Goodnight Kiss Music and Scene Stealer Music
An interview with Justin
Wilde, owner of Christmas and
reprinted with permission of author, all rights reserved worldwide.
HOW TO TURN YOUR HOLIDAY SONG INTO A
an Interview with JUSTIN WILDE, "Mr. Christmas"
by Jerry Landon
©1999, all rights reserved.
Interviewer: For starters, how did you become known as "Mr. Christmas"?
J.W. I began as a singer turned songwriter.
Having graduated third out
of my college class of three thousand with a degree in marketing and
advertising, I was always very interested in and adept at the business
side of the industry. Realizing what a gold mine a hit Christmas
standard would be, in 1979 I and a co-writer, Doug Konecky set out to
write our own holiday classic entitled, "IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE
MISTLETOE". For the next twelve years I became "obsessed" with trying to
launch it as a holiday standard.
When I started out, I began with many of
the same misconceptions about
Christmas music that writers approach me with today. After chasing
Christmas projects for the last sixteen years, I think I know the
Christmas market better than just about anyone else in the business.
Interviewer: How long did it take to get
your first record on "IT MUST
HAVE BEEN THE MISTLETOE"?
J.W. It took five years and 376 submissions
(375 rejections) before I
landed the first cut with Barbara Mandrell. Her version gave the song
credibility, and me the tool I needed to put my marketing expertise to
work. It took another seven years and about 500-600 more tapes to get a
second cut with Vikki Carr, and then a third cut the following year with
Kathie Lee Gifford. It's sold over four million units to date. (One of
my favorite rejection letters is from the head of A&R of a major label
saying the song had no commercial potential! I truly fought the urge to
send him a box of Q-Tips.)
Interviewer: What about other uses for Christmas songs?"
J.W. "MISTLETOE" been featured on
two network TV Specials, and it has
been published in single sheet music and over 25 Christmas sheet music
books. It's been featured in films, soap operas, and last year was
published in choral arrangements for the educational market.
Interviewer: When did you decide to start
publishing other writer's
J.W. Up until two years ago, I had only
been publishing my own material.
I've only written about eight holiday songs, and while pursuing
projects, I would constantly would run into opportunities for Christmas
songs in styles I didn't have. Eventually I realized it was foolish to
just by-pass these projects, and so I began publishing other writer's
Christmas (and Hanukkah) songs, cutting a niche in the industry as "the
best source" for holiday music for record projects, TV, film and the
Interviewer: Why have there been so few, if
any new holiday classics
established over the last couple of decades?
J.W. Brilliant as it is, I believe that if
"WHITE CHRISTMAS" were written
today, its chances of becoming the same epic standard would be
questionable, and this has nothing to do with the style or quality of Mr.
Berlin's masterpiece. It's more a function of how the market has changed
from "the good ol' days."
Interviewer: Such as?
J.W. Well, before the Beatles arrived, the
record industry was dominated
by singers who recorded songs by outside songwriters.
Secondly, the Pop artists of the 40's, 50's
and 60's were very happy
recording songs that had already been cut numerous times by other
artists. Multiple covers are crucial to establishing Christmas songs as
standards. I can only think of four or five Christmas classics that
became "standards" as the result of one record. Most became classics
because they were covered by dozens of artists, allowing the songs
infinitely more airplay on radio because of the variety of cover versions
available. Radio may play "WHITE CHRISTMAS" every hour the day before
Christmas, but they do not repeat Bing's version of it every hour. To
get heavy rotation, you have to have multiple cover versions in each
radio format (i.e Pop, country, R&B, and Jazz versions).
Another major factor is that it was a
singles market back then, and very
easy for an artist to release a Christmas single any year they wished.
In the absence of LP's, during the 40's and 50's, if a label released a
hit Christmas "single" that sold well, they would continue to re-release
and promote it every December for a decade or more.
This ongoing yearly promotion was the key reason why those evergreens
became standards. With the arrival of the LP, labels began to view
singles merely as promotional devices to sell albums. Furthermore, the
last thing they wanted was a Christmas single (unattached to an album
project) out competing for airplay and sales with the artist's current
In today's market, many, if not most labels
no longer even release
singles from Christmas projects. Christmas albums peak the first year
they are released. Once a CD's sales have peaked, why would a label
continue to promote a single from it? Very few holiday projects become
perennial sellers. Most hit the budget bins by their third or four year!
