Lady Gaga isn’t the only chart-topping convent girl. A singing sister act from rural southern France has taken No.1 slots on both sides of the Atlantic as the industry signs up nuns, monks and other niche acts.
The Benedictine Nuns of Notre-Dame topped U.S. and U.K. classical charts with their album “Voices: Chant From Avignon” on Universal Music Group’s Decca Records after a search for female Gregorian chanters. Forbidden from leaving the convent, the women shot the album cover and TV commercial and signed the record deal by passing papers under a grill that divides them from the outside world.
The nuns now share a record company with artists such as Lady Gaga, who was educated at New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart, Elton John, Eminem and Amy Winehouse. The sisters are part of a wave of singing fishermen, soldiers and painters that record companies are courting to appeal to an older, often-ignored audience that’s accustomed to paying for music and not downloading it illegally.
“This is part of the reality of selling music in the 21st century,” said Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst at Forrester Research. “You go after every little niche you can get. There’s also a genuine recognition that labels can’t afford not to pay attention to this segment anymore.”
Record companies are cashing in on such acts with a flurry of releases this Christmas season, including the nuns and music from The Chelsea Pensioners and The Great British Barbershop Boys. About 25 percent of all albums are sold in December, according to the British Recorded Music Industry trade organization.
The releases are “valuable, short-term” drivers of revenue, Mulligan said. “People are used to buying music at Christmas time and they tend to be older. The only way to pull in people drifting out of the CD market is by offering novelty Christmas acts.”
The buyers are a “silent majority,” said Costa Pilavachi, Universal Music’s senior vice president for classical artists and repertoire. “This public is paying for music and used to doing so.”
As the number of people buying physical copies of CDs declines, the music industry is struggling to curb illegal downloading of songs. The practice reached an all-time high in 2009, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Record companies are backing legal music streaming sites such as Spotify, MySpace Music and We7 and urging governments to pass laws requiring Internet providers to penalize repeat illegal downloaders. Even so, the worldwide music market shrunk 30 percent from 2004 to $17.2 billion in 2009.
The French nuns, who released their debut in November, “were keen for people to hear what great singers they are,” said Dickon Stainer, president of Decca Records U.K. “They sing seven times a day so they are pretty well-practiced.”
In 2008, Decca signed a group of chanting Austrian monks, The Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, who went on to sell more than 1 million copies and have their own HBO documentary airing in the U.S. on Dec. 22. Their debut came at the height of the banking crisis and the act was promoted as an “antidote to stress,” Stainer said.
The idea to record and market such niche acts isn’t new. The Coldstream Guards, whose duties include protecting London’s Buckingham Palace, first recorded music 50 years ago, he said. The group last Christmas released the album “Heroes,” which reached the U.K. pop chart’s Top 10.
Welsh Male Choir
One of most popular hobby acts in the U.K. is the Fron Male Voice Choir from northern Wales, which has sold more than 1 million albums since its debut four years ago. The group of about 70 men, aged from 18 to the mid-80s, was discovered by the manager of a boy band. The choir has topped the classical charts in the U.K. and Australia and been nominated for four Brit classical awards, the U.K.’s version of the Grammys.
The Welsh choir has released four albums, a calendar and toured the U.K., Poland, Cyprus and parts of the U.S. and Canada. A film about the group joining Universal Music is also in the works.
“Our sound and music fit a niche in the market and they quickly fastened on to the fact there is a market out there of older people,” Dave Jones, chairman of the Fron choir, said by phone. Jones, 61, has kept his day job as a prison officer while recording music.
Barbershop Boys, Doo-Wop
Other acts gaining steam include The Great British Barbershop Boys, four men from northern England who signed a 1 million-pound ($1.59 million) contract with Sony Music Entertainment in October. Their collection of Christmas songs was released this month on Sony’s Arista Records.
The Overtones, a group of doo-wop singers who previously worked as painters and decorators, were discovered rehearsing on a tea break in London and were later offered a deal with Warner Music Group Corp.
Warner Music Group’s Rhino Records released The Chelsea Pensioners’ debut album “Men in Scarlet” last month, which has since gone gold, said Dan Chalmers, managing director of Rhino Records U.K. The pensioners are former members of the British Army who live at Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement and nursing home in London.
The Soldiers, another act signed by Rhino, is a trio of British servicemen who went double platinum last December with their debut album “Coming Home.”
“It’s an important area of our business,” Chalmers said. “Pensioners and soldiers, these are people with real-life jobs and they put a lot of effort into music. People have a connection with them.”