The Economics of Christmas Music
Why aren't musicians churning out new holiday tunes each year?
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It’s officially December, and you know what that means—the air is filled with the festive sounds of carolers, and classic Christmas tunes are taking over department store sound systems. But as you navigate through the aisles listening to popular hits from Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande, keep an ear out for something intriguing—classic Christmas songs reimagined by today’s favorite artists.
Now, not everyone is joyfully embracing the return of these festive tunes. For many retail employees, the return of these tunes signals the beginning of the challenging holiday season. Can’t you picture it: stuck in a loop, hearing the same tunes over and over? It’s a unique holiday challenge that transforms the joy of music into a repetitive jingle hell for those on the retail front lines.
So, why aren’t musicians churning out new holiday tunes each year? While Taylor Swift has been re-recording her older albums, other artists aren’t exactly rushing to create fresh holiday melodies. Writing a hit Christmas song, it turns out, isn't exactly a walk in a winter wonderland. For those eyeing a Christmas album, the easy money lies in the familiar. Beyond the shimmering lights and jingling bells, there’s a fascinating tale rooted in the role of copyright law and the enduring demand for nostalgia.
Now that we’ve set the stage for the sounds of the season, let’s jump into the economics at play. Our first stop: the fascinating world of public domain and copyright. Before we begin, let’s get some holiday tunes going:
Jingle All the Way to the Public Domain
Tapping into the public domain can be a creative goldmine for musicians. Imagine a vast treasure trove of works whose copyrights have expired—timeless carols like "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World." These classics, dating back decades or even centuries, provide artists with the freedom to use well-known melodies without the legal constraints of copyrights. The catch? With freedom comes saturation. Take "Jingle Bells," for example—we have thousands of versions sung by artists spanning genres, from country to rockers.
Copyright, our legal framework granting creators exclusive rights to their work for a limited time, plays a crucial role in this whole story. In the United States, works published before 1923 generally find themselves available in the public domain. The limited duration of copyright protection encourages a continuous flow of creative works into this shared cultural space.
Economically, copyright serves as a crucial incentive mechanism. By granting creators exclusive rights for a defined period, it encourages investment in creative projects. The eventual expiration of these rights ensures that works enter the public domain, enabling future generations of artists to build upon existing foundations. It’s worth noting that in recent decades, the Walt Disney Company, among others, has been instrumental in lobbying for extended copyright terms. This effort has made it more challenging for copyrighted material to enter the public domain:
But here’s where the game of musical chess comes in. Musicians must strategize, weighing the benefits of releasing a well-timed holiday hit against potential market saturation. This strategic maneuvering not only influences individual artists’ success but also shapes the overall landscape of the Christmas music industry. Now, let’s talk about the demand for nostalgia—a powerful force that shapes not only our holiday playlists…
A Nostalgic Shift in the Demand Curve
So, why has it been so long since a new Christmas hit has broken through? It’s not necessarily because the songs from earlier decades are objectively better. It’s likely a generational effect, where we inherit the Christmas tunes our parents loved as kids. Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially around Christmas.
A lot of popular Christmas songs, like "White Christmas," are even written about nostalgia. The lyrics paint a picture of going back to Christmases in the past, a sentiment that resonates with many of us during the holiday season:
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
Artists who try to create the perfect Christmas song can easily break down the key elements. Popular songs often touch on themes like home, love, parties, and, of course, Christmas staples like Santa and reindeer. But, as it turns out, there isn’t a magic formula. Authenticity and nostalgia often play crucial roles in what becomes a holiday classic.
But here’s the intriguing part—despite hearing the same old classics every year, most of us don’t seem to get sick of them. Since we don’t listen to Christmas music all year round, we don’t get the chance to get sick of it. Our enjoyment may diminish as we progress through December, but we don’t seem to experience decreasing returns.
So, why is it so challenging for new songs to break into the Christmas mix? People don’t want to hear them. Despite the repetitive nature of older Christmas songs, they continue to evoke the festive spirit year after year. There’s no reason why an original song can’t become a Christmas classic in the future. All it needs is time—years to percolate and find its place in our hearts. After all, it took Mariah Carey’s "All I Want for Christmas Is You" a mere 25 years to become Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Holiday Song.
November 12th is typically the threshold when Christmas songs comprise over 2% of all streams [Spotify]
Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You accounts for 1 in every 50 holiday music streams on Spotify [Bloomberg]
The 1942 ‘White Christmas’ recording by Bing Crosby, has sold over 100 million records around the world, with at least 50 million sales as singles [Guiness World Records]
Barbara Streisand, who is Jewish, made one of the top 10 selling Christmas albums of all time [Vox]