How Music Films & Biopics Are Affecting Music Sales

Music films seem inescapable at the moment. Granted, as a music fan, I deliberately put them in my line of vision, many of these films are geared towards fans and non-fans of the artist alike, or even of that particular music genre. Record execs are likely taking note of the incredible achievement of Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody and pushing through film projects at an accelerated rate. 

In the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, writers Brian Hiatt and Andy Greene discuss how Queen is now arguably bigger in the US than they’ve ever been. Thanks to Hollywood, there’s probably a whole generation of teenagers getting into rock and roll who are convinced that the biggest rock bands are Queen and Mötley Crüe, citing the following Tweet:

“Because if Nirvana’s so good then where’s their movie?” says Hiatt, putting himself in the teen’s frame of mind.

Having just released our mid-year report, comparing data from the Discogs Database and Marketplace to that of the wider-music industry via Nielsen Music we’ve spent a bit of time poring over Nielsen’s findings. So great was the influence of music films on music consumption (sales, downloads, and on demand streaming) in 2019 so far, they dedicated a whole section of their mid-year report to it. Seeing the undeniable impact of these music movies really highlights what a marketing machine they are for the artist beyond the box office; against all odds Queen is the biggest selling artist for the first half of 2019. 

Queen weren’t the only band to benefit some Hollywood marketing; Nielsen also highlighted Rocketman‘s impact on Elton John‘s catalog, A Star Is Born for Lady Gaga, The Dirt for Mötley Crüe, and Amazing Grace for Aretha Franklin, among others.

One of the most striking things about these music films is that all they’re pretty different. Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretty classic, cut-and-dry rock biopic. Rocketman is more of a musical with fantastical leanings. A Star Is Born is a completely fictionalized film, with a popstar portraying the lead character. The Dirt is another classic biopic, but being a Netflix production, bypassed the traditional means of cinematic distribution. Amazing Grace is a concert film which was mainly shown on the festival circuit.

Biggest Music Films Of The Past Year vs. Music Sales

We wanted to compare Nielsen’s notes to what we’ve seen on Discogs over the past year following the release of each film. Streaming a Queen or Elton track after seeing a trailer, or catching the film at the cinema is pretty low stakes – it’s easily accessible and free. Buying an album is much more of a commitment. We took a look at Collection figures on Discogs to see if the number of people who bought the albums or singles from these artists and added them to their Discogs Collections increased around the time the film were released.

Define ‘Collection Addition’…

We count the number of times a member of the Discogs community adds a physical release credited to the artist to their Collection, ranging from album, single, soundtrack, appearance, on vinyl, CD, cassette, reel to reel – whatever. It doesn’t have to be bought in the Discogs Marketplace, added to Collection are the only numbers we’re looking at here.

Bohemian Rhapsody vs. Queen Interest & Collection Additions

Release date: November 1, 2018
Box office: 903m USD

While achieving larger than life status in their native England, Queen never really struck a chord with the American crowd in as big a way. Many Americans first introduction to Queen was in Wayne’s World in the ’90s. Bohemian Rhapsody has proven to be an unbelievable success, setting a new box office records for biographical film and drama genres, and winning a number of awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and picking up a Best Actor Oscar for Rami Malek’s Mercury. 

As of the first half of this year, Queen had shifted 731,000 units, making them the biggest selling artist of the year so far. Strangely, there wasn’t a single Queen album on our top 10 vinyl sales of 2019 so far, but we definitely saw an increase in the number of appearances Queen made on our monthly Top 50 Best Selling Records lists. Eight out of the 50 albums on our best seller list in November 2018 were Queen albums. That number dropped down to two for a few months, then jumped back up to four in February, the month the film was distributed for home release. Similarly, we saw more Queen on our Top 30 Most Expensive Items list leading up to and after the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, including a 2017 pressing of News Of The World going for $1592 in February.

Looking at collection numbers on Discogs, we see a sharp rise from July 2018 through January 2019. It should be noted that there is an increase in the number of items being added to collections in general around December-January of every year, likely due to newly acquired items over the holiday season, but this spike is a lot steeper than the general trend around this time of year. The second spike around March coincides with the release of Bohemian Rhapsody on DVD and Blu-ray.

Rocketman vs. Elton John Interest & Collection Additions

Release date: May 31 2019
Box Office: 185.5m USD

The pressure on Elton John’s biopic, coming so closely after Bohemian Rhapsody was high. It was a pretty different in movie, both in terms of the style of filmmaking and the context of its subject (musical with elements of fantasy vs. dramatic  biopic, alive vs. dead frontman, still touring vs. still touring but sans-original frontman). Rocketman got a good critical reception and did well enough at the box office, but clearly didn’t have a patch on Bohemian Rhapsody.

