Empire Records: The Story Behind the Scenes

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A Soundtrack that Became a Platinum Cult Classic Without The Film Ever Being Released in Theaters

 By  Jonathan McHugh


Jonathan McHugh has spent over two decades working in film, TV and music. Through his varied film and music career he has served as a senior executive at Universal Music, Jive Records, and A&M, has been the music supervisor for over 25 film and television projects (including the Saw series and Dumb & Dumberer). Additional’ly he has produced and marketed over 20 hit soundtracks, including, “Austin Powers, “The Wedding Singer,” “Rush Hour,” “Boogie Nights,” “Blade,” “Spawn,” “Empire Records,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Stomp the Yard,” “Step Up,” “The Wood,” and “Don Juan Demarco.” He is a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.


The year was 1995. I was right in the middle of a phenomenon waiting to happen — I had picked up a film called “Empire Records” that was about life in an alternative record store, and to me, it had the look and feel of a multi-platinum soundtrack.

Of course, this was back in an era when soundtracks had the potential of going multi-platinum. I looked at Billboard magazine this week and there were only three soundtracks in the Top 100.  If “video killed the radio star,” Internet killed the soundtrack biz. It was a great business until people could make their own compilations and didn’t need to buy entire soundtracks anymore.

Great soundtracks stem from close cooperation between directors and producers who love music and treat it a like character in their movies and television shows.  I used to love putting soundtracks together by pairing music with film in a way that would resonate and capture the essence of a movie’s story and characters.

Sadly, I fear those days are mostly gone. But in 1995, I was right in the thick of it, and with Empire Records, I knew we had a hit.

My soundtrack co-producers — Mitchell Leib and Karen Glauber — had helped me create an amazing compilation of the best alternative/pop bands of the mid to late 90s. We had a single by the Gin Blossoms, written by Marshall Crenshaw, and then we picked up a single called “Girl Like You” by an artist from Scotland named Edwyn Collins. We were rolling! The label for which I produced soundtracks, A&M, was actively working both singles and we had new songs from Cracker, Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Cranberries, and many more.

I was told by Warner Brothers Pictures that the film was initially going to be released on 2000 screens nationwide. Then they kept dropping the number every week until I finally went to a Warner’s marketing meeting and was told it would open in only one theater (just to meet the home video deal terms). So every week I would go into my A&M marketing meetings and basically present a rosy picture that it would be a smaller number and why that was actually a good thing for this kind of soundtrack. But when it hit rock bottom, and was not going to be released, I thought I would be fired.

Since the singles were hits and the soundtrack was out and selling well, I did not get fired. I had a great relationship with the president of the company who felt bad for me and offered to buy back my royalty point on the soundtrack (which would’ve given me royalties on every record sold). Thinking this soundtrack would be a bust without a theatrical release, I took a small check and sold my point.

Then I had an idea: I asked A&M’s President and the head of sales to make a drastic move and tell the retailers (when there used to be physical record stores!) that they could keep the record in their stores for a midline price ($5.99) and they can sell it for $7.99. This gave them the option of not sending back the 200,000 soundtracks that were out on the streets.

I knew when people saw the movie Empire Records, it would connect and they would buy this soundtrack.

I was sooooo right  — when the film started airing on HBO, the soundtrack exploded, especially since it was priced to move. Then it hit home video, and exploded again. And it kept going and going and going and sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone!

But it was too late to turn back on giving my point away! While I didn’t strike it rich, I ended up with a great story and platinum plaques in the U.S. and Canada. And to this day, fans of the soundtrack e-mail me asking how to get other music from the film. So, as Bill Murray’s character observed in “Caddyshack”(which has a damn fine soundtrack, by the way), “I’ve got that going for me…which is nice.”


Click here for our list of the top 20 soundtracks of all time.

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