Deep Dive

The Endless Green of 'White Christmas' & Other Holiday Hits

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        RYAN INZANA

Holiday music may seem like a novelty, but streaming has made it an annuity: an estimated $177 million business in the United States dominated by artists ranging from Brenda Lee to Mariah Carey, who has turned a 1994 hit into her own cottage industry

Five months ago, during the dog days of summer, Sony Music executive Lyn Koppe was already running a 15-person meeting to prepare for Christmas. It wasn’t her first that year, either. Koppe, executive vp global catalog for Sony’s Legacy Recordings, leads a team that every January begins planning how to promote the year’s holiday releases, as well as the company’s evergreen seasonal music. As the sun shone down on Sony’s Manhattan offices, which overlook Madison Square Park, the group tossed around ideas by phone with executives from TikTok and members of Mariah Carey’s management team on how to promote the 25th-anniversary reissue of Carey’s Merry Christmas. Someone from management suggested looping in Carey, whom Koppe says is “very hands-on” about marketing -- “the look and feel, timing and strategy.” And, within minutes, the five-octave alto herself had joined the call to chime in on the best way to promote the reissue.

“I think there were a few jaws on the floor,” says Koppe, recalling her TikTok counterparts’ reaction to Carey’s cameo at the meeting. But there was a lot at stake: The singer’s iconic Christmas album has become an annuity for her and Sony, a blue-chip property in a holiday recorded-music business that was worth $177 million in 2018 in the United States alone, estimates Billboard.

 

 

 

 

 

Carey understands that even the most enduring albums need promotion. So Koppe’s team of music elves -- which included executives from marketing, publicity, A&R and product management -- worked with Twitter to create an exclusive video of Carey reading fans’ tweets about her holiday music. They created a video skit to go with an enhanced version of the album for Spotify. And by fall, they were promoting the Last Christmas soundtrack -- which includes the Wham! single the movie is named after, as well as other songs by the late George Michael, who was the songwriter of the duo -- and working to maintain the visibility of time-honored seasonal hits by Andy Williams, The Ronettes and Elvis Presley. “We make sure they’re not forgotten about,” says Koppe.

This year, at least, there’s little danger of that. For about a century, the business of Christmas music was defined by holiday purchases, which meant that hit recordings were enormously profitable the year they were released but didn’t generate much revenue after a couple of years. Few record stores stocked much older Christmas music, and terrestrial radio doesn’t pay to use recordings in the United States. But because streaming monetizes the ongoing consumption of music rather than an initial purchase, it has changed the concentrated business of Christmas music even more dramatically than the rest of the industry. These changes have also amplified the cumulative advantage of the classic holiday recordings that come up first in search results -- whether typed in or voice-requested.

Although it’s hard to get exact figures for the holiday music business, the most popular recordings in the genre generate far more revenue than they did a decade ago. “Last Christmas” by Wham! sold 81,000 tracks in the United States in 2008 -- and sold and streamed the equivalent of 706,000 last year, according to Nielsen Music. Older recordings are getting more popular, too: Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the third-most-popular holiday recording of 2018, sold 52,000 tracks in 2008 and streamed and sold the equivalent of 839,000 last year. Overall, holiday music accounted for 0.89% of on-demand streams in 2015 and 1.11% last year -- and during that time, the overall revenue from on-demand streaming rose from $1.57 billion in 2015 to $5.5 billion in 2018, according to the RIAA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of this Christmas cash goes to a relatively small number of rights holders. Last year, the top 50 holiday recordings accounted for 35.3% of all holiday streaming, while the top 50 pop tracks accounted for just 12% of streaming in that genre. Half of the top holiday track streams go to the top 252 recordings, while half of pop streams go to the top 613 pop tracks. At the top, the rewards are considerable -- the top holiday recording of 2018, Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” was streamed almost a quarter as much as the year’s top pop song. But the No. 100 holiday recording on streaming services was streamed less than 10% as much as the No. 100 pop track.

