As professional musicians, our Christmas season can inspire a wide variety of feelings. From emotions of joy (sometimes in monetary form) gifted to classy performers on the corporate holiday party circuit, to emotions of annoyance from punk drummers that the mall has decided to only play the same Michael Bublé album from now until after New Year.
In the lead up to the Holidays, we’re all likely going to be invited to various get-togethers. Christmas is a cultural occasion that brings a lot of music with its arrival each year. I’ve been fascinated about the whole Christmas music industry for a long time, and this article is a compilation of questions I’ve asked myself over the years, and took it upon myself to find the answers. Hopefully, these facts and stories will give you cool things to say in conversation that can make you a popular guest at parties this year!
QUESTION #1: Why is Christmas the only mainstream, annual Western holiday with lots of famous, respected, accompanying music?
It’s important to note that “Christmas carols” have been around for a long time. Longer than actual Christianity, even! Early European societies celebrated the winter solstice (December 21st, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere) with their own songs and celebrations. As these people were converted to Christianity over the years, many religious figures of authority adapted these songs to fit with the church’s celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, on December 25th.
Fast forward to today. The fact that Christmas is essentially a birthday is a big differentiating factor compared to other Western holidays, such as Easter and Thanksgiving. While Easter is a much more significant celebration in the Christian faith, its Sunday of celebration is always based on the cycles of the moon, which change annually. Thanksgiving, while being a bigger deal in the USA for travel, consumption of roast turkeys and cranberries, has a much younger history than that of Christmas, and is only celebrated in November there, and October in Canada, leaving the rest of the world unaffected for the most part. Because Christmas is celebrated without fail on December 25th every year, it is easy to remember, and market a countdown to – witness children’s advent calendars throughout the month of December, and Christmas music campaigns to get people in the mood of the holiday season.
The tradition of presents goes way back too. All the way to the very first Christmas, when three wisemen followed a star to a manger in Bethlehem to give gifts to baby Jesus. In some Eastern European countries, instead of Santa Claus, their present bringer is a little old lady named Babushka, who was running late on her way to the manger, when clouds covered the night sky, and her sense of direction was lost. Each year on Jesus’ birthday, she visits houses and leaves presents for every little kid, just in case one of them is the newborn King. It was pretty easy to adapt Christmas for an increasingly secular and materialistic culture, and the music followed.
QUESTION #2: Why do so many popular artists release Christmas albums?
Does it seem like every year, a new bunch of big name artists release albums of Holiday music? 2017 includes Sia, Gwen Stefani, 98°, and Hanson. 2016’s highlights include Kacey Musgraves, Neil Diamond, Garth Brooks, and Reba. 2015 featured Ariana Grande, Kenny Rogers, Leann Rimes, and Sarah McLachlan. Well, there are two big reasons why the music industry isn’t going to stop flooding us with new Christmas albums anytime soon.
The first is that they’re an economically safe investment in these uncertain times. Even before the rise of streaming, places like the iTunes store, that allowed the sale of unbundled albums, shook up the music industry. No longer could a record label convince the public to pay for the full price of a CD that only had two hit songs on it, and the rest filler. Now, music fans could preview every song and only buy the ones they liked. Album sales dropped. What’s interesting to notice, however, is that up until now, sales of Holiday albums have remained relatively the same, especially from country and adult contemporary artists. Yes, the average household won’t listen to them more than a month out the year before packing them away with the tree and lights in the attic, but they pull them out again, year after year. Most regular albums have their peak sales numbers / public interest upon release, and then it slopes down. A Christmas album, meanwhile, can be marketed in the late fall, year after year. An artist with a hit Christmas song can do the Holiday parade / big city department store circuit every December, in between regular album cycles and tour schedules. Not bad for a steady paycheque in the entertainment business.
The second reason is one that mainly benefits the artist. Many record deals have a term that lasts multiple album cycles – for example, so-and-so must record and release five albums before they can be released from their contract, or be given the opportunity to renegotiate. Many of these contracts don’t state that the album needs to be a project of only original songs. So, if an artist is absolutely miserable in their contract and wants to pump out an album quickly, many of them turn to Christmas records. No need to struggle with writing all their own songs, and as seen in the paragraph above, the label isn’t going to turn away a safe investment. For example, Leona Lewis’ last album when tied to Syco Records was Christmas, With Love. I’m not going to spread rumours that she was stuck in a bad contract, but as soon as she left, she was immediately signed to Island Records, and released an album full of empowerment anthems. Kelly Clarkson’s second last project with RCA Records was also a Christmas album, before she switched labels.
These artists build name recognition off their original hits, and are using Christmas albums as a way to safeguard their financial future. They might not top the charts for the rest of their lives, but they’re diversifying their income streams intelligently.
QUESTION #3: Do Christmas songs ever land on the Billboard Hot 100?
In this day and age, there seem to be only two occasions where really old songs land on the coveted Billboard Hot 100 weekly chart: when a vastly influential artist dies after a long career, or during the Holiday season. Over the eras of popular music as we know it, Christmas songs have always been around, but some decades have seen its impact on the charts more than others. Starting at 5am the morning I published this, I begun shifting through the detailed archives of the Billboard weekly Hot 100 throughout the month of December (on the Billboard calendar, mid-December to mid-January), and taking notes as to whether any Christmas songs appeared, and how high they ranked. I’ll admit, I couldn’t muster up the energy (or the courage) to do all 58 years of Billboard’s history (in one day). So I took a sample from each decade, almost all ten years apart: 1958, 1966, 1976, 1986, 1996, 2006, 2016. My detailed findings will be displayed at the end of this article, but here is the gist of what I discovered:
1958: Many now-classic Holiday songs found homes in slots during the first year of the Billboard Hot 100. A Christmas song even stayed at #1 for three weeks (“The Chipmunk Song”).
