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Finding a high note

CD sales were sluggish industry-wide in 2007. Then Oprah Winfrey recommended Josh Groban's 'Noel.'

December 21, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

A truly dismal year for the recording industry is ending with a December surprise -- thanks in large part to an Oprah Winfrey endorsement (yes, she does that a lot these days): The bestselling album of the year is now "Noel," Josh Groban's lushly orchestrated Christmas collection.

"Noel" has now sold close to 2.8 million copies and it's ramping up by the week as holiday shoppers reach for it as this season's designated dinner-party soundtrack. The only person, it seems, who is tired of hearing Groban's pa-rum-pa-pum-pum-ing is the 26-year-old singer himself.

"I've been singing Christmas songs since June," the 26-year-old Los Angeles native said this week with a mock moan. "I'm ready to move on. I'm sure the album will be in the bargain bin by Dec. 26."

That's false modesty: "Noel" has already assured itself a spot in music history by breaking a 50-year-old record by the King of Rock 'n' Roll. "Elvis' Christmas Album," by Elvis Presley, logged three consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts in 1957, and no holiday collection matched that until this week. Groban's album has now spent four weeks at No. 1 and just posted its strongest week (669,000 copies sold) since its October release.

It has also eclipsed the other top-sellers of 2007: the soundtrack to the Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2" (2.7 million copies sold in the U.S. since its August release) and "Daughtry" (more than 2 million this year, in addition to the 1.1 million copies sold in 2006) by "American Idol" alumnus Chris Daughtry and his namesake band.

All three bestsellers were success stories that started on television, not radio -- the traditional physics of the music business don't apply anymore.

Groban pointed to the recent pay-what-you-want initiative by the esteemed rock band Radiohead as an example of the novel ways that artist need to approach the marketplace.

"It's a revolutionary time. Look at Radiohead -- you have to find ways to get out there," Groban said Thursday by phone from a promotional stop in Paris. Groban's style is a burnished throwback of sorts to operatic pop tenors such as Mario Lanza -- hardly the type of music that gets embraced by mainstream pop radio. But he has sold more than 16 million albums since his 2001 debut album by using television, be it his singing-and-acting role on "Ally McBeal," his PBS music special or his six visits to the career-shaping soundstage of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Winfrey has banged the drum for Groban's Christmas collection in an especially big way. His most recent week was the strongest for any holiday collection since Kenny G's "Miracles -- The Holiday Album" in 1994. Geoff Mayfield of Billboard also points out that "Noel" is the first No. 1 album to show sales increases four weeks in a row since "Tragic Kingdom" by No Doubt in 1996.

"It was enormous. I can't emphasize enough how big it is to have Oprah's endorsement," Groban said.

The recording industry will take any and all support these days. This year started on a sour note when the soundtrack for "Dreamgirls" had the dubious honor of hitting No. 1 on the charts with just 60,000 copies sold, the lowest one-week sales total for a chart champ since SoundScan began tracking retail sales in 1991.

Tom Whalley, chairman of Warner Bros. Records, said the state of the marketplace is "disheartening," and he frets about the long-term effect on artistry. "It's a sad day in the culture of music around the world," he said of the widespread "devaluing" of music due to file-sharing.

Against that bleak winter backdrop, Whalley said, "Noel" has been a bright spot, thanks in part to a fan base that skews older ("These are fans who aren't using peer-to-peer sites to download music for free or burning 25 copies for their friends"). He also cited the ambition of recording sessions by Groban and his Grammy-winning producer and mentor, David Foster, which also included the London Symphony Orchestra and several guest vocalists, among them Faith Hill, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and gospel star Kirk Franklin.

"People have fallen in love with this record, and they are inspired by it," Whalley said. "It's not your standard Christmas album. It goes beyond that . . . and I think it's going to sell into January and well after Christmas."

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