In July 1968, visionary American guitarist John Fahey – whose albums, with names such as Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes, hadn’t exactly been money spinners – had rolled out of a record store. “I saw all those white Bing Crosby Christmas cards,” he later recalls. “The clerk said he’s still selling. So I had the idea of making a Christmas album.
The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Christmas album Guitar Soli didn’t reach the ubiquity of Merry Xmas Everybody or Last Christmas, but it served its purpose. Purists might scoff – Mojo magazine once called the album a “favor of cliff land” – but The New Possibility never sold out, selling over 100,000 copies. Fahey ended up making five Christmas albums, and they served as a financial bulwark in a career that has had its fair share of ups and downs.
This tactic has become more important than ever. Christmas music has always done well – in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy novel, one of the characters lives off royalties from a party hit – but in the internet age it has taken on new significance thanks to playlists on streaming platforms. Spotify alone has 44 different options on its Seasonal Playlists page – leaving out the large number compiled by users – bringing you hits, Christmas carols, punk, jazz, Disney, and metal. among many other genres. The first track from the first playlist is All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey.
It’s such a big song that it’s pretty much an industry on its own. It has climbed the UK and US charts faster than ever over the past two years, as listeners search for festivities amid the gloom, resulting in startling numbers: the first holiday song to be certified diamond (it’s above platinum); over a billion streams on Spotify. In 2019 alone – when it reached # 1 on the Billboard charts 25 years after its release – it had 309 million streams across all platforms in the United States. (In second place was Brenda Lee’s Rockin ‘Around the Christmas Tree with a relatively paltry 193 million piece count.)
It’s unclear how much money the song made for Carey, but last year George Howard, associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, estimated it was probably making 10. million dollars a year. True, she now hosts Christmas shows every year, modeled after old TV variety shows, with kids full of goodies running around the stage.
These revolutionary effects of streaming on Christmas music cannot be overstated. “A lot of independent artists who ended up on one of those Christmas playlists can have semi-viable careers as a musician,” says Jamie Cullum, who just released The Pianoman at Christmas – The Complete Edition. , an expanded version of his album. since last year. “Thanks to streaming, the casual listener has switched to mood-based listening,” he explains. “You’re unlikely to put on a mood-based playlist if you’re a record enthusiast, and that’s fine.” But the idea of having a mood-based playlist a part of your life is a very powerful thing for a freelance artist. My streaming audience is very high this time of year, since I released my first Christmas song four years ago.
Conrad Withey runs Instrumental, a company that analyzes data from streaming services and social media to spot music trends. “Before streaming, Christmas music was all about giving away: an album by a famous artist, or you repackage the Christmas tracks as Now! Album, ”he said. “You got a lot of radio for the old songs, but none of them came out as a single. Streaming has transformed that.
What streaming – and social media – has shown is that for all Christmas complaints starting earlier each year, it’s not entirely due to rapacious capitalism: it’s our fault, too. Withey says the Christmas pieces start to gain momentum from early November. “Because people create a playlist and listen to everything, songs from a lot of playlists get back on the charts. Christmas music is no longer defined by retailers and labels.
As of this writing, a third of the UK Top 30 is made up of old Christmas carols. By the time the presents are unwrapped, it will be even more flashy: last Christmas Day, 14 of the 20 Top 20 singles were old Christmas carols; two were new Christmas singles; and two were novelties released for the Christmas market. Only numbers 19 and 20 had nothing to do with sleigh bells, snow or Santa Claus. On the album charts, Together at Christmas by Michael Ball and Alfie Boe rose to No.1 last December, followed later by contemporary Christmas king Michael Bublé: his 2011 festive album sold 12 million. copies, and should return to the Top 5 this week. .
This year, new Christmas albums from Norah Jones, Kelly Clarkson (whose 2013 single Underneath the Tree could be the most recent addition to the Christmas song canon) and a host of country artists, as well as Gary Barlow. Her seasonal debut album, The Dream of Christmas, is a mix of originals and covers. He remembers the moment he realized that the public’s appetite for festive music was greater than he had ever imagined. “I was at [radio station] Magic the year they launched 100% Christmas ”- in 2017, Magic launched a Christmas music pop-up station; since then the main station has totally become Christmas for the season – “and I said,” What? All day? It will never work. And of course, what do I know? Everyone likes it.
