Scarcely two years after the Benedictine monks of the Santo Domingo de Silos monastery struck international gold by selling 5.5 million copies of their Gregorian chant recording, the pope's gone platinum in Spain.
Pope John Paul II's rendition of "El Rosario" (The Rosary), a re-
cording of him praying in Latin, sold 150,000 copies here and is now being released in 20 countries.
No one is sure why religious themes are climbing the charts, but the titles-without much marketing backup-are clearly popular.
"In the past few years here in Spain there was a big boom. Everything was easy," said Gabriel Orfila, managing director of Divusca, the Barcelona-based company that released the pope's platter. But, he said, with the '90s economic crisis in Spain and other countries, "People are starting to realize that there are other things [and returning] to traditional and spiritual values."
There is also a ready-made audience in this heavily Roman Catholic country, where 90% of the 39.1 million population belong to that faith.
Mr. Orfila said the monks' success alerted him that the timing was right to capitalize on a 10-year-old idea. He first got Vatican approval for the two-CD/cassette set that includes a Spanish translation of the rosary.
Released just before Easter last March, the recording sold about 75,000 copies in two days, according to Carmen Jimenez, international manager at Divusca.
Since then, sales in Spain hit 150,000, qualifying for platinum status.
As with the chants, released by EMI-Ode¢n, Divusca's marketing relied more on promotion than advertising. Divusca tried for heavy press coverage, and spent about $244,000 on TV, magazines, outdoor and point-of-purchase ads. Its 10- and 20-second spots were created in-house for a Christmastime campaign. The ads focused mainly on the album's cover, which features images of a rosary and the pope.
The campaign aimed for "a very elegant image with a great deal of respect," Mr. Orfila said.
What he didn't count on was that the recording would be a hot seller outside Spain. Divucsa sold "El Rosario" rights to other companies in time for a round of Christmas introductions. And recordings with local translations are already in the works for about 20 countries, including Ireland, the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Portugal and the Benelux and Latin American nations.
The recording was No. 1 on the Irish charts for several weeks and it has also done particularly well in the U.K., Ms. Jimenez said.
Also fueling sales was the concurrent worldwide release of an inspirational book penned by the pontiff. "Cruzando el umbral de la Esperanza" (Crossing the Threshold of Hope) has sold more than 40,000 copies in Spain, somewhat short of the 100,000 necessary for a bestseller, said Ana Cuatrecasas, public relations director for publisher Plaza y Janes Editores, Barcelona. In the U.S., the book was a top 10 bestseller in February.
In Spain, the book got good press coverage and was backed by a relatively strong ad campaign, created in-house. The ads, including 20-second TV spots, suggested the book as a Christmas gift, focused mainly on the pope's image on its cover. But the reason for its high sales is basically a mystery.
"We don't know. We would love to know," Ms. Cuatrecasas said, adding that "religious books are selling much more than a year and a half ago."
Picking up on the variety of pope products, direct marketer Interholding Communications put together an expanded package offering the same tapes or CDs along with a videotape. The package also includes a crucifix and a certificate of the pope's blessing of the re-
cording. Consumers can buy the pope's book through Interholding, too, separately or with the package.
While Interholding is marketing its package only in Spain, the videotape is seen as ripe for other markets, including the U.K.
Interholding since November has been running in-house created TV, print and radio ads themed, "A gift full of faith," said Marketing Director Juan Jose Merino.
That effort netted 10,000 orders for the tape package, with smaller sales for the book.
But keeping sales up after the initial boom seems to require divine intervention.
An October re-release from EMI of Gregorian chants from the Santo Domingo de Silos monks is expected to sell only 40,000 copies in Spain, EMI's classical music director Rafael Perez Arroyo said.
Those sales came as a disappointment after the monks' spectacular debut, and the attention it brought them in their home town. From 125,000 to 150,000 tourists descended on the 160-population town of Silos last year, compared with 80,000 to 90,000 in 1993, said Silos Mayor Emerterio Martin Garcia.