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The fairytale of new media

Monday November 29, 2010

The battle for Christmas number one may have become a dead duck since The X Factor came to dominate, and new festive hits are few, but downloads have proved to be a shot in the arm for plenty of classic Yuletide catalogue tracks – a trend which shows little sign of abating.

Rage Against The Machine aside, The X Factor effectively killed off the annual battle for the Christmas number one several years ago.

But while trying to come up with the nation’s festive chart-topper may have turned into something of a pointless task for labels, the popularity of downloads has ensured the overall market for Christmas recordings is now bigger than it has ever been before.

With music fans able to download any Yuletide hit they like from across the decades, so no longer having to rely on the whims of a record company to physically re-issue it, a flurry of Christmas oldies is showing up on the OCC chart year after year.

And in the case of some tracks, it seems the public just cannot get enough of them. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s 1987 coupling Fairytale Of New York has finished in the Top 20 every Christmas for the last four years, going as high as number four in 2007, while fellow evergreens such as Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You and Last Christmas by Wham! have returned to the Top 40 in every one of the last three seasons.

It is all adding up to big annual business for the record industry; last year alone the 50 top-selling Christmas singles during November and December collectively sold around 792,000 units, according to OCC Data. Meanwhile, the Christmas compilations market saw the 50 most popular festive-themed albums combined sell close to 900,000 units over the same period.

Rhino UK managing director Dan Chalmers, whose company’s Christmas catalogue includes Fairytale Of New York, says the market for festive downloads has become “incredibly important”.

“There are a few areas that we look at that are important for our licensing business and we’re part of the Now! Christmas joint venture with EMI and Universal that utilises our key Christmas repertoire, but we’re also looking at repertoire opportunities for key singles,” he says. “One example is around Shane MacGowan’s 50th birthday in 2007 we had a real push to make Fairytale Of New York the Christmas number one.”

The scale of the business for Christmas oldies was just not possible prior to the arrival of the download market when the public were only able to buy their favourite festive singles if labels had made a conscious decision to re-issue them. The switch in dominance of the singles market from physical to digital has resulted in an annual flood of seasonal songs into the chart with 2009’s Christmas chart welcoming 11 such singles into the Top 75 and another 20 appearing lower down in the 200, the vast majority coming from the Eighties or earlier.

“To a degree the public are aware of these key tracks and with services like iTunes people are able to search through to find them, but there is an incredible amount of advertising to re-promote some of these tracks,” says Chalmers. These include Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, which got a further promotional boost from Warner a year ago as part of its marketing for a new best-of from the singer.

Leading the field last year for Christmas hits was Fairytale Of New York, which sold 77,000 downloads during the last two months of 2009, followed by Carey’s now Christmas standard adding another 70,000 sales. These were followed by Wham!’s Last Christmas, which pipped George Michael’s own new festive recording December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas) into third place.

Michael’s newer track losing out in sales to one of his oldies was a typical occurrence in a market where the same hits are dominating year after year and any new Christmas recordings struggle to get a look-in. Even if they do when they come out, it is even rarer for them to go on to establish themselves as perennials in the way a Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade has managed to.

The desire of the public to go back year after year to the same favourites is illustrated by a comparison of last year’s 20 biggest Christmas downloads based on OCC sales and a chart compiled by PPL of the 20 festive songs earning the highest number of plays on radio, TV and across business over the last decade. Fourteen of the songs in each chart are identical.

While Fairytale Of New York led All I Want For Christmas Is You as the OCC’s top festive seller last year, on the decade-long PPL chart it is Mariah Carey who comes out on top followed by Last Christmas and then the Pogues hit. Slade are fourth and Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday fifth on a chart that contains few surprises and nothing new. Incredibly the Carey hit, which originally reached number two in the UK in 1994, is its newest track.

