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.

Metadata.

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.

Have fun!

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.

16 Responses to Make Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Album

  1. David Rose says:

    I would love to check out your Christmas songs. Are they available for streaming somewhere?

  2. [...] I blog. I’m on Last.fm. I make iMixes. I recorded an album of cover songs and a couple Christmas albums. And I do much more offline. But there’s no simple way to explain how all these things work [...]

  3. [...] your portfolio of music assets. If you could have side projects that existed just to record niche oriented music instead of working a day job, wouldn’t you do it? I expanded on this [...]

  4. Hi there,

    I am truely falling in love with the idea of creating my own Christmas Album. I am a singer song writer and I often find myself wondering what it would be like to have a successful Christmas Album. In reality I feel that it would be easy for me because Christmas is my favorite Holiday, It makes me happy and I soo look forward to the snow and the singing and the gifts, I also love sending Christmas cards so this year I wasa thinking maybe I could record an Album and include that with a nice card! I guess my biggest fear is what if it works then what or what if it doesn’t work

    So here are my questions
    1. How much time do I need to give myself for the whole process to be ready to start sending gifts in the mail by the time Christmas is here

    2. If I re record songs like Let snow by Diana Krall and Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt. Do I have to have permission?

    3. Could I sell the Cds or just give them away as a gift?

  5. david says:

    i love this post. i just released my tenth album and decided it was TIME for a Christmas album. i had a blast and can’t wait to make another one.

  6. William says:

    This article was very interesting, who would have thought Christmas music could be so lucrative

  7. Josie says:

    I’m working on a Christmas album right now. I’m a senior in college and I thought it would be a nice Christmas present for my family and friends this year. I love the pseudonym idea—I don’t want to have a permanent record of myself playing “Sing We Now of Christmas” at age 21 and be stuck with it for the rest of my life! I actually LOVE the pseudonym idea. That’s brilliant. Christmas music is my favorite kind of music, hands down—and the fact that so much of it is in the public domain makes it even more awesome. Thanks for the inspiration!!

  8. jenn mierau says:

    i am totally down with the christmas album. they really are fun to do and have become a holiday tradition for me too! i like to record them at christmas and then release them the next year, to be able to use the inspiration of the season.

    last year i did a limited release of a 5-song ep (all my own arrangements of traditional carols). i released it as a home-made christmas card – there was a space for people to write a message – and amazingly, because it was set up as a gift, some people bought 5 at a time! i was blown away!! i was, though, a little concerned, because the songs were all acoustic and my “regular” music wasn’t entirely, but i decided not to worry about it.

    this year, i released just one of those songs on iTunes and am also selling it as a holiday download card. i also recorded a version of silent night that i’m giving away. i would have released the whole ep, but realized too late that one of the songs that i thought was public domain had two different arrangements and the melody i was basing mine on was the one that wasn’t public domain… boo for me! yay for the reminder of doing ALL one’s homework! but i’m definitely recording another one for next year!!

    so where can i hear your alter-ego christmas offerings?
    if you don’t want to post it, you could message me through my site…

  9. jenn mierau says:

    speaking of doing all one’s homework… now that i’ve checked your site, i see “sounds like snow” i will be checking it out!

  10. booby says:

    I am currently making a christmas album, it is so fun! We already finished 7 out of 18, but we only have a week left! I hope to post the album on my website http://www.breakthroughband.webs.com once it is done. It is deffinatly a great experience to hear you own versions of holiday classics and then give them to people as christmas gifts.

  11. Steve Scott says:

    This is a great artical. I was asked twice to put a Christmas production together at our church which resulted in two albums. They are not at all the triditional style Christmas music. It would be my delight if you stop by and chech it out. I read every comment and take it to heart. The radio presents some of it as Jewish Christmas music and others say it has a blue
    grass twist and a touch of the Beach Boys. I would live to have pop by at http://www.morningsongproductions.com.

  12. crystal says:

    I want to make a Christmas disk of me singing for my family. Can you tell me how you go about that … I mean the details like where do you go to record classic songs that would have the music. Do I bring the music and just show up to sing over it and they mix it? Who and or where do I go to so I can begin the process? I want it to sound good even though it will never be sold so is here a special type of studio that specializes in this kinda thing? I live in FL so I’m sure the names/places would be diff but if you could just give me the basic steps I would appreciate it so much! Thanks!

  13. bob says:

    haha love this xx going to get a bath now coz i smell really bad

  14. I have composed 4 Christmas songs but till now only 2 have lyrics. They are being released this year after a successful trial last year. Watch out for Bill Mckechnie in the charts!

  15. jimmy kunz says:

    I recorded this for the fun of it for my Daughter Amanda, BUT, it turned out very well.
    I didnt record it to make money or be popular at first. ha. but iv sold many on iTunes and gave away more than iv sold. They were so much fun to record. and make my own versions of these great songs.
    Give a Listen
    Jimmy Kunz

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