How do you get an artist like Taylor Swift to write and record a song just for your movie? As the producers of Fifty Shades Darker learned, you start the conversation very early. “We bring artists in at the ground level,” says Tom Mackay, head of West Coast A&R for Republic Records, which will release the film’s soundtrack Feb. 10. “We show them scenes and talk about a musical direction. Now they’re riding shotgun with the filmmaker and studio throughout the whole process.”
For musical artists and filmmakers, it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. In an era of declining album sales, soundtracks for blockbusters like Twilight, The Hunger Games and now Shades have become a venue for established stars eager to stay relevant between album cycles, and for emerging artists to keep emerging. “Film and TV are the new radio,” says Mike Knobloch, president of film music and publishing at Universal Pictures.
The strategy has worked for Shades. The first film adaptation of E.L. James’ blockbuster erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, released in 2015, raked in over $500 million worldwide. Equally massive: the soundtrack. That compilation gave alt-R&B crooner the Weeknd his first Top 5 single with “Earned It,” eventually scoring him an Oscar nod for Best Original Song and a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Additional contributions from Beyoncé and Ellie Goulding helped make the soundtrack one of the best-selling albums of 2015.
For the sequel, Taylor Swift recorded a sultry collaboration with Zayn, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” which is quickly climbing the Hot 100. Its falsetto harmonies and sultry vibe make it perfect for the film, which is the point: to get the music to fit the scene like a glove. “Otherwise, it’s just going to feel like a series of kinky music videos, ” Knobloch says. “If songs were crowbarred in, people would smell it from a mile away.”
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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