Marketing is key to sales miracle of 'Chant' record

April 17, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It has no dance beat. There are no synthesizers or guitars. There's not even any harmony in the singing. And to top it all off, all the lyrics are in Latin.

So how did "Chant" -- an album of Gregorian chants performed by the cloistered Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos -- wind up in the Top 20 of the album charts?

"I think that a lot of the success of the record has to do with a very real need on the part of a lot of young people -- and middle-aged and older people -- to get in touch with the contemplative side of themselves," says Angel Records president Steven Murphy, whose label released the album. "So whether you're looking for a spiritual connection or a contemplative ambience, this record provides it profoundly."

Ambience and spirituality may explain the album's appeal, but only marketing can account for the kind of success "Chant" is seeing. In just over a month, the album has leapt to No. 13 on the Billboard albums chart; sales in America are closing in on the half-million mark.

Considering that in 1993, classical music accounted for just four percent of America's recorded music market (according to figures released by the Recording Industry Association of America), "Chant" seems almost a modern miracle.

But, as is often the case in the music business, it's a miracle that had help.

Murphy explains that Angel had its first inkling that this would be more than just another Gregorian chant album late last year, when a double-CD compilation called "The Best Works of Gregorian Chant by the Monks of the Santo Domingo de Silos Abbey" went to the top of the pop charts in Spain. Previous albums by the monks had done reasonably well by classical music standards, but the success of this "Best Of" amazed everyone.

What intrigued Murphy, though, was not the number of copies sold, but who was buying them. "When we heard that its success in Spain was due to a large number of young people buying the record, we thought it was worth a shot in the U.S.," he says. "In order to make it work in the U.S., we felt we had to change it to a single CD, and present and market it as a pop record.

"We thought we would do well," he adds. "No one predicted this explosion of excitement."

It's not all that unusual for classical recordings to cross over to the pop market in Europe. Last year, a recording of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, conducted by the Baltimore Symphony's David Zinman, became a pop hit in Britain; a few years earlier, violinist Nigel Kennedy had similar mass-market success across Europe with a recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

But apart from the "Three Tenors" album -- the 1990 recording "Carreras/Domingo/Pavarotti in Concert" on London Records -- no classical recording has ever matched the commercial success of Madonna or Meat Loaf.

"I don't think the other records ever really were presented with the [right] kind of advertising and promotion," Murphy says of the Gorecki and Kennedy albums. "We have a national television campaign, and bought a lot of time. And there will be one or two music videos, coming to a cable station near you soon. Likewise, the 'Three Tenors' had the enormously powerful PBS program, which ran and ran and ran.

"Frankly, this is a good thing for the classical music business. Why do certain records sell three million copies? [Because] there's been some reason or some way that the music has been presented to the public, and gotten heard. That drives the interest. Frankly, the other records that do well but only sell 80 or 90 [thousand] have just never broken through and gotten heard.

"The line around here is, 'If they hear it, they will come.' "

It helps, of course, that Angel has had an enormous amount of press on the album. Nor has the current ad campaign -- built around the catch phrase "Prepare for the Millennium!" -- hurt.

But none of that would work were it not for the quality of the music. And that, says Murphy, is the real difference.

"Why this Gregorian chant album?" he asks. "There have been Gregorian chants before. Yes, the marketing has made the music and the name of the record and the fact that it's available known to people. So we've sent invitations out to the party.

"But the reason people have stayed at the party is that the artistry of these monks in particular is phenomenal. It is not splitting hairs to say that it's slightly different from other Gregorian chant albums. These monks are a cloistered order; many of them have not been out of the cloister for 25 years. This is a recording of their prayer, and that heart that they have in their music comes through."

CALLING UP A CHANT

To hear excerpts from "Chant," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6199 after you hear the greeting.

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