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Kelly Clarkson, Michael Bublé and Mr. Hankey: What’s Selling (And What’s Not) At Brick-And-Mortar Music Stores This Holiday Season

Contemporary holiday albums — and vinyl oddities — are crowding out classics

Every fourth quarter, brick-and-mortar music retailers wish for a new, hot-selling Christmas album. For online sellers who don’t need to worry about shelf space, the holiday-music catalog tops 1,000 titles, but a new hit holiday title drives overall sales for everyone.

This year, merchants tell Billboard they’re betting that Kelly Clarkson’s When Christmas Comes Around will join perennial top sellers from Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey and Vince Guaraldi, whose soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas was released in 1965 and remains a strong seller. The title has generated 149,000 album consumption units so far this year, according to MRC Data, and 68,000 of the 78,000 physical copies it has sold are on vinyl.

The one thing all four have in common: broadcast TV and streaming-service exposure.

Can TV Wake Up Clarkson’s Sales? 

Clarkson’s 2013 Christmas album, Wrapped in Red, has scanned over 1.5 million album consumption units since its debut, while Clarkson has emerged as a TV personality since its release. Her syndicated talk show will take over the slot held by Ellen DeGeneres on NBC stations next year; she also has a gig as a judge on NBC’s The Voice and her Christmas special. Kelly Clarkson Presents: When Christmas Comes Around aired Dec. 1 on NBC, attracting 4.3 million viewers and helping NBC win the night. (The show is available on-demand on Hulu and Peacock.)

Released Oct. 15, the When Christmas Comes Around album is a mix of classics and new songs. It has sold well, but according to one merchandiser, hasn’t met initial forecasts. “We expected the Clarkson album to be strong out of the gate,” he said, hoping that her TV special “could wake up sales.”

He may be right: In the six days before the show aired, Clarkson’s album clocked a daily average of just over 2,000 album consumption units to an average 4,000 units for the following six days, beginning with the show’s Dec. 1 airing — a 68.5% increase. And consumption units (the total of albums sales, track-equivalent albums and streaming-equivalent albums sales) of When Christmas Comes Around jumped 39.2% to nearly 23,000 over those same six days, bringing the album’s release-to-date total to 93,000 album consumption units.

Clarkson has a way to go before When Christmas Comes Around can be classified as a bona fide hit. Before the streaming era, it wasn’t unusual for a new Christmas album to sell a million physical units in its first year of release. Today, successful holiday titles range from 150,000 to 500,000 consumption units. Part of the decline is because there are fewer stores carrying music and “space is more limited within stores that do,” says Steve Harkins, vp sales and marketing at Ingram Entertainment, the second-largest one-stop music wholesaler in the United States.

The retail shelf space may shrink even more as big-box stores such as Target and Walmart devote more of their music departments to vinyl albums. A larger format than CD, vinyl means fewer slots in the store album bins and thus fewer titles in the store.

Carrie Underwood
Carrie Underwood Joseph Llanes

A Winning Strategy For Carey And Bublé 

Carey and Bublé also debuted new specials in December. Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas: The Magic Continues arrived on Apple+ on Dec. 3, featuring a performance of her new single, “Fall in Love at Christmas,” with Khalid and Kirk Franklin. The show (her second special for Apple+) is available on demand on the streaming service, which has just under 20 million subscribers in North America.

Since Carey’s new special debuted, song consumption units for “Fall in Love at Christmas,” which were averaging a little over a 1,000 daily in the four days before the broadcast, increased 16.8%, by a couple of hundred units daily for the period of Dec. 3-6, according to MRC Data, while her other holiday single, the 1994 classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has grown from almost 25,000 song consumption units daily in the six days prior to the broadcast to just over 32,000 daily song consumption units since the show aired.

Sales and streaming of the 1994 album that contains Carey’s first hit Christmas song, Merry Christmas, also saw a bump from her Apple+ special. Daily average consumption units jumped from above 4,000 before the special debuted to almost 6,000 average units daily beginning the day of its Dec. 3 premiere through Dec. 6, a 30% increase. As of that date, 2021 sales and streaming activity of Merry Christmas totaled 152,000 album consumption units, making it the No. 3 best-selling holiday album of the year so far.

