While the golden era of Christmas music may always seem just out of reach, streaming technology has injected added momentum to the market across charts, playlists, ad campaigns and sync. Ben Gilbert investigates just how lucrative this world remains for artists, labels and rights holders.
Some 25 years after release, Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ has finally become a number one hit. Completing the sort of tortuous, near endless journey we might more readily associate with Santa himself, the ubiquitous single this week officially sealed its status as both a festive pop standard and radio-friendly unit shifter by reaching the US chart summit.
Not only is the track Carey’s 19th US number one, leaving her just one behind The Beatles’ record of 20, but it also becomes the first Christmas song since 1958 to top the US chart after ‘The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)’. The news has prompted great celebration from both the singer and her fanbase and underlines the enduring power of festive music in the digital age.
In line with the evolution of the technical processes, promotional platforms and fan-based engagement that have upended the music industry over the past 20 years, fashions change. But while the golden era of Christmas festive music may always seem just out of reach, there remains a healthy sense of creativity and competition in the annual chart rundown.
Streaming has made a powerful impact on the festive charts
In the UK, we are currently faced with the unlikely spectre of a Noel Gallagher Christmas song and a video featuring Stephen Graham in a lampooning role that is unlikely to be reprised by Shane Meadows or Martin Scorsese. Elsewhere, Jarvis Cocker’s 2006 track ‘Running The World’ has been resurrected to address the “recent election horror” and goes head-to-head with the likes of LadBaby, Lewis Capaldi, Lyra Cole, Robbie Williams, and Waltham Forest Youth Choir’s reworking of East 17’s “Stay Another Day” in the race for the UK’s Christmas Number 1.
As detailed in The Guardian, the growth of streaming has made a direct and powerful impact on the festive charts, counteracting the continuing decline of more traditional listening platforms. Music industry analysts Nielsen report that streams of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” over the festive period have risen exponentially from 12.6m in 2014 to an incredible 185m in 2018.
Music supervisor Tracy McKnight from the Music Sales Corporation estimates that Carey has accrued in the region of $60m from perhaps her most famous song. This is a view echoed in a Business Insider article, which states that its annual release brings in royalties of approximately $500,000 for the US star from the UK alone. McKnight, who played a key role in putting together the soundtrack album for 2016’s Bad Santa 2, starring Billy Bob Thornton, says “holiday songs will always be an asset” for artists, labels and rights holders.
“The right placement can have a big impact on a film’s success”
In an interview with Synchtank, she pinpointed where the finance is centred in this market. “Significant revenue streams are Spotify, YouTube, sales and licensing opportunities for films, TV and advertising. Streaming has a huge impact, with easy access, repeat plays, creating playlists and exploration of new and old. This is a major revenue source. ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ was featured in Love Actually, which is now a holiday classic,” she explained.
“Significant revenue streams are Spotify, YouTube, sales and licensing opportunities for films, TV and advertising. Streaming has a huge impact, with easy access, repeat plays, creating playlists and exploration of new and old.”
– Tracy McKnight, music supervisor
Discussing Bad Santa 2, McKnight underlined how influential a movie soundtrack can be. “We were picking up where the first one left off and had to get the tone right: the humour juxtaposed with recognisable holiday classics. The right placement in a scene can have a big impact on a film’s success and it’s those moments that create the narrative. We focused on classic songs like ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’, ‘(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and had an incredible kid’s choir. Because the first film was so loved, we had a lot of artists who wanted to be involved,” she said.
Of course, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ has competition when it comes to lucrative festive tracks. Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, said by the Performing Right Society (PRS) to be the most-heard song in the world, earns close to £1m annually. Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’, which rose to number two in the UK chart after George Michael’s death on Christmas Day 2016, brings in close to £500,000 a year, marginally more than ‘Fairytale Of New York’ by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, which has sold more than 1.2m copies.
How will future hits represent shifts in culture and fashion?
Tim Haynes, Senior Sync Manager, TV at Music Sales, represents ‘Walking In The Air’, written by Howard Blake for the 1982 animated film of Raymond Briggs’ children’s book The Snowman. He says the demand for iconic and much-loved Christmas music remains strong across a variety of markets and platforms, most notably festive playlists, ad campaigns and sync.
“Each year ‘Walking In The Air’ is picked up for various festive syncs. Irn Bru have used the track across multiple scripts with different lyric changes over the past decade and it’s now seen as an iconic Christmas advert in Scotland. The track turns 50 next year and the continued support and sync interest in the copyright shows how evergreen Christmas songs can be,” commented Haynes.
“Each year ‘Walking In The Air’ is picked up for various festive syncs. The track turns 50 next year and the continued support and sync interest in the copyright shows how evergreen Christmas songs can be.”
– Tim Haynes, Music Sales
Meanwhile, Jamar Chess, co-founder of Sunflower Entertainment, confirmed that the festive tracks populating their catalogue have proved to be “the gift that keeps on giving.” But how does he see future hits evolving to represent inevitable shifts in culture and fashion? “The classics are the classics and it’s my belief that they will remain front and centre but clearly every now and then someone creates a ‘new’ holiday standard. I believe a classic holiday song evokes that warm cosy feeling of something nostalgic and that’s what brands (and sync) want to connect to,” he said, pinpointing Alexa voice technology as an important tool in the evolution of this market.
“I believe a classic holiday song evokes that warm cosy feeling of something nostalgic and that’s what brands (and sync) want to connect to.”
– Jamar Chess, Sunflower Entertainment
Working at close quarters with such memorable musical touchstones brings added (emotional and financial) joy to the festive period, as Chess confirms when reflecting on his best memories of the company’s songs. “I have so many but I love watching an old movie or show and hearing one of our holiday songs pop up in a pivotal scene. For example, ‘Run Rudolph Run’ by Chuck Berry in Home Alone or ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ in the Mad Men Christmas episode. It is very rewarding,” he told Synchtank.