So ... unless there's someone out there with a vested interest in
promoting the copyright long after the label has forgotten about it, it
will inevitably disappear into obscurity.
Interviewer: How does public domain affect the Christmas market?
J.W. It has an extremely negative impact.
Labels encourage their
artists select material from the twenty to thirty traditional carols
available in the public domain to avoid paying mechanical royalties on
those selections. Or ... an artist (suffering from writers block) and/or
their producers choose to do PD material, claiming a "new and unique
arrangement" of it in order to pick up writer and publishing pennies.
It's an extremely short-sighted mentality. I also think it's a very bad
marketing approach. How anxious are you to buy the 437th recorded
version of "GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN?"
I also believe there's an incorrect mind-set
among many labels and
producers that the public only wants to hear old Christmas standards
instead of new holiday material. If that were true, why doesn't that
same assumption apply to the non-seasonal market? If it did, then Sting,
Prince, and Madonna should redirect their careers and begin recording
"MOON RIVER", "STARDUST" and "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT."
Familiar standards help increase sales, but
ten or twelve on one CD is
overly redundant. A good Christmas CD should mix about 50% Standards
with 50% new material. Otherwise the public gets short changed by being
force-fed the same old material that has been done to death. What new
insights does an artist bring to something that's already been recorded
400 times? And why should radio rush to embrace so and so's new version
of a song that's already been cut by hundreds of other singers?
Most artists fail to realize that a hit
"signature" Christmas "standard"
(i.e. A Christmas song associated predominantly with their name) usually
becomes the most important and enduring record of their career. It's a
career longevity insurance policy; something radio will continue to play
when their eighty years old or 30 years after they been dropped by their
What song first comes to mind when you
think of Bing Crosby? Nat King
Cole? Gene Autry? Brenda Lee? Their Christmas songs still keep them in
the limelight, while most of the peers have faded from the scene.
Few artists have a five, ten or twenty year
career game plan. All they
can think about is getting as many of their own songs onto the album,
rather than selecting the best songs possible. That's why so many
singers watch their careers disintegrate after a few years. Legends like
Sinatra, Torme, and Bennett who have careers lasting four to five decades
because they were smart enough to realize ... "It's the message" not the
messenger. It always has been, and always will be ... "THE SONG".
Finally, with today's tight playlists,
Christmas material only gets
serious rotation for about two weeks; on some stations even less. By
6:00 PM Christmas Day, radio has stopped playing holiday music. That's
why it takes 10-15 years of repeated airplay to crack the public's
consciousness and establish a Christmas song as a "standard." You have
to get your twenty weeks on the charts just like any other hit. With
Christmas material however, you have to get it one week a year, spread
over fifteen to twenty years.
Interviewer: Are you then saying it's no
longer possible to launch a new
J.W. Not at all. It just takes three or
four times longer and ten to
twenty times more effort than it used to. It's now up to the publisher
or the songwriter. If you really want to turn a holiday song into a
standard, it's going to take a minimum of ten to fifteen years. How many
writers, artists, or publishers are willing to make that kind of long
I've seen at least a dozen artist/songwriters
over the last five years
all release Christmas projects filled with 8-9 standards and only one or
two new, self-penned Christmas songs. Their lack of knowledge of the
Christmas market had them believing that the "magical power" of their
name value would automatically propel their new Christmas song into
standard status. It just never happens.
How many "hit" Christmas "standards"
do you recall surfacing in the 70's
and 80's? Name one act who has produced a major Christmas standard in
the last twenty years. (Maybe Elmo & Patsy, but that was a novelty
fluke.) Neil Diamond, Boyz II Men, Barry Manilow, Alabama, Reba
McEntire, Anne Murray, Freddie Jackson, Harry Connick, Gloria Estefan,
Natalie Cole, etc. etc, etc. all failed to score a Christmas hit single.
Liberty failed to launch one from Garth
Brooks" 1992 Christmas album,
when he was the biggest act in the music business. Even Kenny Rogers and
Dolly Parton's 1984 duet Christmas album, released when both were at the
absolute zeniths of their careers, with an accompanying network TV
Christmas special and videos on MTV ... still failed to produce a hit
Christmas single. There were some excellent songs in those projects.
But the ongoing promotional follow-up evaporated one or two years after
the album's were released, and the songs thus disappeared into obscurity.
