How Independent Music Producers Carve Out a Corner of the Christmas Economy

How Independent Music Producers Carve Out a Corner of the Christmas Economy

Jed Oelbaum

More than any other holiday on the calendar, Christmas boasts a distinct playlist, a cheery, frothy mix of timeworn classics and latter-day, sleigh bell-laden pop contenders. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Kylie Minogue or Garth Brooks releasing a Thanksgiving-themed album, and I’m pretty sure no one’s ever been overwhelmed by too many Yom Kippur songs wafting through the speakers of their car stereo.

But when you hear that millionth version of “Deck the Halls” at the mall, or find yourself bobbing your head to some Dubstep remix of “Silent Night” in the background of your favorite TV show, have you ever wondered where, exactly, all these tracks come from? And why are there so many recordings of the same songs?

Every year, musicians can count on a healthy demand for Christmas material, as entertainment brands and marketing teams reach back into the old barrel of winter quintessentials for new spins on old standards. And while some seasonal audio offerings come from celebrity holiday cash-ins or big studios, many of the songs you hear are likely assembled by those lean, hungry wolves of the music business, the independent producers, hunched over home computers with headphones on, tweaking that last sample into a ska take on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

“It’s just such a big part of how we get people in the spirit of the holiday,” Art Hays, a composer based in Austin, tells me over the phone. “It’s not just music, it’s how it fits with the movies, and the TV shows, and shopping and everything,”

Hays, who works out of a studio in his home, mostly writes music for television, and has placed holiday songs in a few network shows. He says larger music companies that maintain relationships with entertainment brands will put out a call for tracks from autonomous guys like himself. They then compile these contributions into a seasonal catalog, which they pitch to buyers.

His version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”—an old carol originally celebrating the fine English tradition of demanding snacks—ended up not only in NCIS: Los Angeles in 2011, but was picked up again for CBS’s Criminal Minds two years later. He describes it as “in that style of commercial music that was really big around then…sort of jangly. But I tried to put my own spin on it, give it sort of a vintage feel.”

“I make about $1,500, $2,000 for a placement like that,” Hays tells me. “It’s not really a big part of my income.” But, he reminds me, holiday episodes tend to be a sure bet for rebroadcast this time of year, and he receives small payments for each new airing. Each one of these recurring fees might not be much, but when you have a good number of songs in rotation, the payments can really add up.

Even the material that doesn’t sell right away is an investment. “The good thing is that opportunities can come out of nowhere. Just because you don’t place something right away, doesn’t mean its not going to work out,” says Hays. “I had something get licensed recently that I wrote nine years ago…Nine years ago, and I just got paid for it.”

One reason Christmas tunes are such a go-to for producers is that much of the season’s most familiar music is in the public domain. So not only is demand high for these songs, but the source material is free to use, a rare occurrence among tracks as familiar and popular as these. That means brands can spend less overall, while musicians collect a bigger piece of the pie. “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” for example, all belong to the public and be used freely.

Unfortunately, this also means we end up bludgeoned with the same repetitive annual soundtrack. “If your budget is challenged and you need a holiday song, there is only a handful that you can draw from,” Paul Greco, Director of Music and Radio at J. Walter Thompson New York told Forbes earlier this month.

“As a Christian kid growing up, I was drowned in religious carols and you hear the same songs every year, every single place you go. It doesn't matter if you're at Walgreens or Trader Joes, you can't escape it!” Jacob Steele, a 27-year-old producer from Nashville who primarily works on music for commercials, tells me via email.

This year, Steele demoed a Christmas-themed “funk soul/hip-hop piece, with little rap chants here and there” for a Verizon commercial, but the company ended up choosing a different submission for the spot. He was paid $250 for the demo and stood to make a few thousand dollars if it was selected. “Plus,” says Steele, “If there are vocals and it's union I get SAG-AFTRA [fees and royalties], which can be really lucrative.” He sends me a link to an original track he placed in a commercial for German cosmetics company Douglas a few years ago:

“The key to making a great Christmas commercial track is a great sleigh bell, Christmas bell, and glockenspiel/celesta sound,” says Steele. “Dubstep, hip-hop, electro, it doesn't matter. If you don't already have those three sounds in place the client will always ask for them in the end.”

Lest you picture these busy audio elves in long red, fur-trimmed hats, working against some idyllic wintry setting, remember that the process of putting these pieces together necessarily begins much earlier in the year. Steele says the calls for Christmas music “inevitably start peeking their heads [out] in spring and don't go away until the holidays actually arrive.”

“It’s definitely fun doing these tracks,” says Hays, but “it’s hard to be in the Christmas spirit when you’re making the thing in the middle of the summer.”

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