Selling Music is Easy: Just Partner With WWE and Wrestlemania
Sunday night, the biggest sports-entertainment spectacle of the year, Wrestlemania 29, returns home to the New York/New Jersey area that birthed the event almost 30 years ago. While fans are flying in from all over the world to see such colossal match-ups as John Cena vs. The Rock and Brock Lesnar vs. Triple H, just as important to the "Mania" of Wrestlemania is the music.
WWE Diddy performing at last year's Wrestlemania 28
Diddy will be on hand to perform the event's official theme song "Coming Home," and legendary rockers Living Color will be playing WWE superstar CM Punk to the ring as he prepares to do battle with The Undertaker. Factoring in that Sunday's event will be broadcast in over 100 countries in 20+ languages, WWE remains one of the largest global platforms to expose an artist. Last year's Wrestlemania saw then-recent Bad Boy signee Machine Gun Kelly have his first major mainstream exposure playing John Cena to the ring. Other musical guests have been as diverse as the WWE roster itself, including everyone from Aretha Franklin and Cee-Lo to Flo Rida and Motorhead making appearances to perform, not to mention licensed themes for their pay-per-view events from artists that vary from Metallica to Tinie Tempah to Christian rap-rocker Toby Mac.
Partnering with the company has not only increased these artists' visibility, but has had a dramatic effect on their sales as well. Wind-Up Records' Civil Twilight had one song used in a single video package promoting Sunday's event and, according to WWE VP of Music Neil Lawi, sales jumped up the next week over 300 percent. In 2011, when then-WWE Champion CM Punk began using Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" as his entrance music, it sold 125,000 that year, up from the annual 20,000 which the song had previously been selling. Such an effect is understandable as music the company licenses gets heard worldwide from every television playing WWE programming.
Also important to WWE's presentation is its own in-house produced music, the vast majority of which has been created by one man: Jim Johnston. For over 25 years, Johnston has tailor-made the songs that accompanied the entrances of some of the biggest superstars to step into the ring. With hundreds of unique original compositions to his name, his work has become synonymous with the characters and memorable moments that continue to solidify the company's unique space in pop culture. We spoke to Johnston about the art of the entrance theme.
Before your time with the WWE, you did some music for MTV, was there much of a transition between your other work and sports-entertainment?
Well, I was not just working for MTV, I was just a freelance guy composing what I could get to compose. MTV was a very hot thing at that time, and I did a bunch of their IDs, and a bunch of shows for HBO. I guess I didn't see much of a transition. As a composer, you're working on what's in front of you at the time. I really loved the opportunities to do all sorts of things and tried hard to not get pigeonholed. I was very conscious of doing different things, and I feel that's why this situation did so well.
With the WWE roster being among the most diverse on television, requiring a just as varied selection of music, how did you become proficient in so many different genres?
I haven't got the slightest idea. I just took them on as they came up. I remember when I had to write a theme for The Great Khali. I went on Google and researched "Punjab province" and the first thing that caught me was the area he's from was the confluence of five rivers, which is why I named the song that. I went on, followed every link I could and listened to the top Punjab pop music. Somehow, I was able to osmosis the stuff in and figure out how to make those sounds. When weird things come up, that's what I love, taking on that new challenge. I've always loved all kinds of music.
At what point when the company's creating a character do you compose their entrance theme? Is there any back-and-forth with the talent themselves?
In general, there isn't much back and forth with the superstar. The timing of it can be anything from a few weeks before they debut to literally the same day. A lot of times I'll get a call on Monday at 3:00 PM that we've got a guy debuting tonight and he needs some music. It gets a little hairy at times, but over the years you get used to it. Basically, if at all possible, it's great to get video of the guy to see how he moves, because that gives me a big clue. If you walked in the room, I could tell you the right tempo of a theme for you, just by seeing you walk because everybody moves with a tempo. I first try to key in that part, like are they fast and frenetic or big and plodding? Then, it's like scoring a film. Do we want to feel scared? Happy? Courageous? Rebellious? I always try to key in on what I want the audience to feel when they hear this music and see this guy.