This post was first published in December 2012. It updated to fit the current industry.
The following article is a guest post by Cameron Mizell, a professional musician based in New York who is involved in a wide variety of musical projects. He has released many of his own albums independently. Cameron’s experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the music industry.
In 2007, shortly after the advent of Apple’s iTunes and the growing market of digital distribution platforms for independent musicians, some friends and I decided to make a Christmas album. We were just a few twenty-somethings trying to pay our bills as musicians, and realized that popular Christmas recordings sell, and now stream, year after year. What is it that sends people back to these classic recordings, and could we possibly create an album that people would want to listen to every holiday season? Our goal was to make a little extra money to help us with holiday expenses.
We surveyed the landscape of Christmas favorites to see what was missing. Once we landed on a style that suited both our abilities as musicians and our DIY recording setup, we began arranging Christmas songs. We weren’t a band, exactly, and we didn’t want to release the album under our names, so we made up a pseudonym.
Our first Christmas album did quite well, so the next year we did it again, under a different pseudonym—I like to think of each of these pseudonyms as a different brand. Within a few years I released four Christmas albums under three brands: Montgomery Bruce, Dunham Van Durham, and Be Still. People listen to our Christmas music every year, and while streaming doesn’t produce the same Christmas bonus as digital downloads, it’s still nice to see our work continually become a part of people’s holiday soundtrack.
A few years ago I wrote about this on a site I was running called MusicianWages.com in a post called “Make Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Album.” Looking back, there are a few things to add. So for MusicConsultant.com, here are some additional considerations when you set out to make a Christmas album.
While most of us don’t start listening to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, record labels tend to release their holiday albums in late October or early November. If you want to follow suit, you’ll need to create a production schedule by working backwards. Here are some things to think about:
- If you’re making CDs, talk to your manufacturer to find out how long it takes to get your shipment from the time you send them the artwork and master. Depending on your packaging and how much back and forth is involved getting everything right, this could take about 10 weeks.
- If you’re doing a digital only release, find out how long it takes your digital distributor to get it to iTunes. Digital distributors like Tunecore and CD Baby are very quick these days, allowing a week should be plenty of time.
- Allow a couple weeks to design the artwork. If you hire a designer, it’s a good idea to have them start while you’re still recording.
- Post-production tasks like mixing and mastering can take several weeks of back and forth between you and the engineer.
- Recording the actual music can also take weeks, depending on your arrangements, whether everything is recorded live or overdubbed, and the availability of musicians, engineers, and other people involved.
- Arranging the music–sure, we all know Christmas songs, but take some time to make them yours.
Chances are you’ll start recording in the summer while nobody else is dreaming of a white Christmas. Buy some Santa hats and break out the holly to get yourself in the spirit. Have some fun. The earlier you start the better the result.
Don’t Blow It Off
Christmas music sells well because people are always looking for something new, but with the familiar seasonal vibe. It’s also a time of the year people are willing to spend money. But don’t get greedy and think you can throw together some holiday recordings and call it an album!
Just because you’re making a holiday album and might not be releasing it under your own name doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put the same effort into it as you would your own music. The hard part is already done–lyrics and melody. Everything else is basically a clean slate. Use this as a chance to experiment and try things you might never do with your own music.
Keep Your Overhead Low
Releasing a holiday album is a great way to make some extra revenue from music, but you won’t make much money if you spend a lot up front.
Every time I made a Christmas album I viewed it as a challenge to work within my resources. I didn’t have access to a good drum room, so we just didn’t use drums. I arranged the music to be played on the instruments available. I spent a little extra time on mic placement and performing with good tone instead of laboring over fancy mics, plugins, and editing.
A Christmas album is essentially a covers album, and if you’re releasing songs written by other people, you’ll owe royalties. But consider the amount of Christmas music in the public domain. Visit pdinfo.com to find a list of public domain Christmas music.
Write Your Own Holiday Song
Another way to avoid paying royalties is to write your own Christmas song. A well written holiday song could always generate extra publishing revenue in ways cover songs cannot.
When Lauren Zettler and I were recording a Christmas album as Be Still, I remember adding a harmonium part to a backwards guitar track and thinking, “Yeah, that sounds like snow.” Lauren turned around and started writing this nostalgic song about Christmas time of the same name. The thing about it, much like Joni Mitchell’s “River” (which we also recorded), is that it’s really a love song that takes place during the season, not another Jingle Bells. “Sounds Like Snow” has been one of the best-sellers on Be Still’s Christmas album.
Expand The Brand
Finally, if you choose to take the same route as me and release holiday music under different brands, consider making an original album to match. My friends and I did this with Dunham Van Durham, first releasing an album of original music, and later releasing the Christmas album. The original album has actually sold as well as the Christmas album, but it has also been licensed for other uses.
If people enjoy the sound and feel of your Christmas music, there’s a very good possibility they’ll also enjoy original music in the same style.
Finally, here’s another tip: This approach works for non-holiday music as well. Be creative!
Learn more about Cameron on his website http://www.cameronmizell.com/