1966: No Christmas songs made an appearance.
1976: No Christmas songs made an appearance.
1986: No Christmas songs made an appearance.
1996: Only two Holiday-themed songs made an appearance this season: “Macarena Christmas” (the original “Macarena” was currently on the charts at this time) and a rendition of a religious song about Jesus by a country music superstar.
2006: Four different Yuletide tunes made it onto the Hot 100. None charted for more than two weeks.
2016: According to this sample data, the best chart era for Christmas music since 1958. There was more variety in the older classics, a cover of “Hallelujah” (not technically a Christmas song, but it is religious-themed, and Leonard Cohen passed away that year) off the Pentatonix Holiday album charted the longest out of all the entries, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” made its expected appearance.
So taking a look at the big picture, Christmas songs were really popular when they first came out, then once everyone bought the original LPs, and not too many new Christmas songs were being written, the genre stagnated. They were always around, just not with a Hot 100 chart presence. So what brought Christmas music back? Two things: new music, and new listening formats.
As mentioned to before, the Holiday music genre went through a long period of pop culture stagnation. Think about it: if you were asked to list some of the most popular Christmas songs played throughout December in shopping malls and big box retailers, most of them would be versions of beloved old classics, ones close to those that were at home on the charts in 1958, and ones even older, alongside traditional religious hymns. But, in 1994, a new Christmas classic blew the floodgates wide open again.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You,” a jolly holiday masterpiece by a pop diva at the height of her career, signalled a new era of innovation in the genre. It is still the biggest hit of Mariah Carey’s career, and continues to land on various Billboard charts every year since its release (due to some now-dissolved rules on eligibility for the Hot 100, it wasn’t allowed to be counted there until 2012 onwards). Almost every mainstream artist’s Christmas album since Mariah’s contains a heavily marketed original new single.
The second factor is the listening format. Over the years of doing Christmas shopping, have you ever spent more than a few minutes at a big box retailer and noticed that they only seem to have 10 songs on their Holiday Season playlist? Well that hasn’t changed, but the way they play them has. Many stores now have corporate playlists made on streaming services (such as Spotify For Business). This simplifies paperwork by paying the Performing Rights Organizations automatically, and keeps busy employees on the floor helping customers, instead of manually playing DJ.
The difference is that individual music sales have a finite amount of chart points they can earn. The sky’s the limit with streaming. Yes, a CD or a $1.29 single is worth more upfront, but this system was created for average music consumers in mind. The typical music fan doesn’t make the same impact as a chain retailer. When stores move from an old CD player, or the manager’s iPod, to a corporate sanctioned playlist, chart points start counting in real time. Walmart has their own Spotify For Business account. If they have, say, a 20 song playlist, that loops back to the beginning, during all opening hours, thoughout the entire retail holiday season (which seems to start earlier each year), in every Walmart location across English speaking countries, that adds up to a lot of plays, and a lot of Billboard points. Now, multiply those by all the other big stores and food chains doing more or less the same thing. Streaming has put Christmas music back on the weekly Hot 100 through sheer force of repetition.
As 2018 quickly approaches, I want to wish you all the best for the upcoming holiday season. Stay warm, stay safe, stay colourful. Merry Christmas.
Here is a pretty chart of my findings on the Billboard Weekly Hot 100 chart during a sample of years. Please let me know if you would be interested in me slowly adding the more and more years to this database, until every year since 1958 is covered.
|CHRISTMAS SEASON||WEEK||RANK||SONG + ARTIST|
|1958||December 15th||10||“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by The Chipmunks feat. David Seville|
|66||“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios|
|83||“Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry|
|90||“Merry Christmas Baby” by Chuck Berry|
|December 22nd||1||“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by The Chipmunks feat. David Seville|
|53||“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios|
|57||“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms|
|73||“Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry|
|79||“Merry Christmas Baby” by Chuck Berry|
|86||“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby|
|88||“The Little Drummer Boy” by The Harry Simeone Chorale|
|December 29th||1||“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by The Chipmunks feat. David Seville|
|29||“The Little Drummer Boy” by The Harry Simeone Chorale|
|35||“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms|
|44||“Green Chri$tma$” by Stan Freberg|
|47||“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios|
|66||“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby|
|69||“Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry|
|71||“Merry Christmas Baby” by Chuck Berry|
|January 5th||1||“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by The Chipmunks feat. David Seville|
|16||“The Little Drummer Boy” by The Harry Simeone Chorale|
|45||“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms|
|77||“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios|
|93||“Green Chri$tma$” by Stan Freberg|
|1996||December 21st||83||“Macarena Christmas” by Los Del Rio|
|December 28th||66||“Macarena Christmas” by Los Del Rio|
|80||“God Bless This Child” by Shania Twain|
|January 4th||57||“Macarena Christmas” by Los Del Rio|
|75||“God Bless This Child” by Shania Twain|
|January 11th||75||“God Bless This Child” by Shania Twain|
|80||“Macarena Christmas” by Los Del Rio|
|2006||December 23rd||78||“River” by Sarah McLachlan|
|December 30th||50||“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by The Fray|
|71||“River” by Sarah McLachlan|
|95||“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Josh Groban|
|January 6th||85||“River” by Sarah McLachlan|
|88||“A Great Big Sled” by The Killers feat. Toni Halliday|
|89||“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by The Fray|
|2016||December 17th||23||“All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey|
|56||“Hallelujah” by Pentatonix|
|December 24th||17||“All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey|
|35||“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms|
|37||“Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee|
|45||“Hallelujah” by Pentatonix|
|December 31st||20||“All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey|
|45||“Hallelujah” by Pentatonix|
|46||“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms|
|48||“Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee|