The surprise success story of the ever-expanding Fifty Shades of Grey franchise isn’t the film adaptation, which needed only two weeks to draw BDSM-curious viewers to the tune of over $400 million worldwide, but the film’s soundtrack — a sexy/cool compilation that recently became the fastest-selling multi-act soundtrack in a decade. Featuring original music by Beyoncé, Sia, The Weeknd, and Ellie Goulding, the album, released by Republic Records, sold more than 428,000 units in its first two weeks, according to Nielsen Music, and this week sends two hit singles to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” No. 3; and The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” No. 9).
Most impressive of all? It’s actually good. Where many critics have argued that the novel and film versions of Fifty Shades succeeded in spite of themselves, the soundtrack has been widely received as an artistic achievement as well as a commercial one. Created out of an ambitious collaboration between Republic and Universal Pictures, the album is something of a throwback to the golden era of movie soundtracks in the late 20th century — Juice, Romeo + Juliet — with several original songs deployed during key plot moments.
“We really wanted the songs to be part of the fiber of the film — nothing crowbarred in or just auxiliary to the experience,” said Mike Knobloch, president of film music and publishing at Universal. “There was a very deliberate effort to create as much original material as possible, to tailor the production, the lyrics, and the performance.”
Work on the Fifty Shades soundtrack began nearly two years ago, with meetings between Knobloch’s division at Universal, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, independent music supervisor Dana Sano, and the entire Republic A&R team. Given the market potential of the franchise (the book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide), the group allowed itself to indulge in what Knobloch characterizes as “blue sky” conversations — with no artist, no matter how large, considered to be off the table.
“If we could get anyone,” Knobloch recalls thinking, “Who would we get?"
Further spurring early meetings was the unique role music plays in Fifty Shades as originally written by E.L. James. Billionaire Christian Grey’s seduction of virginal literature student Anastasia Steele is peppered with unusually specific music cues, including several classical pieces and songs by contemporary artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Britney Spears.
“We were thinking of artists that would be in everyone’s own little personal playlist as they were reading the books,” said Tom Mackay, EVP and general manager, West Coast at Republic. “They had to be able to convey a vibe that was sensual and soulful, a certain taste, texture, and tenor.”
The group compiled a list of dream artists, many of whom were not signed to Republic or its parent Universal Music Group, and began making calls to managers, labels, and publishers. Despite the cultural and commercial momentum of the franchise, they faced significant challenges. One problem was typical of soundtracks: At any given moment, many artists are simply unavailable due to the time constraints of their own touring or promotional schedules. But there were also particular issues related to the book itself, considered by some to be either too racy or too lowbrow. Knobloch and Mackay say there were a few, though not many, artists who turned them down flat.
Ultimately, 12 artists and 14 songs, all but two original, were chosen for the soundtrack, with two additional pieces of score composed by Danny Elfman. Beyoncé was among the first calls.
“I think we made a pretty good pitch,” said Knobloch of approaching Queen Bey, whose smoldering reinterpretation of her hit “Crazy in Love,” produced by Boots, appeared in the first trailer for the film as well as on the soundtrack. “She’s being offered amazing things on a daily basis, but we gave her a compelling explanation of why the movie was going to be huge and why we felt we were making a great film that was going to do really well on a global scale. She thought it was an opportunity to do something that aligned nicely with her brand and agenda.”
To lure Sia, the Australian singer/songwriter of “Chandelier” fame, Knobloch and Sano visited her at home with a laptop and played the scene they had in mind on-site. It’s a pivotal moment, when the two protagonists have an ecstatic and intimate first sexual encounter.
“She played us songs and we would say, ‘That's good, but could it be more of this, or less of that?’” said Knobloch. “By the end we left her spinning her wheels about what she had to do to deliver just the right song to us for the film.”
Ellie Goulding’s dream-pop ballad “Love Me Like You Do,” the result of a call from Mackay to super producer Max Martin’s manager, has emerged as the soundtrack’s biggest commercial breakthrough and a fixture on Top 40. But arguably the artist to have benefited the most from the project is The Weeknd, a post-radio lothario who, prior to writing “Earned It” for Fifty Shades (released in January and nearing 58 million streams on Spotify), had never produced a hit single.
With a large, loyal fan base and a reputation as a fierce steward of his own image, The Weeknd could have phoned in his contribution, focusing instead on lucrative touring prospects or his own pending new album. But, as was the case with others involved in creating the soundtrack, he decided to take the opposite route.
“He was unbelievable during this process,” said Mackay. “Our A&R staff brought him in very, very early and he worked on a number of songs for a number of scenes. Some were working and some weren’t, but he just kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it. In the end, he wrote ‘Earned It’ and it’s the biggest song of his career to date. It’s the only song that’s in the movie twice.”