When "Chant," an album of Gregorian chants recorded 20 years ago by Benedictine monks, began racing up the Billboard pop charts last month, it was easy to picture the collection tumbling down just as quickly once the novelty wore off.
But "Chant" is now in its third week in the U.S. Top 20, currently resting at No. 5, alongside Bonnie Raitt and Counting Crows. Estimated U.S. sales to date: 400,000 copies--all this after selling more than 500,000 copies last year in Europe, where its audience was chiefly between the ages of 15 and 30.
And Steve Murphy, president of EMI's Angel Records in New York, believes the company can keep the momentum going here.
The challenge is maintaining that sales performance with an act that won't do interviews and can't tour. (The monks have taken a vow of poverty and use money from the royalties to support various charities.)
"It has forced us to be creative," Murphy says, in a rare moment of understatement in the pop world. "Our goal is to keep the music out there."
The primary tools: video and radio.
The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos are tucked away in a monastery in Spain, but Angel's marketing campaign hopes to soon have their music on MTV and KROQ.
Angel has released one of the album's selections, "Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert," as a single--hoping to pick up exposure on a wide variety of radio formats, from alternative to talk. Angel already reports some classical and college radio station support.
A video for the single has also been completed. The promotional device--minus the camera-shy monks--contrasts hectic images from everyday life with the serenity of the Gregorian chants. It's already been shown on a few small video shows, and both MTV and VH-1 are reportedly considering playing it.
Angel is also pushing the album on a retail level, placing it in major chain stores that usually don't carry much classical product. And the company has also bought advertising time in some movie theaters so that the music can be played between films while the album's cover is shown on the screen.
And taking a cue from its rock-marketing counterparts, Angel has even ordered some promotional T-shirts--in brown, with hoods.
With the publicity this album has generated, it's only a matter of time before another record company reaches into its back catalogue and re-releases an old Gregorian chant album in a sleek sleeve with new-age art work.
But Angel isn't worried. There are many albums of chants, but few are by monks. Besides, Angel could soon have a sequel on its hand. An Angel spokeswoman said that the monks have expressed interest in recording a Mass.