In Beverly Hills one night during April 2003, Tracy McKnight knew no one was going to give her a deal. An established and respected music supervisor, she hosted a soundtrack screening for the Paramount Classics release, "The United States of Leland." According to McKnight, about 10% of those invited bothered to show up. She was unsure of what to do, because she knew that the film's music deserved a release. "We had an amazing soundtrack but the movie was too small," she recalls today.
It was the same night of the screening that McKnight started brainstorming with her friend, legendary music mogul Walter Yetnikoff. As the former head of CBS Records (he was involved in its sale to the Sony Corporation in 1988), Yetnikoff had seen his share of the music business ebb and flow. Yetnikoff's drug-soaked reign over the careers of everyone from Michael Jackson to The Rolling Stones led to the 2004 memoir, 'Howling at the Moon.' Within the last few years, though, he had become an elder statesman of the record industry. "I was watching all these films with great music, and no place to put it," says McKnight. "I said to Walter, 'Somebody needs to do this and it should be me.' That night in Beverly Hills, Walter and I started the label."
Within a few months, Commotion Records was born. In only those two short years, McKnight and Yetnikoff have created an impressive catalog of diverse releases. And in an age of corporate music, it's all about the niche. In the case of Commotion Records, the niche is the music of arthouse films. "I met Tracy a while ago, and when she told me she was starting this label, I thought it was terrific," offers Joel C. High, Sr. VP of Music and Soundtracks for Lions Gate. "She has such a great sensibility for how an album can work with an independent film, as opposed to the giant soundtracks."
High has worked with Commotion Records on two soundtracks thus far, releases for "The Cooler" (anchored with a score by Mark Isham) and "Happy Endings" (featuring songs performed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Calexico). Understandably, it's these smaller Lions Gate releases when Commotion comes into play. "Lions Gate is really the last of the independent studios, so we gravitate towards like-minded companies," adds High.
Meanwhile, if Lions Gate has a release that appeals to a broader crowd, they will coordinate a soundtrack with a major label, as they are doing with the November release "Dying For Dolly." That film's lead actor, R&B superstar Usher, will oversee the soundtrack and release it on his own imprint. "In that case, we're doing the deal with J Records, because Usher has a relationship with [label president] Clive Davis," says High, commenting that McKnight's passion about projects that need a "softer touch," always makes Commotion a pleasure to work with. "If there is a movie Tracy is passionate about, I know [Commotion] will do a fantastic job."
McKnight, Yetnikoff, and their Commotion team based in New York essentially operate in ways similar to the independent film distributors. They offer a "hands on" approach that makes their operation relatively easy to work with, especially for low-budget filmmakers. In fact, McKnight claims that Commotion doesn't feel limited to films with traditional distribution deals. It's all about the music. "Sometimes studios just want the CD to be part of the marketing," says McKnight. "We only release records that are great pieces from beginning to end."
"I think Commotion is very smart to focus on specialized-film soundtracks," says David Fenkel, VP of Marketing at THINKFilm, who worked with Commotion on the soundtrack for this summer's "Murderball" (featuring music by Ministry and The Polyphonic Spree). "They clearly believe in their movie's ability to attract an audience. They work in tandem with the creative, hardworking filmmakers and their respective distributors."
To date, Commotion has released eight soundtracks, including albums for Magnolia's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and UA's "Code 46." On some of their releases, McKnight has also worn the hat as music supervisor, but it's not as if all films she works on will be released by Commotion and vice versa.
"As a supervisor, I'm supposed to do what's best for the film," she adds, noting that sometimes Commotion is a smaller label than a filmmaker wants. Recent examples include New Line's "A Dirty Shame" and UA's "Coffee & Cigarettes," two of McKnight's soundtracks that were not released by Commotion. Lions Gate's Joel High explains this is often because of deals made by the film's production. The soundtrack for this year's Lions Gate hit "Crash," for instance, went with Superb Records as a result of a producer's decision. Though Commotion's work has been very effective, their bestseller to date is the soundtrack for "Hotel Rwanda," at 20,000 copies. With a record industry that considers 100,000 units sold to be the benchmark for an independent "hit," this solid start still has much space for growth.
So, while looking for future soundtrack releases, Commotion has decided to branch out. In October, the label will release the first of a planned "Artist Series," an album called Black Yankee Rock by solo act Chocolate Genius Inc. This new initiative stays true to McKnight's mantra that there are "no rules" for Commotion. This is what drives the passion that will keep the company dedicated to helping Indiewood and indie filmmakers with music that deserves to be heard.
"We are dedicating ourselves to films we believe in," says McKnight. "If you believe you have great music in your film, there is a way to get it into the world."
[ Matt Dentler is a Festival Producer at South by Southwest, an annual film, music, and interactive festival held annually in Austin, Texas. ]