Will Pope Francis' Album Be a Hit? An Analysis Based on Past Papal Album Sales

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Pope John Paul ll gestures during a visit to New Orleans in 1987. 

Pope John Paul II released three LPs to mixed results.

Even though Pope Francis may draw crowds like a huge rock star, it doesn't mean that he'll sell music like one.

Pope Francis will release an album called Wake Up! on Nov. 27. So far, the album will be available digitally on iTunes, which is already selling its lead track for $1.29. The album captures Pope Francis speaking about issues like "peace, dignity, environmental concerns, and helping those in need" over musical passages created by the albums producer and artist director Don Giulio Neroni, according to Rolling Stone. The album on iTunes is credited to San Paolo Multimedia under exclusive license to Believe Digital.

Francis won't be the first Pope to issue an album, however. In fact, Pope John Paul II, the seemingly equally popular Pontiff, issued three albums during his papacy from 1978 until his death in 2005.

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The best-selling title of the three, according to Nielsen Music, is the Abba Pater album issued in 1999 by Sony Classical with scans of more than 52,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.

Ex-Sony executives do not remember how many copies were shipped. One terms it a successful album, but another executives says he's sure that Sony Classical expected to sell a lot more.

"There has been high hopes for Pope projects before but they never really worked as 'records' in a big way," he says. "But 52K isn’t bad. And back at that time on a recording like that it would have sold in a lot of places that didn't scan… like Catholic bookstore special markets. So the actual number is probably higher."

The other two releases, Pope John Paul II Sings at the Festival of Sacrosong (1979) and El Rosario Del Papa (Rosary With the Pope, 1994), didn't fare as well upon release.

In fact, one industry wag says the Pope "shipped gold and returned platinum," while another says the Pope "put the two record labels that shipped his albums out of business."

Not exactly true, but both albums generated plenty of returns, according to executives who worked at the companies that issued the albums. Besides, if the Pope Francis album only is issued in the digital format, the distributor won't have to worry about the returns liability.

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Ron Alexenburg, the record executive who signed Michael Jackson when he was GM of Epic Records and who issued the Pope as president of Infinity Records, recalls that the latter provided him with "the biggest flop of my career. "We shipped 1 million units and we sold about 40,000."

Infinity was a joint venture with MCA Records, one of the then major record companies now a part of Universal Music Group. Its distribution chief Al Bergamo told Alexenburg, president of Infinity, that it would be the biggest Christmas record of all time.

In addition to Bergamo urging him on, Alexenburg recalls that he saw Pope John Paul II appear at Grant Park where 400,000 people, many of Polish descent like the Pope, showed up.

Armed with Bergamo's guidance and having witnessed Pope John Paull II's popularity first hand, Alexenburg says he pursued the signing against 11 other record labels including Neil Bogart and Casablanca Records, and won the bidding war, guaranteeing to pay $300,000 for signing the deal.

"I even negotiated to have the Vatican Seal on the cover," he says. 

After the album was signed at a company dinner, Lew Wasserman, who headed up MCA, bragged to attendees, "We have the greatest record company in the world," Alexenburg recalls. "We just signed the Pope."

Alas, the Pope John Paul II album bombed and practically all 1 million records were returned to Infinity and MCA.

A few years later, Alexenburg started receiving phone calls from people looking for the album. When he called to see what happened to the records, he found out that during the vinyl shortage at the time, the entire returned Pope album inventory was scrapped and recycled.

In 1994, Alliance Entertainment issued Pope John Paul II's El Rosario Del Papa album and had a similar experience to Infinity. The album deal was signed by then Alliance Entertainment CEO Alan Meltzer, who started Wind-up Records, which discovered and issued albums by such multi-platinum acts as Creed and Evanescence. He almost met his record day waterloo with the Pope album.

According to a Billboard article in the Jan 7, 1995 issue, Alliance shipped 300,000 copies of the album for the Christmas holidays. "He had the entire company, over 100 employees, focused on marketing the album," recalls one former Alliance employee. "Unfortunately, while we were successful in marketing the album to the industry, we didn't do so well in reaching the consumer." According to Nielsen Music, that album scanned less than 5,000 units in the U.S., although the Billboard article said it did well in Europe.

Looking back, Alexenburg recalls that plenty of top-flight executives have had the occasional big flop in their career and the Pope's album proved to be his. But he says he offset that failure by his role in signing Michael Jackson as part of the Jacksons when he was 16 years old to Epic. Thus, he can share in the credit for having the foresight to signing the artist who would go on to record Thriller, one of the two best-selling albums of all time in the U.S. -- depending on where it is in its platinum shoot-out with the Eagles' Eagles: Their Greatest Hits, 1971–1975.

With news about the upcoming release planned for Pope Francis, Alexenburg quips, "At least my Pope could sing." 

And even though he has been stung once sales-wise by the Pope, while reflecting on Pope Francis trip to the U.S. this weekend, he says, "This Pope is so popular, I would sign the Pope all over again to a record deal."