COMMENTARY: A stocking-full of things you may not have known about Christmas music

A stocking-full of things you may not have known about Christmas music - image
Photo by James Devaney/WireImage

Despite the pandemic, we’re in full-on holiday mode now with the shopping (largely virtual), the cooking (albeit for fewer people), and the decorating (you gotta have a tree!). When we do venture out, we’re bombarded by Christmas music everywhere we go.

The ubiquity of such material may raise some questions. I’m here to answer them.

Is it just me or was Christmas music creep was everywhere in 2020?

No, you’re not imagining things. Holiday-themed music began being heard earlier than usual this year, probably due to the pandemic. After enduring so much awfulness in 2020, people started pining for the cheer of Christmas sooner than usual.

As a result, Santa Claus parades, all in the virtual realm, were held a week or two earlier than normal. You might have even noticed holiday music in malls and stores as early as October in hopes of boosting revenues.

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Read more: Wear a face mask at holiday gatherings — even if it’s ‘awkward,’ WHO says

Wait. Are you saying we’re being manipulated by Christmas music into spending money?

Absolutely. Christmas music is good for business. There are countless studies that show the right music will encourage free-spending behaviours in customers.

Fine-dining restaurants, for example, have long known that playing classical music seems to encourage the purchase of more expensive bottles of wine. Down-tempo music gets people to linger and buy more cocktails.

And when it comes to shopping, playing the right music at any time of the year can subconsciously put us in a buying mode. Playing holiday music is a great way to turn browsers into purchasers.

Click to play video: 'Christmas tree sales boom as people lift pandemic spirits'
Christmas tree sales boom as people lift pandemic spirits

Is this why do so many radio stations flip to all-Christmas formats?

About 20 years ago, a few intrepid radio programmers wondered what would happen if their stations played nothing but holiday music for the month leading up to Christmas.

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It paid off.

Listenership numbers exploded as stores, offices, and homes, all switched to these stations for a steady stream of Christmas tunes. Ratings went way up — handy, given that the first quarter of the calendar year is traditionally a dead zone for advertisers.

But less so for those stations that went all-Christmas. They started the year with big ratings, enabling them to gobble up more of the available advertising dollars than their competitors during the quarter.

So the all-Christmas thing for radio is here to stay?

Absolutely. There are hundreds of stations that make the temporary music adjustment every year.

And they’re doing it earlier, too. The first station I noticed going all-Christmas was in Ohio, making the switch on Sept. 28 at 12:25 pm. (See what they did there?)

It seems like there’s more Christmas music than ever this year …

There certainly is. And you can thank/blame the 24/7 all-Christmas radio stations. With so many outlets following that trend, labels and artists realized that this was a huge opportunity.

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Up until recently, there was a fairly limited supply of contemporary Christmas tunes and things were getting a little stale. I mean, as festive as it might be the first couple of listens, how many more times does the world need to hear Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958) or Burl Ives’ Holly Jolly Christmas (1964)?

With the advent of 24/7 Christmas radio, there was a demonstrably growing need for new holiday songs. Artists of all stripes began flooding the market with new recordings.

(That being said, one radio station I monitored played Frosty the Snowman 22 times over a 24-hour period. Not the same version each time, but listeners heard Frosty almost once an hour.)

Has it paid off for them?

For some artists, yes. Releasing a Christmas album can be a very savvy career move. Just ask Michael Bublé. Since he released his Christmas album in 2011, it’s been a perennial best-seller, moving 12 million copies so far, making it the biggest success of his career.

Josh Groban’s 2007 Christmas album is the second-best-selling Christmas album of all time in the U.S. and continues to sell and stream in impressive numbers every year.

Even artists who have just one song that managed to make it onto the playlists of these radio stations find themselves with a nice annual royalty cheque.

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Holiday songs never go stale. They just go into hibernation for 10 months before being brought back year after year after year.

Click to play video: 'Dolly Parton on collaborating with Michael Bublé for her new album ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’'
Dolly Parton on collaborating with Michael Bublé for her new album ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’

Why is that damn Mariah Carey song so popular?

I have no idea, but it’s been an insane source of income for Carey since it was released in 1994. All I Want for Christmas is You took all of 15 minutes to write and record with co-producer Walter Afanasieff that August. It’s since become one of the best-selling singles of all time period, generating over US$70 million in royalties so far.

When it comes to streaming, Mariah’s original is accessed through Spotify a million times a day from about Nov. 24 to just after Christmas Day. I’ve seen some radio stations put it into heavy rotation, which means playing the song up to 70 times a week or almost every two hours.

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You’re kidding, right?

Nope. And the money doesn’t just flow from Mariah’s version. The song has been covered dozens of times in many different styles, including metal and ska-punk. It’s a genuine cultural phenomenon.

She’s also the reason so many artists are jumping on the Christmas bandwagon. If they could have a song one-thousandth as successful, they’d be thrilled.

Read more: Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ breaks Spotify streaming record (Dec. 26, 2018)

Please don’t tell me that it’s the most-covered Christmas song of all time.

Heavens, no. That would be Silent Night by Franz Xavier Gruber, who wrote it in 1818. People who tabulate such things say that there are at least 137,315 recordings of it. But since it’s in the public domain, no one has to pay royalties on it.

Most Christmas songs must be royalty-free, right?

Nope. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin as he sat beside a California swimming pool in the summer of 1941. The most popular version is by Bing Crosby, which has sold at least 50 million copies.

Add in all the other recordings and the number is more like 100 million. It still generates plenty of cash for Universal Music Publishing Group which holds the rights.

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As for the aforementioned Frosty the Snowman, it was written by Jack Rollins and Steve Belson and first appeared in 1950 as a single by Gene Autry and The Cass County Boys. There are so many versions that it generates money for six different publishers.

Are there any COVID Christmas song?

Glad you asked.


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