How the ‘Encanto’ soundtrack became a smash
By Ben Sisario
The soundtrack to Disney’s “Encanto” had an inauspicious start on the Billboard 200 album chart, arriving at No. 197 after the animated film’s release in November, just below Bob Seger’s “Greatest Hits” and a Notorious B.I.G. reissue.
But this week the soundtrack, featuring songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a score by Germaine Franco, notches its eighth week at No. 1 — one of only three albums with a run this long in the past five years — while Miranda’s song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” slipped to second place on the Hot 100 singles chart after five times at the top.
What happened in between is an object lesson in how songs become hits now, with tracks elevated by fans through streaming and social media, and radio often lagging behind the curve.
For “Encanto” and “Bruno,” the key factor was TikTok. Soon after the film became available for streaming on Disney+ on Christmas Eve, fans shared their reflections there and acted out scenes from the movie, about an extended family in Colombia that has been touched by magic.
“The first instance on TikTok was people posting that these characters look like me and my family, that I’m seeing myself in this picture,” said Ken Bunt, president of the Disney Music Group. “Then it fairly quickly moved into another phase, where people were doing the dances and singing to it.”
Once ignited on TikTok — on which videos tagged #wedonttalkaboutbruno have been viewed 3.5 billion times — “Bruno” and other soundtrack songs, like “Surface Pressure,” began to dominate Spotify, Apple Music and other audio streaming outlets. The soundtrack ousted Adele’s “30” from No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart in early January and has since held that slot every week but one.
Since its release, “Encanto” has had the equivalent of just under 1 million sales in the United States, according to MRC Data, the tracking service used in compiling Billboard’s charts. This week, “Encanto” tops rapper Kodak Black’s new “Back for Everything” (No. 2) and albums by Morgan Wallen (No. 3), Gunna (No. 4) and the Weeknd (No. 5).
On the singles chart, “Bruno” was replaced at No. 1 by Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves,” a song released nearly two years ago that was resuscitated as a TikTok meme and recently got a fresh boost on the radio.
Even with the imprimatur of Miranda, the Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning creator of “Hamilton,” “Encanto” might have seemed a long shot as a mainstream pop hit. The album is a pan-Latin fusion that draws on Colombian folk styles like vallenato and bambuco, with touches of salsa, Broadway bombast and rock en Español.
In the past, Disney might have leaned on a Broadway-style ballad, with a globally recognized star singing in English, to propel one of its soundtracks. (Think Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from “The Lion King,” which went to No. 4 in 1994.)
“Encanto” flips that playbook, showcasing Colombian stars like Carlos Vives and Sebastián Yatra. “Bruno,” a complex ensemble piece with a classic cha-cha beat, is credited to six of the film’s cast members. “Dos Oruguitas,” the first song Miranda wrote from start to finish in Spanish, is nominated for an Oscar.
To record the album, producers brought in Colombian specialists to help bring authenticity to the rhythms and instrumental arrangements; most of the sessions, which took place last year, were conducted remotely.
But even with its use of acoustic instruments like the cuatro and the tiple — two relatives of the guitar — the sound of “Encanto” is not as distant from the pop mainstream as it may seem. Mike Elizondo, one of the album’s producers, who has worked with Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple and the band Twenty One Pilots, pointed out the heavy bass that drives songs like “Bruno” and the presence of synthesizers that would not be out of place on a rap hit.
“When we were making the music to the soundtrack, Lin was very encouraging,” Elizondo said in an interview. “‘Let’s not try and water anything down,’ ” he recalled Miranda saying. “‘Let’s not feel like we have to follow any of the rules of prior soundtracks.’ ”
Even so, “Bruno” was almost entirely absent from radio for most of its ascent. Disney did not begin promoting it to radio stations until late January, Bunt said. In recent weeks, “Bruno” has had fewer than 4,000 spins a week on radio stations. By comparison, in the week that Adele’s “Easy on Me” first reached No. 1, in October, U.S. radio stations played it more than 18,000 times.
Videos shared on social media helped contextualize the story behind “Bruno” in a way that radio play never could. TikTok clips show fans enacting the story, while a Disney clip on YouTube translates the lyrics into 21 languages, including Norwegian, Thai and Korean. The latest viral mutation in the success of “Bruno” is mashups with Doja Cat or Bruno Mars (get it?).
In a sense, those videos capitalize on one of the advantages of any successful soundtrack, from the days of “Saturday Night Fever” to “Frozen,” Disney’s last comparable blockbuster: a storyline that links the songs together and lets fans relive the film through its hits. That has become vital in the streaming age, when individual songs are increasingly disconnected from their albums.
“They’re like potato chips: You can’t eat just one,” said Gary Trust, Billboard’s senior director of charts. “With ‘Encanto’ songs, you can’t just listen to one. You want to relive the whole story.”