A UK crescendo of choirs

Choral singing's profile has never been higher, thanks to Glee. But if there's fun to be had in choirs, there's money, too, writes Caroline Sullivan

'Let's see you smile!" says the woman at the head of the room. Surveying the faces in front of her, she switches to a mildly cajoling tone. "You'll enjoy it a lot more if you use your face to express this routine." Nearly 180 people, some clearly bashful about expressing things facially, do their best to comply. As the melody of the Chaka Khan hit I'm Every Woman fills the room, the now-smiling group comes in right on cue: "I'm every woman, it's all in me/ Anything you want done, baby, I'll do it naturally." It's a frosty Wednesday night in Guildford, and another session of Rock Choir is underway.

"Step and turn!" the woman directs. Everyone steps and turns, still singing. Divided into sopranos, altos and basses (the last group comprises the 20 or so men in the room), they work the song over with gusto, sounding more professional than you'd expect from accountants and firefighters and stay-at-home mums. They're striving to get I'm Every Woman right because they'll be performing it, along with a handful of other painstakingly rehearsed pop and Motown standards (the one genre Rock Choir doesn't perform is rock), at a local gig in December. Rock Choir's shows are reputed to have a Mamma Mia! effect on audiences, compelling them to sing and dance along with the choir. Apparently, it's the effect of all those voices – what Decca Records A&R manager Tom Lewis, who signed Rock Choir last year, calls "that massed emotion of a big choir – hundreds of people singing with joy energises the senses and makes you feel better".

Thanks to the hit US TV series Glee, choral singing has never had a higher profile, but choirs have been a significant niche moneymaker for the music industry for years. If you've ever seen ads for the likes of the Fron Male Voice Choir, the Monks or Only Men Aloud and wondered if anyone actually buys their records, the answer is: yes, in their millions. Enough, anyway, for Lewis to declare choirs to be "important" to Decca. They've all sold a substantial number of albums: both the Denbighshire-based Fron and the Monks (a group of Cistercians from a monastery near Vienna) have shifted more than a million albums, and Only Men Aloud (winners of the BBC talent series Last Choir Standing) went platinum.

Dave Jones, chairman of perhaps the most commercially successful British choir, the Fron – whose four albums have sold a total of 1.1m copies in the UK – has an explanation for his 64-year-old ensemble's popularity. "It's something that's away from the hype of boybands – the Fron is like an everyday choir, almost like the Archers of singing. Most of us have jobs as well." He works as a prison officer in Shrewsbury, and he could be right; there's a homely quality about the Fron that makes the impact of their 71 massed voices deeply moving, and all the more so when they sing in Welsh. Jones didn't hear the Fron till he was 19, in 1968, despite his dad being a member ("I rebelled when I was a teenager and formed a rock group"), but he was converted when he caught them singing a Welsh hymn one night. "They made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. To my eternal shame, I never told my dad I'd heard them," Jones says. Nevertheless, he didn't actually join the Fron until the early 90s

Rock Choir's own album, recorded with around 1,000 members from several of the 139 Rock Choirs around the UK and released in July, was less successful than the Fron have been ("It didn't connect in such a broad way," Lewis admits. "But it is powerful. What we saw in them is a phenomenon, and we wanted to bottle it. It got into the top 20, but maybe the selling point isn't distinctive enough"), but at least the label didn't lose the pile of money that disappears when rock albums flop. Choirs don't require the financial investment that rock acts do; most have been around for many years, and need little tweaking before they're ushered into a recording studio.

The Guildford branch of Rock Choir, which meets every week at a sixth-form college in the Surrey town, is one of the largest of the Rock Choirs in 89 cities across the UK. The whole enterprise is run by Caroline Redman Lusher, a former secondary-school music teacher from nearby Farnham, whose "eureka" moment happened when she realised people who enjoy singing but aren't of professional standard would welcome the chance to do it with others. She started a choir that accepted anyone, regardless of musical ability, and the idea took off almost immediately. That was five years ago; today, there are 6,896 members, all of them amateurs and each paying £300 for 30 sessions a year. (Most, she says, can actually sing pretty well, but even those who can't can join.) Fittingly, she's been nominated for entrepreneur of the year at next month's National Business awards: the economy may be in a tailspin, but Rock Choir seems to be recession-proof.

