Albums from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have been best-sellers for generations, but recently Salt Lake City-based Deseret Book has seen success with other artists.
Within the past year, three musicians signed to Shadow Mountain Records, one of Deseret Book’s record labels, have taken the Billboard charts by storm.
In 2010, native Utahn and violinist Jenny Oaks Baker’s album “Then Sings My Soul” reached No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts. Next came Salt Lake City pianist Paul Cardall, whose new album “New Life” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s New Age chart in February.
The latest Deseret Book chart-topper is local pianist Josh Wright. This week, his debut album is No. 2 on the Billboard classical traditional chart, and No. 6 on the overall classical chart.
Deseret Book isn’t too upset about Wright topping out at No. 2. After all, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, also on a Deseret Book record label, has been No. 1 for more than three months.
“We’re on a roll,” said Bob Ahlander, director of music and film for Deseret Book, a division of Deseret Management Corp., which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “No. 2 is great.”
Deseret Book’s marketing muscle is exemplified by Wright’s success. Wright is a University of Utah student about to receive his master’s degree in piano performance. Besides numerous music world awards, the 23-year-old is a relative unknown compared to Baker and Cardall, who have released previous albums. Wright said he hoped his first album would finish in the top 25.
But it was a combination of his material — a collection of Christian hymns mashed-up with classical piano — and Deseret Book’s marketing power that pushed Wright to the top of the charts.
Wright’s album was to be released in late April, but then Ahlander realized that Deseret Book had a great marketing opportunity in front of it: General Conference weekend. The label pushed the release date to April 5, and planned a “soft launch” event during General Conference weekend.
With an estimated 7,000 people walking through the downtown location of Deseret Book each day of General Conference, Wright played piano for six hours inside the bookstore that weekend. “It raised great awareness,” Wright said.
The company is also taking advantage of social media to promote albums through FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube, Ahlander said. On YouTube, more than 25,000 people have watched a clip of Wright playing two grand pianos at once. He plays “La Campanella,” composed by Franz Liszt, rhythmically one of Liszt’s most difficult etudes. It’s one of the hardest pieces to play — sometimes stretching for two whole octaves within the time of a sixteenth note — on one piano, let alone two.
As for Cardall, the Utah pianist and composer said it was a “no-brainer” for him to partner with Deseret Book, given its reach. He had self-released albums previously, which had climbed onto the Billboard charts, but he didn’t hit No. 1 until he was signed by Shadow Mountain Records. “It’s a very specific niche [audience],” Cardall said. “They are a powerful influence for that niche.”
Deseret Book has well-earned respect in the LDS community, so the albums it promotes get big play through other local LDS- and Christian-themed bookstores, such as Seagull Books. In addition, Deseret Book has discounted Wright’s album this week to $11.98, hoping to continue to spur sales.
Prospects for future chart — and financial — successes for Deseret Book music releases appear bright. This fall, Deseret Book will release a live album of a Utah show that had the most hard-to-get tickets in recent memory: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 2010 Christmas Concert featuring David Archuleta.
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O Watch Josh Wright play two pianos at once.