Have Pop Stars Made The Post-Christmas Break Obsolete?

Lady Gaga featuring Christina Aguilera, "Do What U Want"

With Miley and Gaga releasing new content the week after Christmas, the end of December might not be such a quiet time anymore.

The music industry usually shuts down the week after Christmas, but as 2013 came to a close, some huge stars nonetheless provided fans with belated stocking-stuffers. On Dec. 26, Miley Cyrus unveiled the video for "Adore You," while a new version of Lady Gaga's single "Do What U Want," featuring Christina Aguilera instead of R. Kelly, hit digital retail on New Year's Day. Nicki Minaj also returned with a remix to PTAF's "Boss Ass Bitch" on Dec. 30, and Ke$ha released a music video for her Warrior track "Dirty Love" one day later.

With gift cards ready to be redeemed and new gadgets being loaded with music, the days after Christmas are one of the most robust sales periods of the year. 2013 was no different, with 43.1 million digital tracks sold in the week ending Dec. 29, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That represents the year's biggest week for digital songs, and the sixth-largest ever. Nonetheless, new releases rarely arrive in the days after Christmas. With Miley and Gaga leading the way, could this industry tradition be on its way out?

"There's definitely an advantage, if you can line things up properly," Interscope head of sales Gary Kelly says of releasing new music in the week after Christmas. But he also admits, "In a vacuum, putting out content without any sort of [promotional] drivers, much of it would fall on deaf ears."

Part of the problem with marketing during the holidays is the nuts-and-bolts reality of physical retail: Putting products into big-box stores means ensuring nothing leaks beforehand and that deliveries aren't bungled, and almost all retailers are closed on Christmas Day. In terms of digital releases, the iTunes Store, with all but a skeleton staff on vacation, doesn't feature new submissions on its front page for roughly a week surrounding Christmas, which dissuades artists from high-profile releases.

After Gaga and Aguilera performed "Do What U Want" on the Dec. 17 finale of "The Voice," Aguilera recorded her portion of the revamped single in the days before Christmas. But at that point, Interscope had to look at a Jan. 1 release date for the song. "By the time it was mastered and approved, iTunes was shut down—they weren't accepting any products," Kelly says. (ITunes couldn't be reached for comment.) The new version of the song sold 31,000 copies in the week ending Jan. 5, helping it rise 23-17 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the original R. Kelly version sold 78,000).

For songs already placed in the iTunes Store, however, achieving a wider audience in the week after Christmas may be getting easier. Cyrus' "Adore You" video earned 37 million Vevo views in the 10 days following its Dec. 26 premiere, helping the track re-enter the Hot 100 on Jan. 11 at No. 22 and sell 72,000 digital copies the week ending Dec. 29, up from 15,000 the week before. The lift was fueled by increased sales and the video sending the ballad to the top of the Streaming Songs chart—as well as 71 mainstream top 40 stations adding the song to their rotations in the chart tracking period of Dec. 23-29, according to Nielsen BDS. (This week the song falls to No. 32 on the Hot 100.)

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"It used to be that you'd stay away from this period, because radio stations would freeze their rotations and not make changes between mid-December and January," says Joe Riccitelli, executive VP/GM of Cyrus' label, RCA Records. "There's been a shift in the last couple of years—radio will look to put some new music in over the break. There are artists and labels that realize that there's an opportunity there."

For other stars, the last week of 2013 was a time for off-the-cuff experimentation: Ke$ha's video for "Dirty Love" was a self-directed surprise for fans that will not be followed by a radio push, and Minaj's "Boss Ass Bitch" remix isn't a proper preview of the rapper's in-the-works third album. Big album releases are still an anomaly. This week's Billboard 200, which reflects the sales week that ended Jan. 5, sports zero new-to-market releases.

"The industry still looks at that week as a vacation," Riccitelli says. "That's the one time of year where things are quiet enough that people can shut down—and people need that in their lives."