Interviewer: Suppose you get that name act
cover. How do you go about
turning it into a standard? What do you mean by "building a copyright?"
J.W. In the early stages you often need to
spend more money promoting
the cut than you make in royalties. I do my own independent radio
promotion, because the labels no longer promote Christmas singles like
they used to.. And they certainly don't promote them after the first
year of release. If you're not willing to make that effort each and
every year, then you've got to hire an independent record promoter to do
it, or the record will disappear.
In the early years the performance income
does not even begin to
compensate for the time spent making 300-400 promotion calls to program
directors each year. But that airplay "builds the copyright." Many
opportunities for Christmas songs are only open to those considered to be
"standards", or at least songs the public is familiar with. If you've
had little or no exposure, you're often not even allowed to play in the
Interviewer: What are some other examples of building the copyright?
J.W. Well ...Getting your song published in
sheet music and choral
arrangements doesn't generate a lot of royalties, but it is important in
building the song's profile. Getting name act artists to use your
holiday tune in their live Christmas concerts generates little in
performance income, but it is valuable exposure and adds credibility to
Think of your potential Christmas standard
as your very own "little
business". People invest money in new businesses in hopes that they will
grow year by year until they eventually become huge profit generators.
With your Christmas song "business", in the beginning, exposure is the
focus, not profits. In the long run, as the public becomes more and more
aware of your Christmas song, cover records and other uses will increase
and the profits will eventually start to roll in. To quote the Kevin
Costner's "Field of Dreams" ... "Build it and they will come!"
Interviewer: Speaking of movies, what about
getting your Christmas song
into a film? Wouldn't that help turn it into a standard?
J.W. It certainly did in the old days, but
again things have changed.
In the era of movie musicals, songs were sung by the stars on camera.
Who could forget "Der Bingle" crooning "WHITE CHRISTMAS" in the film,
"HOLIDAY INN" and then in the follow-up movie, "WHITE CHRISTMAS?" How
many times have you watched Judy Garland singing "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY
LITTLE CHRISTMAS" in, "MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS."
A featured performance of a song is fifty
times more powerful in
registering it in the public's consciousness than something heard
subliminally in the film's underscore. Most songs used in films today
are used as source cues or background music. Unless you buy the
soundtrack album, you probably wouldn't even remember what songs were in
the film. Other than "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU," how many other songs can
you name from Whitney Houston's, "THE BODYGUARD?"
Another clever way to build a Christmas
standard is to write a hit
Broadway musical with a Christmas song imbedded in the show's score.
(And we all know how easy it is to write a hit Broadway musical!)
Besides Elmo and Patsy's "GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER", the only
other major Christmas standard to surface in the last twenty-five years
was Jerry Herman's "WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS" from the musical, "MAME."
(Both a play and film!!!)
Having a Christmas song "performed on
screen" in a film or on stage in a
successful musical is a major coup in developing a "classic" because most
films are aired and musical plays are performed year 'round. Thus, your
song's exposure is no longer limited to December.
Interviewer: Is it all promotion? What about the quality of song?
J.W. I think the song is about half of the
equation, but promotion is
the other half. Without both, the song will never become a standard. A
very well known "superstar" producer wrote one of the most wonderful
Christmas songs I've ever heard. It's been cut by Amy Grant, Natalie
Cole, and several other acts. It's been out there for at least four to
five years. Yet I've never once heard it on the radio during December.
There's no ongoing, yearly promotion behind it.
Interviewer: Do you accept unsolicited material, and if so, what do you
look for in the Christmas songs writers send you?
J.W. I accept all unsolicited material. I
have songs by "well known
writers". However, some of the best "potential standards" in my
catalogues are from writers who have never had a cut or even had a song
published. I look for great songs, not great resumes. I wish every
person screening material in this industry was forced to evaluate it
without knowledge of who the writer was. Too many people rely on the
past track record of the writer, rather than on the true merit of each
individual song. Remember ... at one time in their careers, every
"super-star" songwriter was unpublished and had never had a cut.
Interviewer: So what do you look for in a song?
J.W. For starters ... great lyrics that
stand on their own, without the
benefit of a melody. They should read perfectly off the page. That
doesn't mean they have to be poetic, but they should make perfect literal
sense. They should have great visual imagery and yet still be
conversational. I'm a real stickler for "craft". I've often heard
writers say, "It works well with the track." I don't buy that excuse.
