Christmas music is big business — just ask Mariah Carey

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The trees are lit up, the sleigh bells are ringing, but for some the true sign of Christmas is Mariah Carey singing.

Crafting the perfect holiday hit isn’t easy — see above! — but artists from Cher to Alanis Morissette to boygenius have tried this year, following in the footsteps of Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber.

As the streaming era continues to change our listening habits and redefine how artists are compensated, a catchy holiday song could mean a Christmas bonus.

“It’s really easy to make holiday playlists or to listen to holiday playlists. So a lot of these songs end up getting tons and tons of listens through that very feature of streaming services,” said Brian Fauteux, an associate professor of popular music and media studies at the University of Alberta.

WATCH | Why so many artists are making Christmas music: 

All I want for Christmas is a holiday hit on a streaming playlist

As Christmas songs top the December streaming charts every year, more artists are looking for that holiday hit to get in on the action.

“There’s a lot more pressure on artists now to release more music more frequently or outside of that album cycle to release singles here and there,” he said. “So to have something that fits within the holiday format or the holiday category, you can end up getting on a playlist [and] getting a lot of streams.”

With the holiday music business worth an estimated $177 million US a year, more artists are releasing Christmas covers and original songs — some hoping to recreate the magic that turned Carey’s 1994 pop song All I Want For Christmas Is You into an enduring holiday classic.

A man wearing a burgundy sweater poses for a photo in front of a holiday display.
Brian Fauteux, an associate professor of popular music and media studies at the University of Alberta, says the streaming era has proven to be a huge boon to the Christmas music market. (Jamie McCannell/CBC)

How streaming boosted the holiday music market

Juno-winning artist Alex Cuba recently released his holiday song Christmas Made For Love in Spanish, Portuguese and English. He didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, nor did he intend to write a Christmas song.

“But all the sudden the word navidad showed up in my mind, feeding the melody perfectly,” he said, using the Spanish word for Christmas.

“And I’m like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This could be a Christmas song.’ “

WATCH | Alex Cuba’s first Christmas song, Christmas Made For Love

Because of streaming and the dense volume of music released each year, “these days it has become more and more important for musicians to find the right time to release music,” Cuba explained.

“If you could use the marketing that already exists out there to your advantage then you have more chances that your song gets somewhere.”

Carey builds anticipation for her song’s resurgence each year with a social media campaign, while Canadian crooner Michael Bublé ushers in the season with a high-profile Christmas special. Others want the Christmas cultural stamp of approval: Barbie star Ryan Gosling and music supervisor Mark Ronson just released a festive version of the film’s power ballad, I’m Just Ken.

More broadly, the shift to playlist-style listening means that a lot of people are choosing music based on mood — and God knows that blasting Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (Springsteen’s version, of course) is one way of getting into the Christmas spirit.

Fauteux says there’s a huge spike in holiday listenership right after Halloween. 

“I think that’s because there’s this broader mood shift to thinking about getting ready for the holiday season and the fact that so much of our listening now is tied to mood.”

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The Current27:23What makes a Christmas song a classic?

What gives a classic Christmas song its staying power? CBC Music host Paolo Pietropaolo shares his theory, and some holiday tunes he thinks should be hailed as all-time classics too.

Lauren Spencer Smith, a pop singer-songwriter from Nanaimo, B.C., released her single Broke Christmas alongside a cover of the sultry standard Santa Baby. The two songs have almost inverted themes: one focusing on not having money to spend for the holidays, the other a tally of increasingly expensive gifts that reflects on the materialism of Christmas.

“On the business side of things, it is a great opportunity if every single year people are coming back to your music and restreaming,” she said.

“So many of the genres are so overpopulated … And I think everyone now is realizing putting out Christmas music is just another way to potentially hit a market that not everyone is hopping on.”

WATCH | Lauren Spencer Smith’s ode to sad Christmases

It’s all about timing — and timelessness

In 2022, a music analytics firm found that “catalogue listening” (i.e. older music) now accounts for 70 per cent of the U.S. music market. 

That trend is part of the reason why Brenda Lee’s Rocking Around The Christmas Tree — released in 1958 — recently hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 this year; holiday songs used to have their own separate chart. Lee, now 79, released an accompanying music video through her record label this month.

Meanwhile, All I Want For Christmas Is You recently topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the fifth year in a row.

Over the years, various outlets from Billboard to The Economist have tried to peg how many royalties the song earns. Spotify’s former chief economist Will Page has estimated the song will exceed $100 million US in earnings this holiday season.

“For a lot of legacy artists, it can be a way to get back out there, get back on the charts to put a lot of effort into a holiday push for things like social media promotion,” Fauteux said, noting that it can be a way to maintain chart activity for artists between albums.

WATCH | Why Brenda Lee’s 1958 Christmas hit has endured: 

This Christmas song is finally No. 1 — 65 years later

Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree has hit Number 1 for the first time, topping the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart 65 years after its release. Lee spoke to Q’s Tom Power about recording the song at just 13 years old and how having the song in the movie Home Alone propelled its popularity.

But what does it take to write the perfect Christmas song, the kind of tune that makes you think you smell eggnog or see Santa? Fauteux says that universal lyrics and catchy melodies are just one part of the formula.

“I think a lot of them tie into a sense of nostalgia quite effectively, thinking about the holiday season and what it means to reflect back or be taken back to a time in the past.”

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