Sleigh Bells Ring, Everyone’s Streaming: Christmas Music Is Back

Last December, while the popular a cappella group Pentatonix was on tour with its fifth holiday album, the ensemble’s five members gathered backstage around a whiteboard to brainstorm ideas for 2022.

One item: a major TV special. “We want to do so many different verticals in the entertainment industry,” Kevin Olusola, its beatboxer, recalled recently. But for Pentatonix, which has made holiday music central to its brand — cheerful, warm, lighthearted — a sixth Christmas LP was perhaps inevitable. So the group did both.

Last week, Disney Plus released “Pentatonix: Around the World for the Holidays,” in which the group pokes gentle fun at its specialty. In the show, the members find themselves stumped in a recording studio, having already done every Christmas song in the book. So, while locked in a magical break room with candy cane décor (hey, it’s Disney), they sift through fan mail from around the planet and arrive at their concept: a multicultural holiday album with far-flung collaborators.

Pentatonix’s sixth Christmas LP, “Holidays Around the World,” joins a holiday release wave that gets more crowded every year. Alicia Keys, Sam Smith, Lizzo, the Backstreet Boys and the duos of Dolly Parton-Jimmy Fallon and David Foster-Katharine McPhee are all out with new holiday albums or singles, vying for radio time and the greatest holiday-music real estate of all: plum placement on the streaming services’ big seasonal playlists, like Spotify’s Christmas Pop and Amazon’s Holiday Favorites.

The a cappella group Pentatonix has made holiday music a core part of its identity and business.Credit…Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock

Holiday music has long been a big business; back in 2018, Billboard estimated it at $177 million in the United States alone, and since then the overall recorded music business has grown by well over 50 percent.

But streaming has supercharged it. Listeners now have easy access to decades’ worth of material, leaving contemporary artists to compete against not just each other but also all the hits of the past, by Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley or Mariah Carey. This week, streaming helped send Carey’s 28-year-old “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, beaten only by Taylor Swift’s latest.

A vast audience awaits the winners of this contest: In the week leading up to Christmas last year, holiday songs accounted for 10 percent of all music streams in the United States, according to the tracking service Luminate. And on Christmas Eve, Amazon’s Alexa smart speakers received 35 million voice requests around the world for seasonal music, the company said.

Some of the standard strategies of pop streaming can help get an edge, music executives and marketers say. Front-load a song’s hook to deter skips. Tee up plenty of “features” — track-by-track collaborators, the more famous the better — to invite fan cults. Pentatonix’s new album, for example, includes Meghan Trainor, the classical pianist Lang Lang and Lea Salonga, who has been the singing voice for Disney princesses, alongside guests less known by mainstream American audiences, like the eclectic Los Angeles group La Santa Cecilia and the Indian vocalist Shreya Ghoshal. The group said it created a detailed spreadsheet to track all the cultures, songs and artists it wanted to include.

“Every year we try to push the concept, and push ourselves creatively,” said Scott Hoying, one of the Pentatonix singers.

Yet holiday music can also be the most unforgivingly conformist side of the industry, in which old songs and styles dominate the market and anything new or unorthodox risks being buried under decades of tinsel.

In an interview, Foster, the golden-touch pop producer who has worked on hit Christmas albums by Celine Dion, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban, relayed what he has learned as the three rules of the game.

No. 1: The public prefers the old classics, and isn’t too interested in new songs.

No. 2: Singers shouldn’t wander too far from the melody.

No. 3: “You can’t be too corny at Christmas. You totally get a free pass.”

Foster stressed the importance of the first rule, noting that violating it could sink any holiday album. “In general, people want to hear the old songs,” he said. “They don’t want to hear a songwriter like me write a song about sitting by the fireplace, Santa’s coming down the chimney, there’s snow outside.…” He trailed off.

“Christmas Songs,” Foster’s seven-track mini-album with McPhee, his wife, is an illustration of this approach, featuring swinging pop-jazz takes on “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and others (though it does have one original, “My Grown-Up Christmas List”).

