Christmas CDs, a stocking-full of cash for the music biz

Dashing through the snow / In a one-horse open sleigh / O’er the fields we go / Laughing all the way…to the bank.

Ho, ho, ho—the holidays are here. From wandering carolers to department-store elevators, America is awash in Christmas music.

And if you happen to be one of the few lucky individuals to have composed a tinsel tune, those bells jingling are actually the sound of a zillion cash registers opening and closing. Like the songwriting equivalent of winning the lotto, an honest-to-God Christmas hit is the ultimate annuity, the gift that keeps on giving…and giving and giving.

”Three out of 10 people buy a Christmas record every year,” says Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan. ”That’s about the closest thing in this business to a sure thing.” Then there are the royalties that come with radio play between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s. Take, for example, John Lennon‘s 1971 hit, ”Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” According to Pat Baird, assistant VP of media relations for BMI, which oversees the performing rights to Lennon’s catalog (as well as such yule tidings as ”Merry Christmas Baby” by Chuck Berry and ”Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses), the song was played more than 50,000 times during Christmas 1996. Since the average play earns a minimum of six cents, that would mean no less than $3,000 per annum for the Lennon estate—though likely a lot more considering the ex-Beatle’s superstar status. Meanwhile, Run-DMC’s ”Christmas in Hollis,” a song on 1987’s A Very Special Christmas, earns between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, according to producer Bobby Shriver, with profits going to the Special Olympics.

Given that there’s so much to be made (or donated) by joining the Christmas canon, the question is, why don’t more pop stars try it? The quick answer: It’s not such a simple dash through the snow. Breaking into that Christmas clique is one of the toughest gigs this side of the North Pole. The last holiday song to take on classic status was the 1984 hit ”Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which has generated approximately $14 million for Band Aid since its initial release. Says cowriter Midge Ure, ”It’s one of those things that I’ll be plagued with in supermarkets for the rest of my life.”

Other songwriters should be so lucky. Most holiday classics have been around longer than the Rockettes, let alone supermarkets. ”Joy to the World” was written by 18-year-old Isaac Watts, an English deacon’s son, in 1692; the lyrics to ”Hark the Herald Angels Sing” came to Rev. Charles Wesley (whose brother John founded Methodism) in 1739. A new breed of carol kings emerged after the Second World War: The top-selling holiday song of all time, Irving Berlin’s $100 million-plus ”White Christmas,” dates back to the 1942 film Holiday Inn (by the time it was remade as White Christmas in 1954, Bing Crosby‘s version was a perennial). Mel Torme and Robert Wells penned 1946’s ”The Christmas Song,” which Nat King Cole turned into a standard. In 1949, Gene Autry recorded Johnny Marks’ ”Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and 2 million copies flew out the door (sales today are over the 12 million mark). And Bobby Helms’ 1957 version of ”Jingle Bell Rock” brought rock & roll home for the holidays. But since then, few new Xmas songs have become chart-toppers.