Redman Lusher would be easy to identify at the rehearsal even if she weren't standing behind a keyboard at the head of the room: she exudes metropolitan glamour (sleek dark hair, well-cut jumper and jeans), and is the only person here not wearing a black-and-yellow Rock Choir T-shirt. Members seem a tad starstruck by her, listening intently as she demonstrates the way she wants a line sung – her own voice got her a professional career as a lounge singer for a few years in the 90s – and chuckling appreciatively when she tells little jokes. "When I miss a rehearsal, I really feel it. I miss them," she says. She still leads eight groups herself; the other 131 are in the charge of local musicians trained by her.

Why has her venture – which, let's face it, is just people singing pop songs – been so successful? "Singing makes you feel good about yourself and it builds confidence," she says. "They're amateurs coming together and achieving something extraordinary. People used to get together in church and sing together, and we don't do that now. We watch The X Factor at home; we stay home to be entertained rather than going out and doing it."

Rock Choir, she says with zeal, "brings people together, and we make it so inclusive that we have a stockbroker standing next to a young mum standing next to someone who works at Marks & Spencer. When Glee started, I got a lot of journalists ringing up asking for comments, and some asked why we don't have anything like it in the UK. I said, 'But we have Rock Choir!'" The difference, though, is that Glee currently has the power to influence the charts simply by releasing covers of old hits such as Journey's Don't Stop Believin' – a song not currently in the Choir repertoire, by the way.

Rock Choir has spawned copycats such as Pop Choir and, intriguingly, Punk Choir, but Redman Lusher's creation is the only one that's got a record deal and has played both the Royal Albert Hall (supporting the Soldiers, a trio of balladeering army officers) and this year's Guilfest, where they shared the bill with the likes of the Canadian hardcore punk outfit Fucked Up. "Some people see it as a business," she says dismissively of the imitators. "But I don't. People add up the membership and think I take home all that money, but I have 30 or 40 people working for us and we pay for music licenses and VAT and taxes."

Similarly, for the monks of the Stift Heiligenkreuz abbey in Austria, profit hasn't been the objective. The money they've made from selling 1.2m copies of their 2008 album of Gregorian chant, Chant: Music for Paradise – which reached No 7 in the UK album chart – has been earmarked for projects abroad. "The money was not so much – people think we're rich like Madonna," says the jovial Father Karl Wallner, whose duties as their spokesman allow him to own a mobile phone. "We got 42p per CD, and we need all the money because we have a lot of Cistercians in the third world."

The Stift order are remarkably integrated into the modern world, with a Facebook page and a YouTube channel ("every day there's a new clip"), yet the appeal of their album is its timelessness. Gregorian chant enables listeners, Wallner says, to "hear something of God". He recalls standing on Oxford Street in central London, being interviewed over the phone by the Sun, "and when I was talking I could watch the people passing by, and I didn't see one happy face. They had all the things you could buy with money, but they had something not happy in their faces. Here is a reason why our music is so popular – I think people are longing for some other kind of happiness."

Like Redman Lusher, he sees choirs as answering a need for companionship, for both singers and listeners. "Everybody in his heart has the desire to be united. To be single is to live in Guantánamo, to be isolated by from happiness. Everybody knows he is only happy when he is in harmony."

Or, as Redman Lusher succinctly puts it: "There's joy in the sound of the human voice coming together."

The other 'once-a-year' acts

Choirs aren't the only niche acts selling millions to people uninterested in pop trends. The top 10 has also recently been occupied by the air force band, a trio of Irish clergymen known as the Priests, and a British army group called the Soldiers. They're expected to be joined by the Chelsea Pensioners and a group of Benedictine nuns, both of whom are putting out records for Christmas.

Such releases are known in the music industry as "concept albums", and they've come to be seen as both an easy road to sales and a means of getting people back into record shops – their audience is mainly older people, who prefer CDs to downloads. "We sell a huge amount of these at Christmas," says Gennaro Castaldo of HMV. "Once-a-year customers respond really well to them. Military albums are especially popular because of the strong sentiment toward the armed forces right now."

One of the most successful recent concept records, hitting No 4, was Reach for the Skies by the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. It was an assortment of marching tunes, populist classical music and excerpts from Churchill's "finest hour" and "the few" speeches.

The RAF's director of music, Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs, defines its appeal: "Not only does the music go back in time, it also amplifies for the public what our servicemen are doing today." He also believes it connects with a desire for music that isn't ephemeral. "Things today seem to be very shortlived, whereas this [Reach for the Skies] represents something with longevity and heritage. Anyone from an age range of 30 upward is looking for something a bit more tradition and depth."


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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