To get a sense of just how much streaming has changed this part of the business, consider that some of the most popular holiday recordings weren’t easily available on traditional CD albums a decade ago. The second-most-popular holiday song in 2018 was “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, a 1950s country artist who aside from that track sold the equivalent of 1,000 albums, including downloads and streaming. Some holiday hits by famous artists weren’t even available on albums: Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” the Eagles’ “Please Come Home for Christmas” and Bruce Springsteen’s live recording of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” were issued as singles, though they’re all available now on compilations.

At a time when streaming is ruled by pop and hip-hop from the past two decades, the list of the top 100 holiday tracks is dominated by the original versions of classic songs, recorded by artists that younger listeners aren’t familiar with: Williams, Helms, Burl Ives (“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” the No. 5 most popular holiday recording of 2018) and Gene Autry (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” No. 9). Helms’ version of “Jingle Bell Rock” is more than 12 times as popular as the second-biggest version, by Hall & Oates. Perhaps it is because holiday music is so associated with tradition, “I don’t know of a rerecording that outperforms the original,” says SiriusXM director of programming Jess Besack.

 

 

 

 

These songs are like blue-chip stocks: uncool but no less valuable for it. And they’re likely to grow in value, along with streaming revenue in general. “Christmas hits,” says Koppe, “are the gifts that keep on giving.”

 


 

Christmas music has been a significant part of the music business for as long as there has been one -- and some of the same songs have been popular since the days of wax cylinders. The first known Christmas recording is “Jingle Bells,” cut by the banjo player Will Lyle in 1889. In 1905, Victor Records had a hit with “Silent Night, Hallow’d Night,” an English version of the German hymn “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Thirty years later, Bing Crosby made the song an even bigger hit, which was included on the 1940 Decca compilation An Album of Christmas Music -- the Now That’s What I Call Christmas! of the 78 rpm era.

Over the next few years, Crosby helped make Christmas big business. His 1942 recording of “White Christmas” sold 600,000 copies that year and 2 million in 1943, according to Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, and it is said to have sold over 50 million copies worldwide -- making it the biggest single ever. That recording, plus another take on “Silent Night” and other songs, were released as the Crosby album Merry Christmas, a version of which is still in print today.

Rock changed pop culture, but singers like Presley embraced the season, too: The most popular holiday LP in the United States is his Christmas Album, which has been certified 17-times platinum in various versions. It includes a rendition of “White Christmas” that upset songwriter Irving Berlin so much that he asked radio stations not to play it.

As pop music continued to evolve, Christmas repertoire did too. Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’,” released by Mercury Records in 1979, was the first rap single to go gold, with sales of 500,000 (see story, below). In 1987, Run-D.M.C. hit No. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Christmas in Hollis,” which sampled Clarence Carter’s 1968 soul single “Back Door Santa.” Other holiday music sounded less like the songs on the pop charts: Producer Chip Davis’ new age project, Mannheim Steamroller, hit No. 50 on the Billboard 200 in 1984 with Christmas, and it went on to release 38 holiday albums that all together account for 21.6 million album-equivalent units.

Although streaming has boosted the holiday music sector even more than the overall industry, it’s harder than ever to score a Christmas hit that remains popular year after year. It’s one thing for a new tune to sell, or stream, in its initial year of release -- but quite another to show up on the chart every year, like Carey does. “Getting a big hit with a new Christmas song is gold when it happens,” says Kevin Gore, president of global catalog at Warner Music Group (WMG). “But it’s not easy.”

Some acts score with new versions of classics: Pentatonix had 19 of last year’s 200 most popular holiday streaming tracks, and Michael Bublé had the second-most-popular versions of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But the original recordings are usually far more popular, at least partly because streaming algorithms have turned their familiarity into advantageous positioning. “Original recordings, with years of thumbs-up and listens, definitely tend to rise to the top of our Christmas and holiday stations,” says Alex White, vp music programming and curation at Pandora.

