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June 18, 2004

The release this month of Volume Two of "Great Hymns of Faith" by the St. Olaf Choir presents good news for lovers of choral music. But there's another story here worth the attention of just about anybody in the record business. Volume One, released in 1999, has sold 270,000 copies. That's a phenomenal number in a time when a choral disc could be expected to sell a couple thousand copies -- and when a classical recording that sells 20,000 is considered a hit. There's no guarantee that the choir's new disc will match Volume One, but sales are likely to be brisk.

Among college and university choruses, St. Olaf is a big name. The Northfield, Minn., choir has toured domestically every year since its founding in 1911 and has made 13 international tours. (It will tour Norway next year.) In all those years it has had just four directors, providing remarkable consistency and tradition. The choir's founder, F. Melius Christiansen, was succeeded by his son Olaf in 1943; Kenneth Jennings took over in 1968, and Anton Armstrong, a St. Olaf graduate, has led the 75-voice ensemble since 1990.

It's a bankable name, in other words. Beyond that, the people at St. Olaf Records, the label in Northfield that produced both the "Hymns" discs (along with 17 earlier choral records), really work at sales in a way that dwarfs most college efforts. First, the label did what any commercial record company does: It ran ads, not just in such obvious publications as "The Lutheran" and "The Choral Journal" but also on the A&E cable network. Bob Johnson, manager of music organizations at the school, estimates that these promotions, along with direct mail to alumni, sold 40,000 copies of the first "Hymns" CD. And the choir sells records at its concerts -- about $70,000 worth during the February tour of the southeastern United States.

The biggest boost came when Bruce Nicholson, president and CEO of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and a St. Olaf grad, bought 40,000 CDs to give as gifts to his clients. "The order eventually grew to more than 210,000," Johnson said. Two thousand were bought by an anonymous donor to be donated to the U.S. military chaplaincy for worship services among troops in Iraq and around the globe.

Although the sales figures grew gradually, Johnson remains surprised by the final numbers. "It was like winning the Powerball," he said by e-mail from Norway, where he was making preparations for next year's tour. "Whenever you achieve this level of success, there's an element of surprise. However, both Anton and I had a lot of faith in what we were producing in these recordings. We knew it would sell well, but we didn't expect sales surpassing a quarter-million."

Posted by acapnews at June 18, 2004 9:40 PM

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