Drivers on the northbound 405 in Los Angeles can’t miss a deep-red billboard that stands out amid the gray of Culver City. Against a forest-green wreath with gold and silver ornaments, it shows a figure dressed in red — not Santa, but Mariah Carey, promoting her Magical Christmas Special, available exclusively on the Apple TV+ subscription service.
The Queen of Christmas is defending her realm because streaming has turned the holiday season into the most lucrative time of the year — but just for a relatively small number of recordings. Last year, between Halloween and Christmas, Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was streamed 148.6 million times in the United States, making it the most popular track during that time. But unlike most hit singles from late 2019, Carey’s could be every bit as popular, and profitable, this year — it returns to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated Dec. 19 — as well as for the foreseeable future.
Hits like that don’t just happen though. “The doubling down starts very early,” says Vince Szydlowski, executive vp commercial sales at Universal Music Enterprises, Universal’s catalog division. (Sony Music controls most of Carey’s recordings, including “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but Universal owns plenty of other holiday hits, including classic versions of Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”) This year, Universal is licensing live performances of holiday hits from the Ed Sullivan Show archives and commissioning dance producers to remix recordings such as “Jesus Christ the Baby” and “Silent Night.” “I don’t mean to tell our competitors too much,” says Szydlowski, “but we already have our targets picked for next year.”
Holiday music has always been lucrative: Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” is said to have sold over 50 million copies worldwide. The rise of streaming made it even more valuable, but it has also heightened the competition for a finite number of listening hours, says Rich Robinson, Warner Chappell Music’s global head of sync: “How do you make sure that one cut gets through?” It’s especially brutal in a streaming environment where familiar recordings of big songs get all the attention — think Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” or Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
“You want to celebrate,” says Robinson, “and you want to feel a certain way.”
In some cases, promoting older recordings requires getting creative. In 2019, Universal created animated videos for classic songs, which worked so well they’re doing twice as many this year. Sony made videos for some songs and “short cinematic music films” for others, including Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” “We decided at the beginning of this year, ‘Let’s just do more with video for the nostalgia part of that catalog,'” says Lyn Koppe, executive vp global catalog at Sony Legacy.
All of this promotion is intended to help the most popular holiday songs remain dominant. Through Dec. 10, the top 20 tracks’ share of total holiday streams slipped from 19.9% to 19.6% in 2020, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. And other artists still want in. Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” from 2010, has become a new staple, and a cappella group Pentatonix (which Clarkson hosted on her talk show on Dec. 9) is now best known for holiday music and has 13 recordings in the top 200 streamed holiday songs. “It definitely feels like it has been proven you can be successful as a Christmas performer,” says Jonathan Kalter, the group’s manager. “A lot of people are going for it.”