Back when people actually bought albums, Christmas releases were reliable money-makers for popular acts: cheap to put together, with demand baked in by the season. The limited repertoire — Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” aside, great, or even simply popular, original Christmas songs are a rarity in the past four decades — and seasonally appropriate level of sentiment meant these albums were a scourge for some listeners. But for fans of the genre, they were a source of comfort, and for those in the music industry, a rare easy win.
In the streaming era, it’s harder to understand the rationale behind releasing a non-religious Christmas album. Artists really only make streaming money from massive hit singles, but a Christmas song is sure to be ignored for at least 10 months out of each year, and the strict don’t-rock-the-boat rules governing seasonal fare dictate that new hits are rare. On top of that, the chances of making some sort of artistic breakthrough while recording the umpteenth version of “White Christmas” are effectively nonexistent.
Still, singers continue to push out music for December — the latest crop of Yuletide enthusiasts includes John Legend, Katy Perry, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Martina McBride, Miley Cyrus, Mike Love and more — like this Christmas will be their last. Why do they do it?
Some artists must turn to Santa Claus hoping to earn one of the precious few spots in the lucrative holiday canon. “If you create a Christmas classic and people love it, you will always be relevant,” says Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships. At this time of year, streaming activity is ferocious — surprisingly ferocious, even for the experts: In 2017, Jernigan and his team actually underestimated the global hunger for Christmas music.
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“Our Happy Holidays hub that we curate, we used to launch it on Black Friday — or Thanksgiving day was soft launch, and we’d give it the big push on Black Friday,” Jernigan says. “Last year, right after Halloween, on November 1st, we saw such a spike in the listenership on these playlists and in search that we had to scramble and push the release up by weeks.”
Lesson learned: Now they serve up the Happy Holidays hub promptly on November 1st. This year they also started New Music Holiday, the seasonal equivalent of the popular playlist New Music Friday. “People are really ravenous,” Jernigan says. “They really, really want this music.” Last week, four of the top seven most-listened-to playlists on Spotify were Christmas Hits, Christmas Classics, Christmas Pop and Christmas Peaceful Piano.
The leader of the pack is Christmas Hits. That collection has just 1.2 million followers, a fraction of the 22.1 million who follow Spotify’s most popular playlist, Today’s Top Hits. But impressively, Christmas Hits was generating 1.95 times as many streams as Today’s Top Hits, according to data provided by Spotify.
And while Americans who dislike Christmas music tend to think of it as our own unique form of societal torture, that’s not actually true. Spotify data shows that the U.S. is ranked 11th in the percentage of Christmas music consumed in the first 10 days of December. (All of Scandinavia is Christmas-crazy, as are Canada, the U.K. and Austria.) So it’s easy for artists to conceive of a big pool of listeners spread across the Northern Hemisphere waiting to greet Christmas-music hopefuls with open arms. “New artists are trying to be scrappy, trying to find a way in, find that angle,” Jernigan explains.
But here comes the Grinch: “The classics are always going to win out,” Jernigan asserts. “Christmas is about family, about traditions. You go back to that song you love.”
Sure enough, Christmas music listenership is highly concentrated on just a few titles. Analyzing data from BuzzAngle, which tracks music consumption, shows that the 10 most popular Christmas songs accumulated roughly as many streams and sales as the next 490 songs combined during the past four weeks in the U.S. On the albums side, the numbers are similarly top-heavy. Add up the sales and streams of the Top 10 Christmas albums, and they account for more than 52 percent of the consumption of the top 500.
The major singles are by the usual suspects: Mariah Carey, Perry Como, Vince Guaraldi. Michael Buble is the Drake of Christmas music, with five of the Top 10 tracks; his Christmas album came out in 2011, making him a rare relatively recent Yuletide success. But there are precious few new singles: Among the Top 50 most popular Christmas songs in the past four weeks, the only recent releases are from Sia, Chris Tomlin and Josh Groban, who barely counts, because his “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” appeared on the deluxe 2017 reissue of his 2007 Christmas LP Noel.
In contrast, the Christmas album market is more open to recent music, and here is where a lesser-known artist might be able to enjoy modest commercial success. Twelve of the Top 50 most popular albums were made in the past three years. Some are the work of pop stars like Sia and Gwen Stefani, but the more notable winners are outsiders like Pentatonix, an a cappella group that has two of the top five best-selling Christmas albums in the past month, and the Piano Guys, a quartet of Utah dads turned YouTube stars who have two titles in the Top 25.
A lot of their success is actually due to old-fashioned album sales, not newfangled streaming. “With streams, people return a lot to the classics,” says Pentatonix’s manager, Jonathan Kalter. “But people are buying our albums around Christmas.” 2016’s A Pentatonix Christmas has sold 1.6 million album equivalent units to date, according to BuzzAngle, and the majority are physical copies or downloads.
David Simone, who manages the Piano Guys (they put out their second Christmas album last year) and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love (who just released a new Christmas album), has observed a similar trend. “As CDs started to fall apart and even downloading started to go away at a very fast pace, the Christmas record was the one record that people were still prepared to pay for. They still are, even this year. We probably shipped another 40,000 or 50,000 physical Christmas albums.”
Though Christmas hits are few and far between, there are other reasons to make Christmas albums. PJ Morton, the soul singer who released his first holiday collection this year, believes releasing seasonal music helps satisfy another imperative for musicians in the streaming era: serving up a never-ending stream of new content. “People were paying attention to Gumbo [his first solo release to earn serious radio play],” Morton explains. “I knew people wanted more. I knew I wasn’t ready to put out a new record.” So here’s Christmas With PJ Morton.
A Christmas album can also boost an artist on the live circuit. “Touring is incredibly healthy, and there’s a great demand from the public for Christmas tours,” Simone says. “That’s another leg on the stool of why do Christmas albums.” That, in turn, feeds back to sales: “You do good retail business on the road.”
In addition, while an overlooked Christmas CD used to disappear, streaming albums last forever (or as long as streaming platforms). As Morton puts it, “the benefit we have in the streaming era is that this music will be streamed every holiday season until the end of time.” “Unless you have a huge artist, the normal life for an average record is 18 months,” Simone adds. “But Christmas records really have a much longer commercial life than a normal album.” Over time, this consumption might add up, even if an artist never does big numbers in a single year.
Morton had long hoped to record a Christmas album in the tradition of A Motown Christmas, which collected various members of the venerable soul label in 1973 and had them ply their talents on holiday standards. But not all artists are so enthusiastic. “The weirdest thing as a manager is you nag your artist to record Christmas songs in April, May or June,” Simone says. “Here’s Mike Love sitting in a hundred degrees in L.A. and we’re saying, ‘Mike, you’ve gotta do this song today, you’ve got to!’ He’s thinking we’re crazy.”
But then fast-forward to mid-December. “They’re saying, when can we do our next Christmas album?”