“The Mariah Carey Merry Christmas album has been really solid through the years,” says Laura Provenzano, vp purchasing and marketing at Alliance Entertainment, the largest one-stop music wholesaler in North America. Last year, the album accumulated nearly 300,000 album consumption units, and Provenzano predicts the new Apple+ special will “probably take it to another level.” With over 7.4 million album consumption units, including 5.8 million in sales since its release, Merry Christmas is the No. 2 revenue-generating Christmas album of the MRC Data era, which began in 1991. (Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album remains the top-selling holiday music album with 7.52 million album consumption units since the MRC Data era began in 1991.)

On Dec. 6, NBC aired Bublé’s Christmas in the City in conjunction with the 10th-anniversary rerelease of his 2011 Christmas album, which contains the new track “Christmas Sweater” and is available as a deluxe box set for $179.99 on Amazon and at Target. Prior to the special, Christmas was 2021’s best-selling album of the season, with 179,000 consumption units. At press time, sales data was unavailable, although given the Clarkson and Carey’s sales and streaming increases Bublé’s special, which attracted 7.4 million viewers, likely resulted in a similar bump.

Perennial Christmas Product: “The Excitement Isn’t Quite There” 

Bublé and Carey may have a winning strategy in freshening existing classics with new songs. Neoclassical group Mannheim Steamroller — which has relied on touring to “wake up” sales — and a cappella quintet Pentatonix have taken the more traditional approach of serving their bases with product year after year, with diminishing returns.

Pentatonix has released five holiday albums since 2014, with a compilation serving as a sixth. That’s Christmas to Me, released in 2014, and A Pentatonix Christmas (2016) have scanned upwards of 3.3 million and 1.4 million consumption units, respectively. But the group’s 2018 release, Christmas Is Here, scanned 425,000 units, and last year’s We Need a Little Christmas just 151,000. Merchants say the fifth installment, Evergreen, is off to a slow start following its Oct. 29 release. It has racked up just 45,000 consumption units as of Dec. 2.

“The excitement isn’t quite there like before,” says one music merchandiser.

The same applies to one of the biggest Christmas music franchises of the past 20 years, Mannheim Steamroller. Its 30 Christmas albums — 20 studio recordings, 18 compilations and two live releases — have totaled about 22 million consumption units, with the most popular title, Fresh Aire Christmas, accounting for 3.8 million. But the group has scanned just 35,000 units so far.

And Kenny G’s Miracles: The Holiday Album  also appears to have stalled. It generated 20,000 album consumption units in 2020 and just 11,000 so far this year.

Southpark: Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics
Southpark: Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics Courtesy Photo

Out With The Old, In With The… New(ish) On Vinyl 

When it comes to physical sales, merchandisers say streaming has influenced what Christmas releases are selling. “It seems like the Christmas music customers are shifting to the more contemporary holiday albums,” says Ingram’s Harkins.

Last year, for example, two new releases — Carrie Underwood’s My Gift and Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas — were the top sellers among recent holiday albums, according to merchandisers. My Gift has scanned 485,000 album consumption units to date, and over half of that was physical sales: 252,000 CDs and 24,000 vinyl albums. For its part, A Holly Dolly Christmas has totaled 278,000 album consumption units release, of which 80% were physical sales: 195,000 CDs and 21,000 vinyl albums.

Harkins says that while CDs remain the dominant format for physical sales, the vinyl boom has spread to Christmas releases, with a consequent emphasis on limited-edition and colored-vinyl issues. Underwood’s My Gift is available in clear vinyl on Amazon, while Target offers a green vinyl version of Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Niche holiday titles are pressed on vinyl by independent labels. Culture Factory USA GM Ed Franke says his label reissued an out-of-print title from Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaulkonen, 1996’s Christmas, on limited-edition swirled vinyl (candy-cane red and white and Christmas-tree green and black) as a Record Store Day Black Friday release. Demand was greater than anticipated, he says, and the album sold out.

And at the 30-store Newbury Comics chain, where vinyl comprises the bulk of music offerings, buyer Larry Mansdorf says the top holiday-music seller is a vinyl reissue of the 1999 South Park title Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics.

Read more about the Booming Business of Christmas Music here.