Instant—and very reluctant—pop stars

A tip of the Café hat to reader Ren Aguila for sharing a follow-up on the Cistercian monks of Heiligenkreuz, Austria, who made headlines when they were signed to produce an album of Gregorian Chants and again when the album was released in Europe last month and entered the charts in the top 10 in several countries (and at No. 1 in Austria). They are now coping with a flood of publicity that’s interfering with their traditionally contemplative life, and have had to put one monk in charge of public relations.

But as the New York Times reports, there is an interesting sidebar to the story that actually is a story into itself. Despite their seclusion, the monastery is very connected to the outside world via the internet, which had a hand in their rise to success.

This clip on YouTube was the one that captured Universal Music’s attention during their search for authentic Gregorian chants, which were demonstrating increased popularity for no discernible reason, although some news sources are mentioning the Halo video game series soundtrack as a possible influence.

Eager to get in on the trend, Universal’s classical music label took out an advertisement in Catholic publications, inviting chant groups to submit their work. Finding another ensemble like the Benedictines was going to be a long shot, the label’s executives figured.

“Not all monks want to enter into a commercial relationship because that’s not what they spend their days doing,” said Tom Lewis, the artist development manager in London for Universal Classics & Jazz.

But the advertisement was spotted by the grandson of a monk from here. He tipped off Father Wallner, who, in addition to his public-relations duties, runs the monastery’s theological academy and its Web site.

“An Austrian monk would never know what Universal Music is,” Father Wallner said. “We were chosen by divine providence to show that it is possible to have a healthy religious life today.”

Divine providence may have less to do with it than one monk’s resourcefulness. Father Wallner sent Mr. Lewis a short e-mail message with a link to a video of chants that the monks had uploaded to YouTube after Pope Benedict XVI visited the monastery last September.

While monks in many monasteries chant, Heiligenkreuz is particularly proud of its singing, which has been honed over years by one of the monks, who used to direct choirs in Germany.

Mr. Lewis was entranced, recalling that the video eclipsed the more than 100 other submissions. “There was a smoothness and softness to the voices that you associate with younger people,” he said.

Universal negotiated a contract with the monks, who proved to be anything but naïve in the ways of business. It helped that the abbot, Gregor Henckel Donnersmark, has an M.B.A. and ran the Spanish outpost of a German shipping company before he entered the monastery in 1977.

Among the clauses he sought: Universal cannot use the chanting in video games or pop music. The monks will never tour or perform on stage. And Heiligenkreuz will earn a royalty based on the sales of the album, which the abbot said worked out to roughly 1 euro per CD sold.

Read the whole thing here.

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