Saturday, August 09, 2008


The success of CHANT: Music for the soul is a classic mix of pre-existing conditions and and post-partum manipulation. It’s classic because its sales model replicates previous formulas – that is to say, it’s all been done before.

First there’s the thirst. From my experience in retail I know there is a deep yearning in a lot of people for spiritual connections. It’s a well-known known fact that so-called “Christian” music is massively in demand. And for some reason there is a reluctance on the part of retail to admit or fill that demand. Maybe it’s the paganism of record store employees combined with the blindness of the buyers, but no one seems to care about the Gospel and Christian sections at any store where I have worked. No one except the customers.

So there’s this massive market that’s underserved and hungry. Well, some folks saw that they could make some money catering to this taste – but how? The scientific theory behind major labels’ marketing strategy is simple: throw tons of product out and see what sticks.

But in the case of CHANT, there was a lot of calculation that went into the project. First off, this was an English project and release. Now, English music is a real mix of the grand and the banal, and this project was aimed right at the broad middle.

It was a good start to do public ads for the artist. “Looking for an authentic sound with appeal to a broader (younger) demo”. Got a buzz started early – this was different. It was another good move to pick the group they did -- one with a popular video on You Tube. Check out the video – it’s really good, and the music is performed beautifully.

Look a little closer at the video and you’ll notice something else: most if not all of the monks are very young. Here’s music that’s 1,000 years old – practically the earliest notated music that we possess, and these lads are less than 30 years old…personally I think that drove some of the sales where you’d never have seen that before... Even monks vowed to chastity can evoke rock star sex appeal.

You know, I figured they had a hit pretty early on. The first event that caught the world’s eye was when the release topped the Billboard Classical chart, edging onto the Pop chart as well without even a CD being issued. It was all about online sales. Itunes and the rest.

But what I also noticed was that the big success caught the label by surprise. Yes, they had prepped the field; they’d primed the New Age pumps – the Yoga journals, the “lifestyle” niches. I did read somewhere the mantra for marketers: It’s the niche, stupid! Well, they covered the niches pretty thoroughly just by doing what they always do.

And everything online available to them was covered as well. This was a new template of how to market music. But as I keep saying, this is the old way simply with new cast of characters.

And make no mistake, they fielded claims that you’d just roll your eyes at – how about “…proven to heal, calm and also give strength”; …provides instant relaxation…” “chant for a new computer gaming generation.” But, sorry, I do think there’s some truth in the claims – certain musics probably do have physiological effects on certain nervous systems at certain times. I’ve felt it myself…so this claim falls under the “permissible lie” rubric.

But the commercial package was also tightly controlled. And good choices were being made. The title change for the American market was smart – “Music for the Soul” is so much more marketable than “Music for Paradise.” The cover image of the monks -- quite Otherworldly and very transferable. Memorable.You don’t even have to remember the name of the album – the picture brands the product. The monks seem to walk on water. Inspired. The picture does reflect the English title, you know – that city in the distance is clearly Paradise!

The pope connection didn’t hurt, I’m sure, and the hefty boost of an NPR feature but we have come to a tipping point in “next level” marketing strategy, where sales just take off and feed off their own momentum. Multiplied sevenfold by the nature of the world wide web of course.

But the label didn’t expect the reaction they got. It’s always been that way – it’s the ones that are really big that that they’re unready for. The only exception to this that I can recall was the worldwide success of the Gorecki Third Symphony on Nonesuch, a label that for a while had its finger on the throbbing pulse of the latte lovers (still does, actually). I recall a WEA sales meeting where the Nonesuch rep was telling a room of hardened cynical music veterans that “this album will change your life.” Well allowing for a little exaggeration it did change a lot of assumptions about classical music.

Spirituality. That’s what Gorecki was about, and that was the appeal of the first chant phenom – which happened over 15 years ago – a whole generation ago. That one also caught the wise guys by surprise, but soon everyone was on the boat and for the next ten years it was all about the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos – and the recording wasn’t even new. It’s just that it filled a need in the marketplace. Supply and demand. New Age was doing well those days. The need was for stress reduction. A lot of people were buying Classical music for just that purpose – it’s still a great hook: check out the Adagios CDs.

A little bit after the monks came the Enigma explosion. Here was chant to a disco beat. Actually it was made to order with its gothick images and satanic associations by reversal but Enigma tapped into the sound of chant itself which is a vestigial echo in the collective memory of countless humans.

There have been other boomlets and tributaries of the motherlode of classical crossover, and this CHANT is in a long line of prototypes and precursors, but it is the harbinger of things to well as a replicator of old business plans.

It’s among an aristocracy: one of the first classical releases to chart at number one with a digital-only presence. It wasn’t the first one (Dudamel had the first, though the numbers were considerably less than CHANT’s.). But it’s life has been acted out in cyberspace more so than in the terrestrial world and that’s a change.

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