Merry Christmas! Every November, as soon as the table is cleared after Thanksgiving dinner, many families turn on their favorite Christmas music. Holiday music is synonymous with the season, and despite a relatively small repertoire of standards, there’s never a shortage of new Christmas albums being released every year.
My wife is a huge fan of Christmas music, or at least the classics. For years, she told me I should make a Christmas album. I resisted, because I felt recording A Cameron Mizell Christmas would scream commercialism and I’d be shunned at all the hardcore jam sessions I imagined I might attend someday in the future. But a couple years ago, I made a Christmas album with some friends under a pseudonym, and after watching the album generate $2,500 in profits, I decided to start a new holiday tradition. Thus began my secret career as a Christmas Musician.
Choose your songs.
There is a wealth of public domain Christmas music available, so if you want to avoid the hassle of tracking and paying royalties, you shouldn’t have any problems. I start by looking at the Public Domain website’s list of Christmas songs. Many Christmas hymns and spirituals are public domain, along with old traditional carols. A lot of times these melodies were written years before the lyrics were added and the tune became associated with Christmas (ie. Greensleeves).
Hymns and spirituals are great for instrumental albums, but won’t always work for vocalists. After all, many of the vocal standards recorded by Harry Connick, Jr. or Nat King Cole are secular pieces written by tin pan alley era composers or later. If you’re interested in recording songs that are not in the public domain, you will have to pay royalties. The easiest way to do this is by using Limelight, an online service that collects royalties and administers them to the copyright holders for you. For further reading, see my article on releasing cover songs.
My forumula has been to put 11 songs on an album. So far I’ve only released these albums digitally, and at the default $9.99 price point on iTunes, the 11th track is sort of like a bonus track to encourage full album sales.
Find a niche.
Yes, Christmas music in itself is a niche, but take it one step further and do something very specific. Christmas albums sell well because they are either considered classics, or they’re different enough from the classics for people to want to add them to their collection. So if you want to attract some attention, find a way to make your Christmas album unapologetically different from most of what you hear during the holidays. Don’t try to please everyone.
My approach has been to choose some of my favorite artists that have not released Christmas music and try to make it myself. Not only does that give my friends and I a blueprint for sonic textures and arrangements, but it helps with some targeted marketing efforts later.
Note: I’m refraining from sharing my specific ideas so this article won’t look like an advertisement for my albums.
When you title your album, try to make it search friendly and as descriptive as possible. You don’t need to be extremely creative here, simplicity will usually get the job done.
Also consider the spelling of your song titles. Is it “O Christmas Tree” or “Oh Christmas Tree”? Or maybe it’s “O Tannenbaum”. There’s no wrong answer, only wrong spelling. Choose the title that you think fits your genre most appropriately.
To be or not to be?
My initial reservation to record Christmas music was simply because I felt like I would tarnish my reputation as a an independently minded jazz/funk musician. Many of us are trying to create a brand around our music, and veering off our focused path to record a holiday album just doesn’t jive with our integrity. But who says you have to be yourself?
Pseudonyms have been prevalent in the recording business for as long as it’s existed. Sometimes they’re blatantly obvious or just the musician’s way of having a little fun. Historically, artists under contract with one label would use a pseudonym to be able to record for another label, usually as a sideman.
I’ve found a great deal of freedom in using pseudonyms. Not only can I record literally any type of music I can imagine, but when it comes to Christmas music, I can record the same song as many different ways as I can imagine. It’s a nice challenge to play music in a variety of styles, and be as authentic as possible.
This is not to say you shouldn’t release Christmas music as yourself. I know many artists that do so successfully. In fact, many people find their Christmas albums first, and are then turned onto their other recordings. So if you do it right, you can boost your sales across the board.
Making a living as a musician is challenging and can sometimes make you a little dark, but recording a Christmas album is an excuse to have a some fun. Not only do my friends and I brainstorm concepts for future Christmas projects, but we decide what kind of food and drink will accompany the recording session. One album was beer and pizza. The following album was, well, beer and pizza. Maybe we’ll change that up next year.
The money is great (how many musicians get Christmas bonuses?), but we’re having a good time with the process. I used to hear Christmas music and sometimes think, “I can do better than this.” Now I put my money where my mouth is and get to work on making better Christmas albums. Care to join me?
For additional ideas, check out 5 Things I Learned About Releasing Christmas Music at MusicianCoaching.com.