Holiday Albums: A Gift for the Record Labels

The records, which can be made cheaply and quickly, are big sellers
Kenny G’s 1994 album, with 7.3 million sold, is the No. 1 holiday disc of all time Illustrations by Jiro Bevis

For most people, the weather is the first sign that Christmas is coming. For music lovers, it’s the flood of holiday CDs suddenly crowding store shelves. More than a dozen holiday albums from big stars have landed recently, including Blake Shelton’s Cheers, It’s Christmas, Cee Lo Green’s Cee Lo’s Magic Moment, Lady Antebellum’s On This Winter’s Night, and Rod Stewart’s Merry Christmas, Baby. There’s even the perfect stocking stuffer for fans of the 1978 film Grease: John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John reunite for This Christmas, available Nov. 13.

Santa’s sack will be overflowing with music this year because holiday discs have become the closest thing to a sure bet for labels and artists. The majority of albums contain vintage standards such as Jingle Bells and The First Noel that are in the public domain, combined with a few copyrighted hits like Winter Wonderland or Let It Snow, and one or two new pieces of music. That formula keeps costs low and ensures audiences will be familiar with a majority of the songs, says David Bakula, an analyst at Nielsen SoundScan. Best of all for an industry that’s suffered years of declining CD sales, consumers remain eager to buy. That’s why every music label wants to have a holiday album, Bakula says.

Retailers such as Target and Best Buy, hoping to keep customers in the holiday shopping mood, place the CDs in prime displays at the end of aisles during the Christmas season, raising awareness without the need for much advertising. As a percentage of the record industry’s total sales, holiday CDs have represented a bigger slice each of the last four years; in 2011 the industry sold 13.9 million holiday albums, 4.2 percent of the 330.6 million total discs sold that year, according to SoundScan. The genre has another draw for record labels: “Holiday albums tend not to be very popular on file-sharing sites,” explains Eric Garland, co-founder of music researcher BigChampagne and senior vice president at Live Nation Entertainment. “For that reason, they’ve never been as widely pirated.”

Last year, Michael Bublé’s Christmas sold 2.5 million copies, second only to Adele’s 21 in sales, while Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe sold more than 1.2 million copies, making it the No. 8 album of 2011, according to SoundScan. In 2007, Josh Groban’s Noël sold 3.7 million copies, beating out such mainstream hits as the Eagles’ Long Road Out of Eden and Alicia Keys’s As I Am to become the best-selling album of that year. “People aren’t picking one or two songs, they buy the full album,” Bakula says.

That doesn’t mean holiday albums aren’t without their challenges. Most shoppers pick up only one or two records each year out of the increasingly crowded field, says Tom Lord, vice president of marketing at Universal Music Nashville. Bakula says sales don’t really begin until early November and, as expected, drop off dramatically after Christmas, creating a small window of opportunity. Plus, unlike other genres, holiday albums are rarely given as gifts, he says.

It’s not just pop groups and mellow crooners who profit from the holiday vibe. Even hipster acts have gotten into the spirit: Last year’s A Very She & Him Christmas from M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel sold almost 300,000 albums, according to SoundScan. And on Nov. 13 indie rocker Sufjan Stevens will release Silver & Gold, a five-disc box set, for $40.

For 2010 American Idol winner Scott McCreery, who released his first album a year ago and is working on a new record for 2013, a holiday album will act as a bridge between releases to keep his fan base engaged. His Christmas With Scotty McCreery, recorded this summer in a studio bedecked with holiday decorations, hit stores last month. Explains Bakula: “It’s smart marketing and giving consumers what they are willing to buy.”

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