Tom Smart, Deseret News
Since the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made its first recording in 1910, the group has found a home on wax, vinyl, tape and CD.
In all, there have been more than 150 albums, recorded with such renowned music companies as CBS Records, Columbia, Sony and Telarc. There have been five gold records (representing sales of 500,000) and two platinum records (representing sales of at least 1 million). There has been one Grammy, in 1960, for the choir's popular version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
In 2003, however, the choir took things to a different level with the creation of its own record label.
"Craig Jessop proposed the idea of doing our own label," Mormon Tabernacle Choir President Mac Christensen said. "At that time, we were recording with Telarc, and they were wonderful to work with. But at the end of the day, they owned the recording. They controlled everything. Craig noted that we were a different choir now, and we needed to control our own fate, our own future."
The choir took the proposal to then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who gave it his stamp of approval.
Producing records under your own name is one thing. Getting them out to the general public, as any independent producer knows, is another. For that, they turned to Deseret Book. Its values-based music publisher, Shadow Mountain, is able to distribute and market products nationwide, Christensen said.
In the five years since its creation, the label has released 14 CDs and eight DVDs. Choir members have recently been "in the studio" (or the Tabernacle, as the case may be) recording American folk hymns for a release next spring.
There will a Christmas CD and DVD featuring the King's Singers released this fall, with the possibility of one other fall release.
"It's been a magical thing to see how it has come forward," Christensen said. "The CDs and DVDs open a lot of doors for us, and, really, we're just starting."
Since the label was launched, close to 2 million units have been sold, he says.
But, notes Scott Barrick, executive director for the choir, there have not yet been any gold or platinum records for individual CDs. Part of that is due to the way sales records are compiled by the industry, he said. Only certain retail outlets are included.
"Anything we sell at the Church Distribution Center, for example, doesn't count," Barrick said.
But it is also a fact that selling a million records, or even 500,000, is a challenge in today's marketplace.
"We may be singing for the Lord, but he's not out there buying records," Barrick jokes. "We still have to do it the old-fashioned way."
Still, the label has generated income, which goes directly toward choir expenses. Even though it is an all-volunteer choir and orchestra, there are 12 full-time paid employees, production costs and travel expenses.
"I don't know if we will ever be totally self-sufficient," Christensen said. "But at this point, all our touring is paid for and most of our other costs, except salaries."
As important as the revenue is, however, that's not what brings the most satisfaction to those behind the label.
"Letters come every week," Christensen said. "They say, 'my father passed away while listening to "Consider the Lilies"; thank you for that comfort.' Or 'one of your songs was just what I needed at a particular point in my life,' and on and on and on."
The choir sings music that touches lives in myriad ways, Christensen said. "And the wonderful thing is that we can control what we do. We can do it the way we want it done."
Said Barrick: "We like to leverage our releases around general conference times. That's a natural for us."
But sometimes other things come into play.
"Mack Wilberg's 'Requiem,' for example, was released in January, so it would qualify for the Pulitzer Prize deadline," Barrick said.
And, although it didn't win, the fact that it was nominated says a lot about the quality of music the label is producing, Barrick said. Plus, last year's Christmas CD, "Spirit of the Season" with Norwegian star Sissel, was nominated for two Grammys.
Just doing two or three releases a year is a lot of work, Barrick pointed out. A lot of his responsibilities come before and after the actual recording sessions.
"We have to get all the legal permissions, all the property rights for the songs included on a CD. That alone can take a lot of time," he said. "A lot of what Mack does are arrangements of songs that are in the public domain. That's nirvana for us. Others we have to get the rights to produce; sometimes we have to pay for those rights."
Then there's all the packaging, the liner notes, the design and the marketing plan.
With its last release, "Called to Serve," the choir entered a new sphere of production. A music video from that CD will air primarily on BYU Television.
"We are really just starting to get into the national market," Christensen said. "When we get there the way we want to be, we'll really be able to smile."
Of course, he adds, "we're smiling now."
How could they not getting to produce the uplifting, inspiring music they enjoy so deeply?
Some day, Barrick said, "there will be a 50th CD. There will be a 5,000th choir broadcast."
There is something at work here that is going to go on and on, he said."Our goal," Christensen added, "is to sing for the world."
The Sunday Arts section of the Deseret News will look at the making of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's latest CD. Also, for a multimedia presentation that accompanies the story, see deseretnews.com/mulitmedia beginning Sunday.
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