Despite not quite hitting the same heights as Bohemian Rhapsody at the box office, the timing of Rocketman has no doubt been great for ticket sales of his current 300 date worldwide tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road. The tour had grossed over $125m by the end of its first leg and won a Billboard Music Award for Top Rock Tour. Oh, and what’s this? An autobiography coming out in October! It’s already a number 1 best seller in preorders on a certain internet retail site. Elton means business.

And then there’s the music. Nielsen reported an 84% increase in consumption of Elton’s catalog in the week following the May 31 release of Rocketman. Discogs Collection adds tell a more modest story. It’s possible that bump in collection adds around the start of the year was buoyed by press around the upcoming biopic, but the adds around June – where we might expect to see a bigger uptick – is a little underwhelming.

I really hope that at least one person added some Elton to their collection as a result of seeing this Snickers ad from August 2018.

A Star Is Born vs. Lady Gaga Interest & Collection Additions

Release date: October 5 2018
Box office: 435m USD

Not a biopic, but a music heavy film with an original soundtrack and popstar, Lady Gaga playing a popstar. Some things I learned about this film when researching this part: Aaliyah was in talks to pick up Gaga’s role in a 2000 adaptation following her breakout role in Romeo Must Die. Clint Eastwood wanted to take a run at an adaptation in 2011 with Beyoncé in the lead, but the project was put on hold when she got pregnant, then left in 2012. Eastwood was then interested in bringing Prince protegé, Esperanza Spalding on board. 

Gaga’s streaming numbers were way up following her turn as Ally in A Star Is Born. Lead single from the soundtrack, Shallow set new records, spending 45 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. That’s longer than any other track that’s won the Oscar for Best Original Song (previous record holder was Let It Go from Frozen, which was on the charts for 33 weeks). Nielsen reported that the song received 684,000 digital downloads in the first half of the year, and had been streamed 316 million times.

That performance of at the Academy Awards is what really seems to pique wider interest in Lady Gaga. Looking at Google Trends data below here, where the blue trend line is the volume of Google searches for Lady Gaga and the red trend line is Google searches for A Star Is Born, the film release sees a small boost to Gaga’s search popularity. But that spike right around the date of the Academy Awards shows that’s where the magic is.  

While Lady Gaga isn’t a particularly popular artist among the Discogs crowd, it seems not even you were not immune to her charms at the Academy Awards. Interest in Lady Gaga’s catalog following the release of A Star Is Born sees a marked upswing from October through December 2018, with another small surge in March earlier this year, right around that award performance.

The Dirt vs. Mötley Crüe Interest & Collection Additions

Release date: March 18 2019
Box office: N/A – Made for Netflix. Netflix is famously tight-lipped on viewership data, so streaming numbers are unknown.

In the words of New York Times reviewer Jason Bailey, “The Dirt” plays like an ill-advised remake of This is Spinal Tap — one in which all the laughs are unintentional.” Is he right? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it and I didn’t really have any major inclination to tune in after reading that.

The film is based on the Neil Strauss assisted autobiography, The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. How much money Netflix puts into marketing and promotion for a film like this compared to more traditional studios, distributors and networks is also a mystery. 

But whatever they did worked. Nielsen shows a 683% surge in the consumption of Mötley Crüe’s catalog in the week following the premiere of The Dirt, including 30.4 million song streams streams. Discogs Collection numbers reflect that; just look at the chart below – interest in Mötley Crüe almost doubled in the months leading up to that biopic release.

Amazing Grace vs. Aretha Franklin Interest

Release date: April 12 2019
Box Office 5.2m USD

Another very different take on the music film; Amazing Grace is a concert film with a festival concentrated release, premiering at Doc NYC.

It took a long way to find its way to the screen, being recorded in 1972 alongside an album of the same name, but the film was not released at the time due to technical difficulties with syncing the audio and visual. Footage was shelved, gathering dust in a vault at Warner Bros. until it was purchased by producer, Alan Elliott in 2007. Elliott tried to release it twice – once in 2011 and once in 2015 – and was met with a lawsuit from Franklin both times. Following Franklin’s death in 2018, her family made an arrangement to release the film, which has been met with critical acclaim.

Nielsen noticed a 16% increase in streaming of Franklin’s Gospel Greats compilation following the wide theatrical release of Amazing Grace. On Discogs, we see a slight influx in items added to collection around the release date. Unfortunately, any movement in the amount of Franklin records added to collection on Discogs is dwarfed by events the spike around her death in August.

With all that in mind, it’s time to start calling bets on who’s already sitting in meetings discussing who will portray them on the big screen. There’s already a whole bunch slated for the coming year, including Bowie, Elvis, and Madonna. Whose biopic would you most like to see?

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