Ten years ago, Michael Bublé celebrated the holidays with Christmas, a 15–track collection of established yuletide classics spiked with one newly written song. It was an instant success and has dominated the fourth quarter ever since: As of Nov. 30, before the holidays had even kicked in, its tracks had been streamed 110 million times in 2021 alone; since 2011, Christmas has moved over 6 million equivalent album units and its songs have accumulated 1.9 billion on-demand streams in the United States, according to MRC Data.
To mark the album’s 10-year anniversary, Bublé added another newly written track, “The Christmas Sweater” (previously recorded for the pandemic-delayed soundtrack to the recent Keira Knightley horror-comedy film Silent Night), and created new images that played on the tuxedo he wears on the cover of Christmas for Warner Records to use on social media content. “We shot memes of Michael going from a tux to Christmas sweaters,” says Tom Corson, the label’s co-chairman/COO. “We hope people will do their own meme and it’ll spin up through TikTok and Instagram — maybe people will be swapping Christmas sweaters to the song. I’m hoping it becomes an all-timer, an annual Christmas-sweater moment.”
The search for a new holiday all-timer is part of what has transformed fourth-quarter strategy in the music business. Twenty years ago, labels packed the fourth quarter with releases from established superstars, hoping that holiday shoppers would snap up blockbuster LPs and CDs on their way through the mall. But over the last five or six years, streaming has shifted the focus to holiday music. Standards by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra perform well, but there’s little or no opportunity for promotional campaigns. Thus the flood of new holiday music from contemporary stars, who can create fresh content and promote it through social media and TV performances. Over the last five years, Taylor Swift, Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Kacey Musgraves, Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry and Camila Cabello are among the artists that have placed newly recorded songs on Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart alongside new entries from holiday rulers like Bublé, Mariah Carey and Pentatonix.
Bublé had his own NBC special, Michael Bublé’s Christmas in the City, which aired Dec. 6 (he also recently announced a 2022 Las Vegas residency). “You need to refresh it,” says Corson. “There are hundreds of Christmas songs being released every year, by relevant artists, and we want to make sure this evergreen classic has its place.”
To Corson’s point, Amazon Originals spent November releasing festive tracks by top stars, from Cabello’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Dan + Shay’s “Pick Out a Christmas Tree” to Swift’s 70-piece-orchestra version of 2019’s “Christmas Tree Farm.” “It’s an important program for us,” says Stephen Brower, Amazon Music’s global co-lead of artist relations. “We market these songs across our programming and playlists.”
Some stars, like Pentatonix, release a new holiday album every few years. The veteran vocal group put out Christmas Is Here! in 2018, We Need a Little Christmas last year and this year Evergreen, which includes the act’s rendition of The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” and an Alessia Cara collaboration on “Frosty the Snowman.” The recording sessions for these releases unfold under less than frosty conditions. “There’s always something weird about the first conversation,” says Val Pensa, who works with Pentatonix as RCA Records’ senior vp and head of marketing. “Like, ‘It’s 90 degrees outside and I just listened to ‘Little Saint Nick.’”
Pentatonix’s holiday-season rollout began in late October with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” a calculated move that had enough holiday spirit to draw attention to Evergreen but wasn’t so yuletide-focused that it would annoy listeners in the days before Halloween. “We’re very strategic on the timing,” says Pensa. The group and RCA made this decision during the summer. “Sometimes it feels like July might be a little bit late,” says Pensa. “It’s so competitive that you have to know what you’re working with to properly plan.”
“There are plenty of ways to put a fresh coat of paint on the content,” says Lyn Koppe, executive vp global catalog for Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, home to the Mariah Carey classic Merry Christmas. “We don’t necessarily need a new album.” Two years ago, Carey celebrated “25 Days of Mariah Christmas,” streaming throwback content like a version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” from a performance at Japan’s Tokyo Dome; last year, Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special was an Apple TV+ hit. And Carey recently updated that special with Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues, which includes her latest holiday single, “Fall in Love at Christmas,” which Carey co-wrote.
Bublé has been reluctant to over-update his own holiday classic. “We haven’t wanted to do a repackage every year with a revised cover and one song,” says Jo Faloona, marketing director for Bublé’s management company, Bruce Allen Talent. “I don’t think that’s good value for your fans.” The pop crooner released a deluxe physical album in 2012, the 10-anniversary edition this year and that’s it. The music has done the rest. No July strategy sessions for Bublé and his team. “Every year, does he wake up in February and go, ‘Yo, what are we doing for Christmas?’ No!” says Faloona. “But we haven’t had to, is the truth.”
Read more on the Booming Business of Christmas Music here.