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Christmas music royalties are a boon to some performers


Some Christmas gifts keep giving year after year after year.


MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) I don't want a lot for Christmas. There is just one thing...

MARTÍNEZ: Can't help wiggling my shoulders. Mariah Carey first released this song in 1994, and every year since, it's given a whole lot of comfort and joy to her bank account. Last year, "All I Want For Christmas" earned about $3 million in royalties. Now, I talked about the evergreen mountain of cash that holiday music can generate with George Howard. He's a professor of music business management at the Berklee College of Music.

GEORGE HOWARD: So it can be the gift that keeps on giving. But one thing to understand is that there are two royalties for each song, and one is the royalty for the composer of the song, and the other is the royalty that goes to the label or the performer of the song. So someone like Mariah Carey and her massive hit, she's actually getting both royalties because she's both a writer and the performer of the song.

MARTÍNEZ: And we're talking about each time a song is streamed, every time someone does that.

HOWARD: Yeah, in theory. So the royalties are less precise than they really should be. The writer of the song - not the performer, but the writer of the song - gets paid every time a song is performed on the radio.


BRENDA LEE: (Singing) Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop.

HOWARD: So if you're driving in your car and the Brenda Lee song "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" comes on - she didn't write that song. A guy named Johnny Marks wrote that song. And when you're listening to it on the radio, only Johnny Marks gets paid there, not Brenda Lee. Whereas if it's streamed on something like Spotify, then in that particular case, both the writer and the performer would get paid. The United States is one of the few countries that does not pay the performer for a terrestrial radio play.


MICHAEL BUBLE: (Singing) Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.

MARTÍNEZ: For some artists, is it true that Christmas is really the only time of year they release music? I mean, they're looking at Christmastime as time to cash in.

HOWARD: It's interesting. It sort of tracks with how the music industry is. You get these moments that spur on the play of songs. "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" had a resurgence in 1990, originally because it was in the "Home Alone" movie. It's sometimes less about the artists' intent and more just about these kind of random elements that bring songs back into the public consciousness.


RUN-DMC: (Rapping) It's Christmas time in Hollis, Queens. Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm wondering if you think, Professor, that maybe some songs play better in some cities than others. So say, for example, in New York City, I would imagine Run-DMC's "Christmas In Hollis" probably gets a lot of airplay, and it wouldn't maybe in Los Angeles.

HOWARD: Which is a sad state of affairs. But yes, I'm sure there's regional things. But your point is well made. And it is a tactic, you know. Record labels - and I used to do this with the record label that I ran - we would have all of our artists record Christmas songs whenever they were in the studio, because there will be stations that go 24/7 Christmas, and they need to fill it up. So artists that might not be at a level where they would get play on certain stations the rest of the year, might get an opportunity during Christmas.

MARTÍNEZ: That's George Howard, Berklee College of Music. Professor Howard, thanks a lot.

HOWARD: Thank you so much.


RUN-DMC: It was December 24 on Hollis Ave. in the dark when I see... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.