount’s case, it helped that the studio was so cheap. Executives would fight producers over budget, consistently, and not just on the small stuff. In the words of a reporter, Paramount head Michael Eisner recounted to New York that “the fights over 48 HRS. weren’t as bad as those over Terms of Endearment. Which didn’t compare with the battles during the making of Flashdance. Nor were things exactly serene during the filming of Trading Places and An Officer and a Gentleman. What these four recent Paramount movies also have in common is enormous success. Each one was made for around $10 million; together they have taken in a half-billion dollars at the box office.”

The studio was liable to butt in on every decision. “Unless you’re someone like me, who used to be one of them, Paramount tries to make your movie for you,” producer Don Simpson said. “They have a point of view, and they articulate it. They are very smart, but they are also very rough. I know, because when I was in the job I was not a nice person. I never lied or cheated, but I did run roughshod over people.” The joke about the studio was that Paramount “gives you a green light and then dares you to make the picture.”

Eisner had been the young ABC exec who’d green-lit the Jackson Five’s Saturday-morning cartoon, but it was Simpson who played up his part in the rock and roll generation, as in a 1978 Rolling Stone feature by future Paramount screenwriter Cameron Crowe:

“As the ‘resident hippie’ at Warner Bros, ten years ago, he pushed, he says, for such projects as WoodstockSteelyard Blues and Medicine Ball Caravan. Music, he believes, has had a great influence on people thirty-five and under. Simpson, at lunch at St. Germain, talks in almost conspiratorial terms about ‘us,’ the people under thirty-five. He recalls reading in Rolling Stone about how we, the post-World War II baby boom, had become ‘the demographic bulge.’ The bulge exists because we, the love generation, aren’t making many babies and have thereby pushed the median age upward. And, by the power of our numbers, we will maintain more marketing muscle than the middle-aged of previous generations. Combined with what he perceives as the rise of a group of young studio heads, Simpson translates this to movie-making terms and, ultimately, to rock & roll.”

Film historian David Thomson described Simpson as the Paramount top brass’s “prize dog: they loved his flamboyant fierceness; his exuberant routine of looking to lay every woman he met; his confidence that a movie could be expressed and described in a couple of sentences, maximum; and his enormous capacity for fun, money, debauchery and drugs. More or less, the average Hollywood tycoon prefers to be discreet about that plunder. But Don was an animal, and the suave masters in silk suits were tickled that he was so naked, so acting out with it.”

Simpson and his producing partner, the far more straitlaced Jerry Bruckheimer (“the quiet, polite cop [while] Don was the s—t-kicker,” Thomson wrote), were the masters of a filmmaking idea whose brute force was given the highly misleading name of “high concept.” Rather than espousing lofty ideals or indicating a degree of intricacy in the plotting, high concept movies were movies you could pitch in one sentence — that was the “concept.” Thomson called Simpson-Bruckheimer movies “the ultimate in high-concept, nutshell movies: Flashdance — ‘It’s MTV on the big screen’; Beverly Hills Cop — ‘Street-smart black cop from Detroit finds himself in Bel-Air’; Top Gun — ‘Rock and roll kids in jet planes’; Beverly Hills Cop II — ‘He does it again.’”

Yet for many labels, the soundtrack tie-in still looked a lot like a crapshoot. The tie-in album for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), shepherded by mega-manager Irving Azoff, had been a dud, even with reliable sellers like Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. Giorgio Moroder had produced the Flashdance soundtrack and been nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys for it (the album lost to Thriller). But Moroder’s heavy handprint hadn’t helped D.C. Cab, a 1983 comedy whose soundtrack yielded no hits, even from Irene Cara’s title song.

Let’s hear it for the “trash”

The soundtrack that cemented the Flashdance formula was Footloose, which Marianne Meyer nailed in a sentence: “Footloose was, quite simply, a hit record with pictures.” Harrumphed New York’s David Denby: “Footloose may be a hit, but it’s trash — high-powered fodder for the teen market.” It hardly mattered, because Footloose grossed over $80 million and featured two number one hits, the title tune by Kenny Loggins and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams.

Following Footloose, Variety reported that record labels were “looking at pop-oriented soundtracks as relatively risk-free propositions, since production and recording costs are usually covered by the film producers. The labels pay the studios relatively modest advances against soundtrack sales and in most cases gain valuable extra exposure for their own recording artists.”