That’s an understatement: Since most streaming services tend to recommend songs that are already popular, especially in response to general search queries like “Christmas music,” Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart has less turnover than the Supreme Court.

 

 

 

 

 

For hits that break through, though, the payoff can be extraordinary. Last year, Ariana Grande’s original 2014 track “Santa Tell Me” garnered 82.9 million streams, more than any other original holiday song released this decade. The second-most-popular was Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” also an original, with 58.5 million. Because streaming-service algorithms tend to reinforce popularity, a bit of luck and the right promotion could keep them high on the chart for years to come.

 


 

Even by the standards of pop music, holiday hits are unpredictable. Among this year’s candidates: Keith Urban’s “I’ll Be Your Santa Tonight,” which debuted on the Dec. 21 Digital Song Sales chart; the Jonas Brothers’ “Like It’s Christmas,” which reached No. 25 on the Holiday 100 when it came out and was streamed 12.7 million times in the first three weeks following its release; and Taylor Swift’s “Christmas Tree Farm,” which debuted on the Dec. 21 Hot 100. All three are upbeat, with the cozy but celebratory feel of holiday classics. “The Jonas Brothers song captures the good feel of a modern Christmas classic,” says Jeff Moskow, head of U.S. A&R for the Now That’s What I Call Music series, who slotted it after Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on Now’s Christmas playlist on Spotify.

Even if a song doesn’t outlast December’s snowmen, it could still help the artist that recorded it. Holiday releases are an easy way to keep performers visible at the end of the year, which can only help merchandise sales. “It’s an always-on music business,” says Jay Gilbert, co-founder of Label Logic, a company that provides marketing services for labels and managers. “You need to keep your audience engaged.” And the popularity of Christmas movies means that holiday music often scores lucrative synch placements.

Sometimes, new Christmas songs that debut without much fanfare maintain their popularity surprisingly well. Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” peaked at No. 42 on the Hot 100 when it arrived in 2014 and improved to No. 33 in 2018. Similarly, Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” peaked at No. 78 when it was released in 2013 and rose to No. 44 last year. “I don’t know why some songs stick and some don’t,” says Moskow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As in the rest of the music business, popularity depends significantly on playlist placement -- for both new and old material. Consider “Driving Home for Christmas” by British musician Chris Rea, an original song he wrote that hit No. 11 on the U.K. singles chart in 1988. It took over a decade for it to become a Christmas staple in the United Kingdom, and it’s now on Spotify’s Christmas Hits playlist -- even though Rea hasn’t had a song on a U.S. chart since 1990, and most listeners are probably unfamiliar with him. “A song like Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ is experiencing a lot more discovery than it would have in a different era,” says WMG’s Gore.

No one wants to leave discovery to chance though, even for established classics. So executives who don’t have stars like Carey to work with are getting creative. Warner made a video for a new recording of “White Christmas” by Bublé, and Universal Music Group’s UMe catalog division hired studios to make animated clips for nine of its classic holiday recordings, including Dean Martin’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and The Jackson 5’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

“We recognized that there’s an opportunity to develop and extend engagement with our holiday catalog to an underserved audience that primarily accesses music through YouTube,” says UMe president/CEO Bruce Resnikoff. So far, the 1.4 million YouTube views that Frank Sinatra’s “Jingle Bells” racked up in the three weeks between Nov. 4 and Nov. 25 represent a 220% increase over the same period last year.

To younger YouTube users, some of these songs may sound as quaint as the animation looks. But Christmas music has always been driven by collective nostalgia -- listeners want a version of “White Christmas” just like the one they used to hear. “If a customer requests a holiday song simply by song title, they likely expect and enjoy the classic recorded version as a return,” says Karen Pettyjohn, senior music curator at Amazon Music.

The more customers enjoy those results, of course, the more likely streaming algorithms are to keep offering them. Which means that songs like Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” could remain popular as long as Christmas itself.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.

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