Christmas Music's All-Time Biggest Earner Is Not Who You'd Expect

Kenny G performs at the Blue Note Jazz Club on October 30, 2014 in New York City. 

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When it comes to the holiday music business, Kenny G, 58, is a bona fide star. His 1994 release, Miracles: The Holiday Album, has sold 7.3 million copies, making it the No. 1 album of the season since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. Five other holiday albums he has released, including a greatest-hits set, have sold an additional 4.7 million, so it's no surprise that his label, Concord Music Group, "has strongly advised me to release a holiday album next year," he says.

"I'm thinking about it," he tells Billboard. And why not? The rewards for writing and recording a contemporary Christmas standard are substantial. According to music publishing executives, U.S. radio-performance revenue can range from $65,000 to $300,000 a year. Add in TV, film and commercial performance and synchronization royalties, and a durable holiday hit can bring in $400,000 to $800,000 annually.

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Ask Chip Davis. His orchestral-rock brainchild, Mannheim Steamroller, has sold nearly 20 million copies of 14 holiday-themed albums since SoundScan began tracking sales, making Davis, 67, the top-earning Christmas-music artist in the United States. Billboard estimates those sales translate into revenue of $175 million, not including the two Mannheim Steamroller touring groups that travel the country every November and December.

"That depends on how you calculate it," says Davis matter-of-factly when presented with the number. He's modest about the millions he has made -- he says his most indulgent purchase this year was a blue 2014 Corvette Stingray -- and he is clear-eyed about the Christmas-music market. "It's a good way to be in a lot of people's faces," he says. "But at the same time, it's a short window" -- essentially the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. "You have to have your ducks in a row."

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In a slim year for new material — Darius Rucker released Home for the Holidays and Meghan Trainor recorded the original "I'll Be Home" for Epic's I'll Be Home for Christmas compilation -- retailers are hoping Idina Menzel's Holiday Wishes will be this year's Christmas miracle. "She is coming off the biggest album of the last two years: Frozen," says Warner Bros. Records executive vp creative Dion Singer, who intends to piggyback on that soundtrack's success. "We will market it like it's a front-line record," with Menzel appearing at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Target selling a special edition with two extra tracks.

And in an increasingly fragmented market, says Kenny G, "you need an event."

This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.