Rockin’ around the Christmas streams: why festive music is bigger than ever | Music

In July 1968, the visionary US guitarist John Fahey – whose albums, with names such as Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes, hadn’t exactly been money-spinners – was out the back of a record store. “I saw all these cartons of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas,” he later recalled. “The clerk said it always sells out. So I got the idea to do a Christmas album.”

The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album has not achieved the ubiquity of Merry Xmas Everybody or Last Christmas, but it served its role. Purists might sneer – Mojo magazine once dismissed the album as “Cliff-territory bland” – but The New Possibility has never been out of print, selling more than 100,000 copies. Fahey ended up making five Christmas albums, and they served as a financial bulwark in a career that had its share of vicissitudes.

This tactic has become bigger business than ever. Christmas music has always done well – in Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy, one of the characters lives off the royalties from a festive hit – but in the internet age it has assumed a new importance thanks to playlists on streaming platforms. Spotify alone has 44 different options on its Seasonal Playlists page – leaving aside the vast number compiled by users – offering you hits, carols, punk, jazz, Disney and metal among many other genres. The first track on the first playlist is Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You.

It’s a song so big that it’s pretty much an industry all of its own. It has risen up the UK and US singles charts faster than ever during the past two years as listeners reach for festivity amid the bleakness, resulting in startling figures: the first holiday song to be certified diamond (that’s above platinum); more than a billion streams on Spotify. In 2019 alone – when it reached No 1 in the Billboard chart 25 years after its release – it had 309m streams across all platforms in the US. (In second place was Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree with a comparatively paltry 193m plays.)

Quite how much money the song has generated for Carey is uncertain, but last year George Howard, associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, estimated that she was likely earning $10m a year from it. Certainly, she now puts on Christmas shows every year, modelled after old TV variety shows, complete with present-clutching kids scampering across the stage.

These revolutionary effects of streaming on Christmas music can’t be overstated. “Lots of independent artists who have ended up on one of these Christmas playlists can have a semi-viable career as a musician,” says Jamie Cullum, who has just released The Pianoman at Christmas – The Complete Edition, an expanded version of his album from last year. “Through streaming, the casual listener has moved on to mood-based listening,” he explains. “It’s unlikely you’d put on a mood-based playlist if you’re a record nerd, and that’s fine. But the idea of having a mood-based playlist that is part of your life is a very powerful thing for an independent artist. My listenership on streaming goes very high around this time of year, since having my first Christmas song out four years ago.”

Conrad Withey runs Instrumental, a company that analyses data from streaming services and social media to spot musical trends. “Before streaming, Christmas music was about gifting: an album by a known artist, or you’d repackage Christmas tracks as a Now! Album,” he says. “You’d get a lot of radio play for the old songs, but none were released as singles. Streaming has transformed that.”

The king of contemporary Christmas ... Michael Bublé.
The king of contemporary Christmas … Michael Bublé.

What streaming – and social media – have shown is that for all the complaints about Christmas starting earlier every year, it’s not entirely down to rapacious capitalism: it’s our fault, too. Withey says Christmas tracks start to build momentum from early November. “Because people put on a playlist and listen to everything, tracks from lots of playlists make their way back into the chart. Christmas music is no longer defined by retailers and labels.”

At the time of writing, one-third of the UK Top 30 is old Christmas songs. By the time the presents are unwrapped, it will be even more tinselly: last Christmas Day, 14 of the Top 20 singles were old Christmas songs; two were new Christmas singles; and two were novelties released for the Christmas market. Only No 19 and 20 had nothing whatsoever to do with sleigh bells, snow or Santa. In the album chart, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe’s Together at Christmas went to No 1 last December, later followed by the king of contemporary Christmas, Michael Bublé: his 2011 festive album has sold 12m copies, and should return to the Top 5 this week.

This year brings new Christmas albums from Norah Jones, Kelly Clarkson (whose 2013 single Underneath the Tree might be the most recent addition to the Christmas song canon) and a host of country artists, as well as Gary Barlow. His first seasonal album, The Dream of Christmas, is a mixture of originals and covers. He remembers the moment he realised that the public appetite for festive music was far greater than he had ever imagined. “I was at [radio station] Magic the year they were launching 100% Christmas” – in 2017, Magic put a Christmas-music pop-up station on air; since then the main station has gone totally Christmas for the season – “and I said, ‘What? All day long? That’s never going to work.’ And of course, what do I know? Everyone loves it.”

