What Is ‘High School Musical’ And How Did It Get To #1?

Disney's TV movie is a cross-promotion bonanza.

New albums by big stars top the Billboard chart just about every week. What doesn’t happen that often — OK, never before — is for the soundtrack of a kids’ TV movie to debut near the bottom of the top 200 on sales of 6,500 copies, only to climb to #58 the next week, then crack the top 10 and hit #1 after seven weeks.

It just doesn’t happen.

Which is why you shouldn’t feel out of the loop for not knowing anything about the the “High School Musical” soundtrack, the little album that could. It has climbed from nowhere to outright-phenomenon status en route to selling nearly half a million copies since its release on January 10.

“What’s most amazing is that six weeks into its release, it’s #1,” said Damon Whiteside, vice president of marketing for Walt Disney Records. “Most albums debut big and decrease. We knew it was going to be a success, but we didn’t think it would be this big a phenomenon.”

The movie’s story — think of a modern “Romeo and Juliet” via “Grease” — follows a pair of high school students, jock Troy (played by Zac Efron) and brainiac Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), who struggle to break away from their cliques while trying out for the winter musical and … well, you can probably imagine the Disney-fied rest.

Featuring a cast of six unknown teen actors, “High School Musical” was made on a slim $5 million budget. But according to Nielsen Media Research, over the past month more than 26 million viewers have watched one of the six broadcasts of the movie on the Disney Channel, no doubt helping the album become the first soundtrack from a TV show to top the chart since the soundtrack from “Miami Vice” did so for 11 weeks in 1985 and 1986, according to Billboard.

So how did Disney create this juggernaut?

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the album sells for less than $10 at Wal-Mart, and that it was released in the typically slow post-Christmas ebb in the music-business calendar.

On New Year’s Eve, the channel introduced the cast to its viewers during a promotional special and followed up by stripping the musical segments out of the movie and running them as videos on the station with promos advertising the film’s January 20 debut. They also hired Bad Boy artists B5 to shoot a video with a re-recorded version of the hip-hop-flavored “Get’cha Head in the Game,” which promoted the soundtrack’s on-sale date.

Several weeks before the first airing, DisneyChannel.com previewed the songs online and put special codes in malls and bus shelter ads that were good for free downloads of the #1 single “Breaking Free,” 100,000 of which have been snatched up to date.

The soundtrack was released a week and a half before the movie premiered. At the same time, the Disney Channel was repeatedly showing videos from the movie, while the 56 Radio Disney stations across the country put four of the songs in heavy rotation.

The soundtrack became the top-selling album on iTunes and Amazon.com after the film’s debut. Viewers were directed back to DisneyChannel.com, where they could download the lyrics to the movie’s songs to use in a karaoke telecast on January 21. The site had a record 500,000 downloads in the 24 hours before the karaoke telecast. This is proof, Whiteside said, of the target audience’s online savvy.

“We knew this would be the ‘Grease’ of today, because it’s a true musical, set in high school, and there hasn’t really been anything like it since,” Whiteside said. “Plus, this age group (8-14) is very active online. Coming out of Christmas, when so many iPods and iTunes gift cards were sold, this age group was hungry for content for their iPods.”

Part of the reason the sales keep bumping up, according to Whiteside, is that Disney has come up with novel promotions for reruns of the movie. For instance, this week saw the launch of a desktop “High School” media player with all the songs and videos from the movie, which fans can e-mail to their friends.

Though they’re happy with the success, Whiteside said it’s really old hat for Disney, which introduced a previous generation to Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake via the Mickey Mouse Club and has created new crossover TV/singing stars over the past few years with Hilary Duff (via “Lizzie McGuire”), and more recently with Aly & AJ and the Cheetah Girls.

Billboard Director of Charts Geoff Mayfield said the soundtrack’s climb to #1 is further proof of something that’s long been obvious to many people: the Disney Channel can sell music. “Whether it’s Hilary Duff or Aly & AJ, there are several artists over the years who have gotten help in terms of setting up a recording career thanks to exposure on Disney,” Mayfield said. “This stands out as unique because it comes from a made-for-TV movie, but it’s obviously hitting some right notes and it’s something that’s difficult for Disney’s competitors to emulate because of [Disney's] reach.”

Mayfield said the slow sales week helped, but even he wouldn’t have predicted a month ago that the “High School Musical” soundtrack would top the chart, or that such a large amount of the sales to date (15 percent of albums and 900,000 singles) would come from digital downloads. “I’m intrigued by how much of the young-leaning audience is coming to this through digital downloads. I would not have predicted that, either.”

Just so you don’t get caught off guard again, the success of the movie has already spawned a sequel, currently in development and due next year.

This year will see an extras-packed DVD for “High School Musical,” due May 23, which also includes a sing-along edition of the film with onscreen lyrics and dance lessons by choreographer Kenny Ortega (the “Dirty Dancing” TV series).

There’s also a special edition of the soundtrack due out before summer, with a fold-out poster and a bonus disc including karaoke versions of all the songs along with some bonus tracks.

Ask your little sister about it — she’s probably already ordered a copy.

I'm so fancy.