There’s a reason Barlow’s album is what it is. Much of his audience wants the man who wrote Back for Good and Shine and Never Forget and all the rest of the Take That hits to sing his own songs. But, also, it’s Christmas, and to make an impact you have to give people songs they already know and love. “Christmas is one of those things that you have to be careful not to spoil too much,” he says. “Like when you say, ‘We’re not going to have a turkey this year, we’re going to have a goose.’ And everyone the next Christmas says, “Jesus Christ, bring me that turkey, will you?” Reinterpret it a bit, but don’t try to reinvent it. So I felt like four original songs and 12 classics were a pretty good balance.
The success of old Christmas carols, however, means it’s harder than ever to get new ones noticed. Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s tactic, currently No.1 with Merry Christmas, was to stockpile sleigh bells and create the most uniquely Christmas song imaginable.
“It’s easier for people to listen to covers,” says Leona Lewis, who this year re-released her 2013 Christmas album under the title Christmas, With Love Always, with a few newly recorded tracks. “The originals are definitely harsher, which is why it’s so amazing how Mariah Carey has transcended and become so huge. Everyone talks about her voice, but she’s an amazing songwriter.
“Original music is difficult [to promote] anyway these days, “Barlow says,” especially where I am in my career. But the thing is, with Christmas albums, you have to be stubborn. You need to be proactive with these [new Christmas] songs and make sure you try to give them a moment each year.
Lewis and Barlow, of course, are on top of things – Lewis’ One More Sleep is another of the few modern songs to have entered the Christmas pantheon. They are artists who measure success in a very visible way. Below that level, however, the pressure to have high rankings in the leaderboards is less.
“If you look at the charts, it’s very difficult to make an impact at that level,” says Withey, “but if you’re talking about artists targeting streams, it’s really accessible. Streaming has opened up subgenres to a global audience. What we’re seeing are artists who are able to target fairly large playlists, but not necessarily the best Christmas playlists. Make an acoustic version of Mariah and find your way to a more specialized playlist – which can still generate millions of streams. “
Withey’s company, Instrumental, also helps artists release music – it’s behind LadBaby, the creator of the last three Christmas No 1s, and quite possibly this year as well – and, Withey says, “We have a track. which gets millions of streams to be on a Christmas jazz playlist. In the global market, you can make a lot of money without disturbing the charts, and you don’t need a big label to do it.
If all of this makes Christmas music cynical, it was then to blame. In fact, for decades artists have made Christmas records because they – like everyone else – grew up loving them. Gloria Estefan duet with Nat King Cole on a new Christmas album, A Sentimental Christmas With Nat King Cole and Friends. “Christmas music highlights the season,” she says. “It’s a feeling. I start playing Christmas music long before Christmas because the season is too short for me. Being part of the lineage of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, and those other records that make up the season’s soundtrack, she says, is “a privilege and an honor.”
It was Sufjan Stevens’ 2006 box set, Songs for Christmas, that made Cullum feel that a party album “was a viable artistic thing to do, and not just a bunch of cash,” he says. “When I put on the Sufjan Stevens record – and I know my records aren’t like that – it really makes me feel like Christmas has started, and I love releasing this record every year. It makes me hot. It makes me feel like my family is close. It reminds me of the people I lost. As an artistic statement, this is a precious thing. I felt I would like to do something like this.
For Lewis, Christmas was about listening to his favorite Motown artists. “So for me it’s always been a loving relationship,” she says. “There are major Christmas records that are part of my Christmas every year, like the Stevie Wonder and Phil Spector records.”
And this year, of all years, perhaps we need the joy of Christmas more than ever. Barlow made his record for boosting morale, as much as anything. “Last Christmas was such a bloody disappointment,” he says. “We usually have a great Christmas as a family, and of course we had none of that last year. In an attempt to extend the life of Christmas, I rushed into the studio on the 27th and 28th and started writing these songs. So when the new year came and I walked into my record company, everyone said, ‘Oh my God, that should be a Christmas album.’ “
Yes, Christmas music is big business, but it’s more than that. It meets a deep need of a large number of people. It’s not just the sound of money; it is the sound of the house.