There’s a reason Barlow’s album is the way it is. A large chunk of his audience wants the man who wrote Back for Good and Shine and Never Forget and all the rest of the Take That hits to be singing his own songs. But, equally, it’s Christmas, and to make an impact you need to give people songs they know and already love. “Christmas is one of those things you should be careful not to mess with too much,” he says. “Like when you go: ‘We’re not going to have turkey this year, we’re going to have a goose.’ And everyone the following Christmas goes: ‘Jesus Christ, bring me that turkey back, will you?’ Reinterpret it a little bit, but don’t try and reinvent it. So I felt like four original songs and 12 classics is quite a good balance.”

The success of the old Christmas songs, though, means getting new ones noticed is harder than ever. The tactic of Ed Sheeran and Elton John, currently at No 1 with Merry Christmas, was to stockpile sleigh bells and make the most quintessentially Christmassy song imaginable.

“It’s easier for people to listen to covers,” says Leona Lewis, who has this year reissued her 2013 Christmas album as Christmas, With Love Always, with a couple of newly recorded tracks. “Originals are definitely harder, which is why it’s so amazing how Mariah Carey has transcended and become so huge. Everyone talks about her voice, but she’s an incredible songwriter.”

“Original music is hard [to promote] anyway nowadays,” Barlow says, “especially at the place I’m at in my career. But the thing is, with Christmas albums, you’ve got to be stubborn. You’ve got to be proactive with these [new Christmas] songs and make sure you try and give them a moment every year.”

Lewis and Barlow, of course, are at the upper end of things – Lewis’s One More Sleep is another of the rare modern songs to have entered the Christmas pantheon. They are the kind of artists who measure success in a very visible way. Below that level, though, the pressure to have high chart placings is less important.

“If you look at the charts, it’s very hard to make an impact at that level,” Withey says, “but if you talk about artists targeting streams, it’s really accessible. Streaming has opened subgenres to a global audience. What we’re seeing is artists able to target quite large playlists, but not necessarily the top Christmas playlists. Do an acoustic version of Mariah and find your way on to a more specialist playlist – that can still drive millions of streams.”

Withey’s company, Instrumental, also helps artists release music – it is behind LadBaby, the maker of the last three Christmas No 1s, and very possibly this year’s too – and, Withey says: “We’ve got one track that gets multiple millions of streams from being on a Christmas jazz playlist. In the global market you can make lots of money without troubling the charts, and you don’t need a major label to do it.”

If all this makes Christmas music seem cynical, that’s the fault of the times. In fact, for decades artists have made Christmas records because they – like everyone else – grew up loving them. Gloria Estefan duets with Nat King Cole on a new Christmas album, A Sentimental Christmas With Nat King Cole and Friends. “Christmas music highlights the season,” she says. “It’s a feeling. I start playing Christmas music way before Christmas, because the season is too short for me.” To be part of the lineage of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, and those other records that soundtrack the season, she says, is “a privilege and an honour”.

LadBaby celebrating Christmas No 1 in 2020.
LadBaby celebrating Christmas No 1 in 2020. Photograph: PR

It was Sufjan Stevens’ 2006 box set, Songs for Christmas, that made Cullum feel that a festive album “was a viable artistic thing to do, and not just a cash in”, he says. “When I put the Sufjan Stevens record on – and I know my records aren’t like that – it really gives me a feeling that Christmas has started, and I love digging that record out every year. It makes me feel warm. It makes me feel like my family are close. It makes me think about people I’ve lost. As an artistic statement, it’s a valuable thing. I felt I would like to do something like that.”

For Lewis, Christmas was about listening to her favourite Motown artists. “So for me it’s always been a relationship of love,” she says. “There are some major Christmas records that became part of my Christmas every single year, like the Stevie Wonder and Phil Spector records.”

And this year, of all years, maybe we need Christmas cheer more than ever. Barlow made his record to lift his own spirits, as much as anything. “Last Christmas was such a bloody letdown,” he says. “We usually have a big Christmas with family, and of course we had none of that last year. In an attempt to extend the life of Christmas I was nipping off into the studio on the 27th, 28th and starting to write these songs. So when the new year came and I went in to my record label, everyone said: ‘Oh God, this should be a Christmas album.’”

Yes, Christmas music is big business, but it’s more than that. It answers some deep need for a great many people. It’s not just the sound of money; it’s the sound of home.