Unfortunately, a songwriter is highly unlikely to get a Christmas cut in his or her stocking. I say this, not because it is next to impossible, but because Christmas songs are usually cut and polished in the May to July period, with the end of July pretty much signaling the closing of the window. This is due to the fact that a whole new cast of characters including marketing and sales people, need time to carry out their end of the endeavor. So, get a good head-start in any given year and get your Santa/spiritual masterpieces in circulation early!
This article will not go into depth about the actual creation of a Christmas song, but allow me to offer a little advice. I once composed and recorded an entire Christmas CD in the months of June and July, and I do not recommend it! It’s not easy conjuring up the motivation, let alone the festive frame of mind, to write for the merriest of seasons, when it’s 95 and humid outside!
During the recording phase, we wore ugly Christmas sweaters in the studio, served egg nog and Christmas cookies, and even decorated a fake tree! Though it was an effective and enjoyable experience, it would have been a lot more inspiring in November or December. Plus we would have had many months to prepare for shopping the songs in the late spring and early summer. Studios tend to be quieter near Christmas, which is another plus.
My Christmas catalog is fairly large, and I try to add one new song to it each year. It really is a nice tradition, and marks each holiday season with a another memory. If you are a Christmas first-timer, remember that you are up against a vast array of standards that dominate most albums. Only about two new songs make it on board most artist-driven Christmas albums, and some only include covers.
It is a frustrating fact that many artists record standards that have been sung and produced in basically the same fashion 200 times! It is hard to tell who is singing them because they sound so similar. The fact that many of the songs belong to the public domain, and require no writer royalties, explains part of this tendency. Fortunately, there are artists like Amy Grant who continue to bring new fodder to the Christmas table.
Because of the odds, strive for fresh themes, delivered in unique but positive ways. Christmas songs have been written in all genres of music, but those with the broadest of adaptability stand the best chance.
The Artist CD
If you live in a music center, you may have your ear to the pavement and know who is preparing to cut a Christmas album and when. Otherwise, I recommend subscribing to a pitch sheet. Since most artists only cut one or two Christmas albums in their entire career, it helps to have information about many artists at once.
In Nashville, where a great many Christmas albums are cut in both the country and Christian markets, Rowfax.com is a very thorough and reliable pitch sheet. The listing will usually include the number of new songs that are being requested for the album, and the types of songs preferred. Pitching inappropriate material only lessens your reputation as a professional. Celine Dion is not going to cut a song like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, so don’t waste your time.
Wait for a legitimate artist to arrive at bat for your flavor of song. Don’t attempt to clone the hits of their previous albums. You have to intuitively channel where they are heading next musically!
If Celine Dion is indeed cutting, and you believe you have a good song for her, along with a polished demo, the next task at hand is access. Your best bet is to interest a publisher who will get the song to her people for you. The music center where that artist records is usually the best place to find a publisher with access. If Keith Urban is the artist, a Nashville publisher will be your best shot. Celine is more likely to record in Los Angeles.
Like anything else, making contacts takes time. Assure that your progress is efficient by presenting yourself and your material in a professional manner. You cannot walk into a record label and demand attention because you have “written Michael Buble’s next holiday hit.” Expect to be escorted out if you do. Do your research, learn the names, make mannerly phone calls, and try to get brief appointments. Asking for five minutes has gotten many an unknown through the doors of the powers that be!
In addition to record labels, contact manager’s offices, publishers, PR people, and personal agents associated with your target artist. One song on a CD makes a bigger statement than five. You don’t want to appear to be throwing spaghetti at the wall!
Film and Television
Film and television is another good market for Christmas music. Every year brings a dozen or so new holiday movies to theaters, and countless holiday films and programs to television. A lot of synch music, both instrumental and vocalized, is required for all of these productions. I know of an excellent classical guitarist who has placed simple bits of his classical musings in introspective scenes in film. Really listen the next time you are watching television. Little bits of music are almost constant, and somebody is getting paid for every one of them!
The lower budget arenas, like made-for-television movies, are a great place to get a foot in the door. The Hollywood Reporter reveals “in production” sources under their “Industry Tools” link. Various sites offer production dates and musical needs information for a fee.
Music supervisors are the ultimate go-to people when it comes to film and television. They make the decisions and negotiate the contracts. Nurturing a good relationship with one of these decision makers puts you way ahead of the game. Most of them have gatekeepers, in the form of receptionists, personal assistants, and secretaries, and they can make or break you, so use your best manners and most professional tactics. You oughta do that anyway!
With the advent of the Internet, the discovering of new talent is commonplace, and it is not at all unrealistic to think that talent could be you! Both the “Film and Television Music Guide” and the “Guild of Music Supervisors” provide potential contacts. All you need is one good connection to get started! Bear in mind, though, that any time your actual recording is going to be used and not just your copyright, you have to own the master, which includes ownership of the vocalists’ and musicians’ performances.
Assorted music business conferences across the country may feature panels of experts on this topic. Songwriter and performing rights organizations are good places to get wind of such events. If and when you attend one, networking and following through is a must. Pestering is a big no-no. If you are lucky enough to hit it off with a music supervisor at a conference, maximize the contact without driving him or her nuts. Ask for referrals if it seems appropriate.
Remember that production schedules are very tight, so send your package in an expedited fashion if you have been invited to do so. Present only your very best offerings in mastered form. This is not the place for static-ridden home recordings, no matter how good the song is. I will go out on a limb and suggest never submitting more than three songs at a time. More often it appears desperate and unsure.
Cable Music Channels
If you channel surf up to the very high numbers with your trusty TV remote, you will come to a couple of dozen music-only channels. These are basically the equivalent of commercial-free radio in the genre of your choice.
My viewing area has two Christmas music channels, one more traditional, and one more contemporary. The channels collectively are called Music Choice, and submission guidelines can be found at musicchoice.com.
I know several writers of no great success who have managed to get annual play on these channels. The nice thing is that the songs seem to return year after year. Tackling this market is on my to-do list but procrastination has already ruled me out for this year!
So, as you can see, this market is much like other markets. There is no substitution for rolling up your sleeves, diving into the Internet for research, and making phone calls. Will you get the run around sometimes? Absolutely. I have watched publishers profusely thank a walk-in for their CD, only to chuck it in the trash as soon as the writer exits the building. It really is better not to cold-call. If someone won’t grant you an appointment, showing up anyway is not going to improve your odds. Move on.
The best piece of advice I ever received came from my friend, Steve Pope.
Stop whining about the contacts you don't have and maximize the ones you do!
I plan to take that advice very seriously… next year. Can you imagine the enormous satisfaction, not to mention "mula", in creating a bona fide “White Christmas”- type standard? It is the stuff of fantasies if you are a Christmas-head like I am.
Merry Christmas, and may all of your songwriting dreams come true!