Music a key element in WWE brand profile

Sun Jun 15, 2008 7:31pm EDT

NEW YORK (Billboard) - It broadcasts television shows in 130 countries and in 20 languages. It averages a weekly global audience of 47 million viewers. It aired tongue-in-cheek videotaped messages from Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama during an April broadcast. It is a pop culture phenomenon.

And yet there's something missing that World Wrestling Entertainment still yearns for: the respect of the recording industry.

"One of my frustrations is getting the word out about just how much music is used in our product," WWE music director Jim Johnston said. "The labels will stumble over themselves to get on MTV, but no one's watching MTV."

The WWE is continuing to develop relationships with record labels and publishers to find songs to feature in the dozen-plus pay-per-view events it produces each year. Next in line for the WWE treatment: hard rock band Shinedown, whose single "Devour" from its forthcoming Atlantic Records album, "The Sound of Madness," will be featured during the WWE "Night of Champions" June 29 pay-per-view event.

For licensed music used in pay-per-view events and the occasional weekly broadcast, the WWE sometimes showcases songs by such well-known acts as Kid Rock or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. More typically, it seeks out little-known bands willing to provide their music for free, timing the airing of a song around the release of a new album, according to WWE Music Group general manager Neil Lawi, who listens to submissions, maintains relationships with labels and frequently scouts new talent.

That impact on sales from a WWE placement can be immediate, even if a band won't get rich from the proceeds. For instance, the March 31 episode of the company's flagship series, "Raw," featured the song "Leave the Memories Alone" by veteran hard rock band Fuel as part of a tribute to retired wrestler Ric Flair. Paid U.S. downloads of the song totaled less than 1,000 during the two weeks before the broadcast, but surged to nearly 8,000 during the next two weeks, according to SoundScan.

"I'm not claiming to be changing the face of the music industry," Lawi said. "However, being on our shows makes a significant impact in sales, creates awareness for bands and these songs and provides a different platform for artists to be showcased on."

ORIGINAL TUNES

The WWE also has established a sizable music business of its own. Theme songs for individual wrestlers are at the core of the WWE's use of music. Johnston composes most of the entrance themes used in three weekly shows: "Friday Night SmackDown" on the CW Network (moving to MyNetworkTV in the fall), "Raw" on the USA Network and "Extreme Championship Wrestling" on the Sci Fi Channel.

Since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking U.S. album sales in 1991, the WWE has released 17 albums that have sold a combined 5.9 million units. Many have appeared in the upper rungs of the Billboard 200, including "WWE: The Music, Vol. 8," which peaked at No. 24 on the album chart and has sold 48,000 units since its March release. The top seller overall? "WWF: The Music, Vol. 3," which has sold 1.2 million units in the United States and was released in 1998 when the WWE was still known as the World Wrestling Federation.

There's also a new album in the pipeline: "WWE: Anthology II," a three-CD set of new Johnston music and alternate mixes of older material tentatively slated for release later this year or early next year, Billboard has learned.

But the importance of music to the WWE goes beyond sales totals. Most of its albums are compilations of original songs Johnston composes to accompany the showy entrances that each wrestler makes before every match.

On occasion, the wrestlers themselves will enter the recording booth. Fan favorite John Cena released an entire album in 2005, "You Can't See Me," which has sold 364,000 units.

"Radio won't play our stuff because their reasoning is that it's promotional," said Johnston. "I'm like, 'Aren't singles a promotion for someone's album?"'

Reuters/Billboard