Little in the vast catalog of American taste is any more traditional than Christmas music. Throughout all those shopping days before, it pervades the country. In airpots, Muzak versions of "Carol of the Drum" compete with the bells of pinball corners; in department stores, the strains of "The Nutcracker Suite" are pitted against "Silver Bells," and even in smudgy bars, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" runs headlong into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Christmas songs are at the top of the list of all-time best-selling singles. "White Christmas" - getting even heavier attention this year after Bing Crosby's death - is estimated to have sold more than 115 million copies, and about six million copies of sheet music. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which was turned down by so many publishers that its author eventually had to publish it himself, is only a couple million behind.
The infinite demand for seasonal music would seem to promise a gold mine for popular songwriters, but despite their best efforts, new Christmas songs can't get a foothold commercially.
This year, record companies' efforts to break the strangehold of traditional songs has led to an eclectic group of releases, from the tropical - Bob Luman's "A Christmas Tribune" to Elvis Presley - to the absurd - Martin mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope." And the excrutiating:
It's gonna be a punk rock Christmas this year/Even Santa's gonna be a sex [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for a day/All those Christmas trees swinging safety pins from their leaves . . . We're gonna give ya a punk rock Christmas this year/I'm gonna give you a nice sweater all ripped to shreds! And Mom and Dad, you see, receive dafety pins for their checks/It's gonna be a punk rock Christmas this year. - The Ravers, "It's Gonna Be A Punk Rock Christmas."
While the reasons for the failure of "Punk Rock Christmas" (and its flip side, "Silent Night") to break into the holiday singles scene are doubtless esthetic, the other 20 or so new releases are doomed by commercial catch 22s. Record companies, wholesalers, retailers,and radio station programmers all agree that sales are a matter of supply and demand, but none of them will supply, and none of them will demand.
The companies for the present have given up as unprofitable releasing new holiday singles. At Columbia Records, the industry giant, CBS Record Group vice-president Bob Altschuler reported that Columbia hadn't even attempted a new single this season, although their releases of smooth pop albums by Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, etc., continue to sell. As Altschuler puts it, a short-lived seasonal single makes its only return by "servicing the station as a promotion." Clive Davis, Columbia's former president and now the mastermind behind Arista Records' increasing success, agrees; a Barry Manilow song, "It's Just Another New Year's Eve," was taken off the season release list and only circulated to radio stations.
Record companies won't release because wholesalers don't buy because short airplay time means short demand.
Kenny Dobin, wholesale buyer for the Waxie Maxie chain, shrugs, "The Christmas single is declining. Nowadays, radio stations are only playing the record for seven to 10 days before Christmas. It used to be at Thanksgiving, you'd start hearing them, and the longer air time meant greater demand. But now (programmers) are not only waiting longer, they're not playing them as often. There's no reason to put these records in for a 10-day sales period."
Radio stations play what they think their public wants to hear, and to WMAL program manager Mark Kuhn the new Christmas songs lack the patina of long popularity. "It's like a turkey for Thanksgiving," says Kuhn. "You just can't beat a traditional Christmas carol."
A new song, according to Kuhn, has too much of a handicap in its unfamiliarity; people want holiday music they can hum along with, and new singles "have only a couple of weeks to make it or break it."
And at rock-oriented radio stations, the industry's enfants terribles, the paradox is even more startling.
"Rock has always been a bad format for Christmas," says WROX's Phil Demairn. A new Christmas carol "kinda defeats the point of Christmas . . . (These new releases) aren't really traditional, and if they were, they wouldn't fit in" with the station's format.
It seems the only people who are encouraging the production of new Christmas singles are the licensing firms like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. ASCAP President Stanley Adams, in encouraging writers to challenge the long supremacy of Irving Berlin and his colleagues, has declared stoutly, "Our writers are not only the best, they're the bravest."
Sounds good . . . but then, ASCAP is one of the licencers of "Punk Rock Christmas."