PPL director of PR and corporate communications Jonathan Morrish says all the tracks on the chart are simply great recordings. “Stop somebody in the street and ask them what is their favourite Christmas song and, pretty much, they would choose one from the PPL Top 20,” he notes. “Christmas is a time of tradition so while it’s no surprise to see standards in there, it is worth noting that it is the most recent recording – Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You – that is at number one. At Christmas we embrace tradition and music is a very powerful and engaging way to enforce that feeling. Music really helps define this time of year – be it songs that radio broadcasts because that’s what people want to hear or the songs retail use in store because of their mood-enhancing power.”

It is a similar story of vintage recordings with regard to last year’s 50 top-selling Christmas downloads with only four of them released in 2009, while 36 of them were from the Eighties or earlier. The Seventies was the most dominant decade with 13 representatives among the 50 tracks, followed by the Eighties with 11, while two from the Forties have long been out of copyright: Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (left) and Judy Garland’s original reading of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

“It’s difficult to find a really outstanding new Christmas record each year,” says Radio 2 head of music Jeff Smith who believes when it comes to the old festive favourites the public never seem to tire of them.

“When I was first programming way back when I thought people would be fed up with these tracks. We don’t do research here, but when I have done research in the past at other stations we found people still wanted these songs,” he says. “They play them at their parties and they are trying to celebrate. I don’t think most people have this concept of cheesiness when it gets to Christmas.”

However, push Christmas music on to them too early and the reaction is likely to be different. Research published earlier this month by in-store media specialist Mood Media Corporation suggested the vast majority of the public (73%) did not want to hear Slade, Wizzard and the like in stores before December 1, but get the selection right and 59% of respondents said it could improve their shopping experience.

Similarly, Smith notes for Radio 2 the policy is not to go with Christmas songs too early; the tunes start to kick in a couple of weeks before the big day and their presence is then increased gradually.

“We start with one [Christmas song] per show,” he says. “We then start to increase the rotation from one per show to one per hour and around the 23rd, 24th and 25th you start to get to saturation point. Boxing Day afternoon, really that’s the final part of it.”

Smith will trawl through all the new Christmas-themed releases every year, among them this year Mariah Carey’s new holiday album Merry Christmas II You, hoping to find something new to programme alongside all the old favourites. Sometimes he strikes gold, such as with Gabriella Cilmi’s Warm This Winter two years ago, while he suggests Train’s Shake Up Christmas (above), which features in Coca-Cola’s new Christmas campaign, could make the grade this year.

But these are few and far between, prompting the question that if there is a public out there buying hundreds of thousands of Christmas downloads every year, why are the current crop of artists not following the examples of the past by the likes of John & Yoko and Elton John in trying to come up with a festive classic that could keep selling year after year?

EMI Music Publishing UK president Guy Moot, whose company’s library of songs includes I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday and the Shakin’ Stevens hit Merry Christmas Everyone, agrees there is a shortage of new festive songs, but says it is hard to improve on the classics.

“The problem is people are always updating the standards,” he says. “I’m not sure people are really up for writing a brand new Christmas song. You don’t want it to fall into the clichés so you don’t want sleigh bells on it. I’m also not sure with the Christmas number one every year certain to be The X Factor whether there is the same incentive as there used to be to write one.”

But he says his sales and licensing teams are always asking for Christmas songs and if you can come up with a good one “it’s a wonderful piece for catalogue”.

“I think there’s a challenge to all the songwriters out there to write a completely new Christmas song without relying on clichés,” says Moot whose company’s signings Hurts have already done so with their single All I Want For Christmas Is New Year’s Day, due out through Phonogenic on December 20.

For some artists, penning that one Christmas classic can make the difference between being long forgotten and being in the minds of the public every year, as someone like Jona Lewis can attest, thanks to his evergreen Stop The Cavalry (eighth on the PPL chart).

If the last few years are anything to go by then we should expect Stop The Cavalry and the other same oldies to start invading the OCC chart any day now. Surely there has to be room for a few new classics to find their way in, too. But they have to be written first.

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29 November, 2010

 

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