Devin Murphy fell in love with the new remix of the 1984 Bryan Adams hit “Summer of ’69.” But she didn’t hear it on the radio, iTunes or see it on a friend’s Spotify page. She fell for it while sweating it out at a fitness class at Barry’s Bootcamp.
Ms. Murphy, 29, chooses the cross-training classes she takes four times a week in New York largely based on how much she likes the instructor’s musical taste, she says. Top-40 songs get the management consultant moving, she says, while hip-hop leaves her uninspired.
“I’ve bought a lot of songs that I’ve first heard at Barry’s,” says Ms. Murphy.
Fitness companies are increasingly getting into the music business. The move comes with the waning impact of traditional radio on the music-buying public, and the rise of boutique exercise classes, particularly yoga, Zumba and indoor cycling.
Fitness entrepreneurs say they are investing hours in training instructors to create compelling playlists that will help generate loyal student followings—and online buzz. Music labels are pitching their emerging talent to instructors and cutting deals with fitness chains. And exercise businesses are trying to cut licensing deals with music companies in order to package and sell workout songs in much the same way that film and television executives do with soundtracks.
“We are a fitness company, but we’re a music company too,” says Alberto Perlman, co-founder and chief executive of Zumba Fitness LLC, which has developed a globally popular Latin-inspired dance fitness program. The company has sold more than one million downloads of its original and specially remixed songs on iTunes, and says 14 million people take at least one Zumba class per week globally.
Universal Music Group, a unit of multinational media company Vivendi SA,VIV.FR +0.99% has joined the Zumba juggernaut. Its new CD, “Zumba Fitness Dance Party,” went platinum in France last year, selling more than 100,000 units. An American version, featuring songs by Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others, debuts in early March.
“There is a great overlap of fan base between our world and what’s happening in the fitness world right now,” says Bruce Resnikoff, chief executive of Universal Music Enterprises.
Zumba fans have already helped revive the career of Rob VanWinkle—better known as the rapper Vanilla Ice. Last year, Mr. VanWinkle rerecorded his 1990s hit “Ice Ice Baby” with a Latin flavor and Zumba-friendly tempo, then starred in a video featuring Zumba choreography. Released last August, the single has sold nearly 17,000 copies.
“Zumba reaches so many millions of people, it’s like MTV was back in the day,” Mr. VanWinkle says.
Flywheel Sports hired Scott Melker, a music producer and DJ, to help orchestrate the music strategy for its indoor cycling classes before opening its first studio in New York three years ago. Songs that Flywheel clients hear blaring in their spin classes in the company’s growing number of satellite studios—which have since opened in cities like Chicago, Seattle and Dubai—are drawn largely from Mr. Melker’s curated database of a few thousand new songs, as well as those he remixes or “mashes” together.
Labels and artists who want their music included in his playlists pitch him regularly, he says. Cyclists who want to know the names of songs they’ve just sweated to often bombard Mr. Melker and the instructors after classes, he says.
Many fitness instructors post playlists on websites like Facebook FB -1.34% and Spotify in response to such student requests. “Instructors are the new DJs,” Mr. Melker says.
At SoulCycle, a rapidly expanding national chain of spinning studios co-owned by Equinox Gyms, instructors are prohibited from sharing their playlists with students online. “The music is a part of what people come to SoulCycle for,” says company co-founder Julie Rice. She says SoulCycle hopes to make a deal with a music label to license the label’s library and then sell SoulCycle-branded playlists culled from it. With these playlists, the company will be able to stream classes on the Web for its clients who have purchased their own SoulCycle indoor bikes, which retail for $2,200.
More traditional gyms and fitness centers are also trying to harness their customers’ interest in well-curated playlists.
Two years ago, Gold’s Gym asked its Facebook followers to share their preferred iron-pumping jams. The social media response was so great that later that year it debuted “March Music Madness,” in which people go online to submit their favorite workout songs for a bracket that mimics the NCAA’s “March Madness” national basketball championship bracket. Throughout March, the gym franchise’s group-fitness class instructors build some of their playlists from the suggested songs. The public votes for its favorites on marchmusicmadness.com. Last year, Kanye West’s “Stronger” beat out, among others, the “Rocky” theme song. This year, the company says March Music Madness will be a battle of the bands.
Some fitness buffs may even find a musical artist making a guest appearance right in the workout room. So-called live-music yoga classes and festivals are growing in popularity. David Romanelli, a New York-based yoga instructor, led a class this summer in Colorado that was accompanied, live, by the jazz-fusion musician Stanley Jordan.
Heather Velasquez has traveled twice in the past few years to Orlando, Fla., from her home in Espanola, N.M., to attend “concerts” organized by Zumba Fitness. The 37-year-old mother of two says she is drawn to the style of music and is happy to travel to do Zumba dance routines with 8,000 other conventioneers to live music performed by artists like Wyclef Jean and Vanilla Ice. “It’s all about the music,” Ms. Velasquez says.
Some musicians are creating their own new genres within the fitness market niche. Nicholas Giacomini, 33, is a Point Reyes, Calif.-based hip-hop musician and yoga-studio owner who loved practicing yoga to songs that had a rap vibe, but felt most rap songs contained lyrics that didn’t connect with the lessons of yoga.
Under the name MC Yogi, Mr. Giacomini began writing, recording and selling online yoga-centric rap songs, such as “Be the Change,” a hip-hop telling of the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Mr. Giacomini has sold more than 100,000 albums. His music is now distributed by a division of Sony Music.
Some yoga purists complain that the practice was never intended to have any soundtrack—however meditative—beyond one’s own measured breath.
And while music helps distract people from the rigors of toning their muscles and improving their heart health, it may be having an adverse effect on another body part: the eardrums. For its riders, SoulCycle supplies ear plugs, free of charge.