To capture attention on streaming playlists, record labels start their work early. Lyn Koppe, the executive vice president of global catalog at Sony Music, said the company begins marketing songs in the summer, seeding search engines and prepping their own playlists. During the holiday season, Sony — whose thick portfolio of evergreens includes Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” and Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — runs a global data dashboard tracking songs’ performance.

“It’s not like we just wake up and go, ‘Oh, it’s Christmas,’” Koppe said. “We’ve been thinking for many, many months.”

David Foster, left, and Katharine McPhee released a mini album called “Christmas Songs.”Credit…Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

For current artists, the biggest challenge is turning a new song into a classic. In the old days, that meant having a catchy music video, pushing the song at radio and hoping that it stuck. Now the process can still take years, but it involves TikTok virality, perhaps a movie usage and, most important of all, user attention on streaming playlists, which can translate into return appearances year after year.

“Getting on key algorithmic stations is really everything,” said Andrew Woloz of the music company Concord, who pointed to the version of “Carol of the Bells” by the crossover violinist Lindsey Stirling, which was released five years ago but has stuck around on TikTok, giving it an edge on current playlists.

Relatively few new songs from the streaming era have become anything like classics. One of them is Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” from 2014, which Karen Pettyjohn, the principal music programmer for Amazon Music, added to its giant Holiday Favorites station last year — which sprinkles some new tracks in with the old chestnuts — and saw it “cut through” very well.

“Ariana’s fans are aging with her,” Pettyjohn said. “It becomes a classic to them.”

Grande’s song gets a small boost on TikTok, where it has been used in 371,000 videos — peanuts compared to Carey’s smash, which has been used on TikTok 12 million times and racked up more than 1.2 billion streams on Spotify alone.

The enduring popularity of Carey’s song is one of the great phenomena of the contemporary music business. In 2019, after a yearslong push by Carey and her label that involved a children’s book, a new music video and numerous live Christmas shows, “All I Want” finally made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, 25 years after its initial release. (It topped that chart again in 2020 and 2021, and has a good shot of doing so again this year.)

But Carey’s dominance in another arena became the subject of a legal fight this year, after she attempted to trademark the term “Queen of Christmas,” not only for music but also for fragrances, clothing, dog collars, hot chocolate and dozens of other products.

Her only challenger was Elizabeth Chan, who a decade ago gave up a marketing job at Condé Nast to devote herself to writing holiday music, and who has called herself — and titled one of her albums — the Queen of Christmas.

In a recent interview at her small home office in Lower Manhattan, which she keeps decorated for Christmas year-round, Chan said the trademark was a threat to her livelihood. While strictly D.I.Y., Chan has built a full-time business making holiday music, releasing 12 albums to date, including her latest, “12 Months of Christmas.” She would no longer be able to use the term “Queen of Christmas” if Carey’s application was approved.

The costs of litigating a trademark can be huge, but Chan’s attorney, Louis W. Tompros, said his firm, WilmerHale, took the case pro bono because they viewed Carey’s application as an example of “classic trademark bullying.” Carey never responded to Chan’s opposition, and on Nov. 15, the Trademark Office’s trial and appeal board issued a judgment by default, denying Carey the trademark. Chan, and anyone else, is free to call themselves Queen of Christmas.

Chris Chambers, a representative of Carey, said in a statement that the “world at large” began calling her “Queen of Christmas,” and added, “Ms. Carey wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and says anyone who wants to call themselves a queen can freely do so, anything else is petty and unfestive.” (Had her application been successful, other performers, like Chan, would not have been able to.)

Chan said she had no choice but to fight the trademark, but still framed the result as suited to the holiday.

“Everyone in this business wants to tell you what’s not possible because they don’t know what’s possible,” she said.

“Not only do I want to leave a great Christmas song behind, I want to leave that lesson behind,” Chan added. “That’s Christmas too — the season of perpetual hope.”

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