The film studios, meantime, were beginning to snap up record bizzers to help expedite things. In the fall of 1983, Twentieth Century-Fox hired Danny Goldberg — who’d done Led Zeppelin’s PR in the seventies and was then Stevie Nicks’ personal manager — to consult on the potential use of rock music in movie soundtracks “to spawn hit records and videos where possible,” Goldberg said. “Movie companies now have a medium to allow the consumer to try out their product without having to pay for it. It is a kind of free promotion unlike any other kind of advertising.”

This surge of soundtrack activity gave rise to a new job title: the music supervisor was a newly ascendant role in Hollywood, especially, as Billboard noted, with “dance films,” such as Footloose, or the wave of urban films involving break dancing that Hollywood had set up for the summer. Footloose’s music supervisor, Becky Shargo, was a ten-year music-biz veteran when she took the gig: “When the industry bottomed out and people’s desks began to be empty on Monday mornings, I took the Footloose job as an interim job until the industry perked up,” she said. “As a result of the success of Footloose, I’ve now got ten more projects lined up and have created a whole new career for myself.”

It paid for itself almost instantly — at up to $2,000 for a thirty-second ad on MTV, Variety noted, “a three-minute clip will pay for itself after only a few airings.” (And any movie with a youthful slant was automatically advertised on the network.) Corporate synergy was high in the air, and in many cases the record labels were owned by larger organizations that also owned (or were owned by) Hollywood studios. Hence, soundtracks for movies owned by Universal, which owned MCA Records, were heavy on cuts by MCA artists, which also featured in the films’ TV ads.

The new model of soundtrack-building was all hands on deck. “We like to get involved as early as possible,” MCA’s A&R woman Kathy Nelson said. “I prefer seeing the rough draft of the script.” Columbia Records senior vice president and general manager Al Teller told Billboard, “I think we’ve all learned from our mistakes [with soundtracks]. Record companies have become more sophisticated in their dealings with studios, and are becoming involved with pictures at an earlier stage in the creative process.”

In fact, one reason the Footloose soundtrack did so well for is that the label had gotten it cheap. “CBS had been burned on soundtracks in the past, so they were hesitant about putting up too much money on the basis of the script,” Becky Shargo said. Because Pitchford was so insistent on getting “Americana” quality of Kenny Loggins’ voice for his film (indeed, he sounded the way a shopping mall looks), the label lowballed him, nabbing the studio a mere $250,000 advance. To sweeten the deal, CBS instructed Paramount “to deliver two non-CBS artists whose last albums had sold at least 500,000 copies,” and received Shalamar and journeyman hard rocker Sammy Hagar in return. The artists were told their profits would come in the royalties. Footloose finally knocked Thriller off the top of Billboard’s album charts in the April 21 issue and spent ten weeks at number one — so those royalties were handsome indeed.

Sometimes a soundtrack took the spotlight instead of its host film. Exhibit A is Phil Collins’ title song for Against All Odds, a 1984 neo-noir (it’s a remake of the classic Out of the Past) directed by Taylor Hackford, who would helm the classic documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll three years later. The movie of Against All Odds didn’t do too badly — it earned back roughly double its cost — but by 1984 that wasn’t nearly good enough for a studio like Paramount.

We have liftoff

Over Christmas of 1984, the rock soundtrack’s new place was cemented, thanks to Beverly Hills Cop. The movie broke box office records that holiday season, and within six months, its soundtrack would hit the top of Billboard’s album chart. The film’s producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, had been given a mere four weeks to assemble it; the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” which plays during the opening chase scene, had been a non-single LP cut from the trio’s Break Out. Once it appeared in the movie — and, with Eddie Murphy and/or his stunt double being battered around the back of a truck, providing a readymade MTV clip — “Neutron Dance” reached the top ten.

Beverly Hills Cop’s opening with a chase scene, instead of building up to one, as had been the action-movie norm until then. It was a sign of how marketing was making its way into big-budget filmmaking — find the thing that tests well with the audience and keep doing it, however much or little sense it made to the plot. That was the way soundtracks were made, as well. Beverly Hills Cop’s hits — “Neutron Dance,” Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On,” Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F,” Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” — each reached or neared the top of multiple formats, including CHR; Frey’s record even got R&B airplay. Bruckheimer and Simpson decided to work on their next film’s soundtrack throughout its production. Its title: Top Gun.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.