Somewhere around the time that Christmas became commercialized, musicians got branded. Not branded in a cattle sense word (although with today”s rampant desire to sub-genre-ize everything, music critics might as well carry hot pokers), but branded in the Levi”s/Marlboro/Disney sense as a line of similar, reliable goods coming from a single source. The problem is that the idea of branding transferred to the music world, but the parts involving “reliable” and “good” unfortunately did not. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the annual debacle known as the Holiday Shopping Music Release Rush (HSMRR).
The HSMRR usually renders itself on the shelves in the form of two high-profit packages: The Christmas CD and the box set. The Christmas CD category can then be further divided into three types: An artist doing old favorites, an artist performing a mix of old favorites and their own new Christmas songs, or a various artists collection. The album of old favorites covered by a single artist is usually the safest way to go for a singer looking to crack the bag it, tag it, throw it under the tree market. Everyone gets in on this racket, even Jewish girls from Brooklyn like Barbara Streisand. She released one Christmas CD in 1967, and now she”s at it again this year! Someone tell her Rabbi!
Then there are the old favorite/new song hybrid albums. These are generally produced by the popular groups of the day and rely upon branding as much as the old-favorite-only CDs do. This is, of course, because the new Christmas “originals” finding their debuts on these CDs rarely get any notice. Remember the New Kids on the Block”s “Funky, Funky, X-Mas?” I didn”t think so. It”s because these songs are almost always hideous, taking a given band”s usual sound and adding some sleigh bells and lyrical references to snow or Santa Claus. The results almost invariably border on the unlistenable.
Both of these above mentioned Christmas CD approaches bank on the selling power of musical brand names, with record companies figuring that since (Christmas celebrating) people like Christmas songs and they like popular music (otherwise, it wouldn”t be popular) why not combine the two? In the process, record labels get to avoid royalty and publishing fees by choosing Christmas “favorites” now in the public domain, pay little to the studio musicians who provide the background music because everybody knows these songs and can knock them out in one or two takes and then let the “star” waltz in, lay down the vocals in a couple of cost-effective hours in the studio, pose wearing a Santa hat for the album cover and wait for the checks to come in.
While record companies can rest assured that an artist”s fans will buy a Christmas CD done by that particular artist, there exists little chance that non-fans or casual listeners of that musician will give their Christmas CD a second look. This, of course, has to do with the branding everyone has a favorite brand and since people don”t need very many Christmas CDs, they will invariably stick with their top two or three brands. Good luck getting a Colegate person to try Mentadent”s special “holiday peppermint” flavor toothpaste, or a Marlboro man to check out Lucky Strike”s “full flavored fruit cake” 100s.
But maybe, just maybe, consumers will allow those other brands into their homes in a trial size as part of a compilation. Enter the third option: The various artists Christmas collection. They are all over the holiday releases this, and every, year. VH1 has an “80s Christmas collection out, MTV”s TRL Christmas is lining shelves and catching pine needles, and Playboy magazine”s new Latin Jazz Christmas promises a “Not So Silent Night.” Sure, consumers might only know and trust three or four of the brands (or rather, bands) on any one of these collections, but wouldn”t it be fun to hear that hip-hop take on “Silent Night” or a death metal flare applied to “White Christmas?” Sure it would. And while they”re at it, shoppers figure they might as well listen to the other artists on the collection that they hadn”t heard of before, like the ones who do the oh so hilarious ska version of “O Holy Night” or the rap-core cover of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Advertising costs increase around the holiday season, and what better way for record labels to cover that cost than to make you pay to hear the advertisements? If customers like what they hear from the bands on the compilation, they might even go out and buy the artists” regular albums!
Hopefully, in the eyes of the business, the secular albums that the holiday shoppers will gravitate toward are the newly released box sets on shelved just in time for the holidays. With box sets, costs are low and price tags are high. (Hey, there are never before seen photos of Elvis exercising in that box set! Definitely worth the $70.) Here”s the secret formula for these high-priced holiday gimmicks: Take the old stock of CDs by some “classic” band, dig up a couple “rare” (read: Not good enough the first time around) tracks, have someone write ridiculously long and hyperbolically praise-filled liner notes, repackage everything in a “deluxe” cardboard box and sell it for no less than $50.
Mark my words: The future holds a Britney Spears Christmas CD (likely of the old favorites/new would-be-holiday-hits variety) and a Guns N” Roses box set (Axl has to eat somehow).
Personally, I”m holding out for James Brown”s Funky Kwanzaa and Bob Dylan”s Hanukkah Hits.
“Registers ring, are you listenin”? At the labels, money”s glistenin””