Holiday albums can become classics fast
Posted December 22, 2007 12:50 p.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2008 11:57 a.m. EST
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Toby Keith have a couple apiece. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton did one together. The ever-prolific Willie Nelson has at least four of them. Most country stars, and many of their pop counterparts, have a Christmas album or two in their catalogs, and for good reason: The records are relatively easy to make and have the potential for big payoff.
"If it's really good, it can go for 20 years," said Bill Kennedy, vice president of sales for Capitol Records Nashville.
Released in 1957, "Elvis' Christmas Album" is the top-selling holiday release of all time with 9 million in sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. The single "Blue Christmas" is a Christmas classic, even parodied by Porky Pig.
Other Christmas blockbusters are Kenny G's "Miracles: The Holiday Album" (8 million) and Barbara Streisand's "A Christmas Album" (5 million), according to the RIAA.
But the Christmas kings, at least in terms of sales, have to be Mannheim Steamroller with two albums topping the 6 million mark: "A Fresh Aire Christmas" and "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas."
Holiday records are unique in the way they're promoted and marketed.
"It is a very short window that begins in late October, hits its peak the first two weeks of December, and then falls off the cliff right after the holiday," explained Ben Kline, executive vice president of sales, marketing and new media for Universal Music Group Nashville.
Though the window is tight, successful releases will do well for at least a few seasons before trailing off, said Peter Strickland, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Warner Brothers Nashville.
That's what happened with Warner Brothers' "A Very Larry Christmas" by Larry the Cable Guy. In 2004, the first year, the comedy album sold 150,000 copies. That shot to 250,000 the second year and to 315,000 the third.
This year, sales fell to about 70,000, though some of that likely is due to the October release of a second Christmas album by the comic, "Christmastime in Larryland."
Because most Christmas albums contain standards, they can be easier and faster to record than an album of new material, but not always. Choirs and string sections can add time and cost.
And with marketing and promotions time compressed, TV appearances become key, said Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville.
"We think of Christmas CDs as albums that will sell mainly for three to five years and won't be driven by hit singles on the radio," Galante said.
There are exceptions, but in general, sales expectations for holiday albums are lower than for standard releases. And for every breakout record, dozens of others get snowed under.
"If it can sell gold (500,000) or better, that's hugely successful," said Capitol Records' Kennedy. "And if you can do a minimum of 250,000 as a base, that would be all right."
George Strait, as big a star as there is in country music, has two Christmas albums, both of which sold over 500,000. By comparison, Strait's regular releases typically top the 1 million mark.
Still, Galante said most singers view the albums as fun and as an artistic break. "It helps fill out the artist's catalog," he said.
This year's hot holiday release is Josh Groban's "Noel," a traditional collection that has already scanned more than 2 million.
But for many, the star at the top of the tree remains "Elvis' Christmas Album." Released at the height of Presley's fame, it's a must-have for the serious Christmas music fan.
Ironically, the album's biggest hit, "Blue Christmas," was the one track Elvis didn't want to record.
As Gordon Stoker, a member of the Jordanaires, the vocal group that backed Presley on that song and many others, recalls, Elvis at first refused to do "Blue Christmas" out of respect for Ernest Tubb, who had had a No. 1 hit with it earlier.
When the producers said he had to cut it, he told folks at the session to come up with something so bad that it would never see the light of day as a single, Stoker told The Associated Press recently from his Nashville home.
"We thought that 'oo-ooo-oooo' was bad enough that they wouldn't release it," Stoker said of the signature backing vocals.
To this day, he said, "It still sounds bad to me when I hear it."