If you look at the great standards from the "Golden Age" of songwriting,
their lyrics stand up on their own. In that era, songwriters wrote songs
... not tracks!
Likewise, a great melody is one that holds
up by itself, without the
benefit of the lyric. If you haven't got a great melody, why would
anyone want to record an instrumental version of it? Furthermore a
"standard" caliber melody works even without the embellishment of
harmonization. Most all of the great Christmas standards can be sung A
Cappella on front porches or in rest homes by carolers ...without the aid
of accompaniment. That's the mark of a great melody.
Thirdly, a great melody is simple and never
rambles! After hearing your
song three times, if the listener can't sing back most of it to you, your
melody is weak. This is especially important for Christmas music. To
become a Christmas "standard", the melody must be easy enough for the
common man or woman to sing. If the range exceeds more than an octave
and a fourth, or has difficult interval jumps, it may excludes all but
Example: Mariah Carey's 1994 Christmas
album may have sold three million
units. I doubt however, any of the original songs she wrote for it will
ever become standards. The only other people on the planet who have the
pipes to sing them are Chaka Kahn or Whitney Houston. Simplicity is the
key. How many vocal gymnastics do you hear on Nat King Cole or Bing
Crosby evergreens? Less is more!
Assuming your song meets all of the above
criteria, has a wonderfully
unique title and hook, deals with the holidays in a way that is so fresh
and new, we all hang enchanted on your every word, then it's time to
apply another key element: Patience!!!!!!!!
Interviewer: When would you consider a song
to be a "bonafide" Christmas
J.W. I think you could consider it a
standard (at least in a particular
format) if you've had at least three to four "name act" cover versions
that are capable of attracting radio airplay. If you've accomplished
that and if you then promote those versions with the kind of obsession
described above, you can turn the song into a classic. There are
exceptions. Bette Midler's "FROM A DISTANCE" and Elmo and Patsy's
"GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER" both became standards as the result
of the initial record. They are however, the exceptions to the rule.
My own "IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE
MISTLETOE" is now considered a standard by
most country radio program directors, even though it has had only one
major country cover. But that's only because of the way I've promoted it
to radio diligently for ten solid years.
Another sure sign that you've reached
standard status is when "cover
recordings" start finding you rather than the other way around. When a
producer or artist whom you've never submitted the song to calls to say
he or she is cutting it, you've arrived!
Also, when you start getting instrumental
versions cut on a "Christmas"
song, that's another sign it's well enough established in the public's
consciousness to be considered a classic. "MISTLETOE" achieved both
milestone's last year, which served as rewarding vindication that my hard
work is finally paying off.
Interviewer: Do you have any final advice regarding holiday music?
J.W. Although I've signed a few "sad"
Christmas tunes and too many
ballads, try to write lyrics that are positive and uplifting. An
up-tempo song will increase chances of getting it cut ten-fold. Before
you even begin to write a Christmas song, look at which artists on the
radio are cutting outside songs. Study their styles and grooves.
Finally, writing something that translates to several different styles is
also very important. "WHITE CHRISTMAS" is adaptable to almost every
style, excepting hard rock and rap. Of all the "major name-act"
Christmas projects done each year, probably 50% come from country, and
30% come from Pop & R&B.
And finally ... don't be discouraged by the
obstacles we've discussed in
this interview. The fact is ... you can never win the battle until you
know what you're up against. Getting a "Christmas standard" is fifty
times harder than having a "Number 1" non-seasonal hit. But if you can
ever land one, you'll be set for life. Mel Torme's "THE CHRISTMAS SONG"
has had over 1,700 cover records!
c 1999 Justin Wilde
Justin Wilde, (better known as Mr.
Christmas) graduated college with
honors with a degree in marketing. He publishes only Christmas and
Hanukkah music, and has developed a reputation as "the source" for
holiday music in the industry. His songs have been recorded and/or
performed by such artists as:
Barbara Mandrell Anita Baker Johnny
Ray Charles Johnny Mathis Vikki Carr
Loretta Lynn B.J. Thomas Kathie Lee Gifford
Anne Murray Tanya Tucker The Osmond Bros.
Glen Campbell Rosanne Cash Mason Dixon
Vince Gill Louise Mandrell Houston Persons
Toby Keith Brooklyn Tabernacle Grady Tate
and have been featured on several
television shows and TV Specials. He's
also had numerous songs published in sheet music and choral arrangements.
Unsolicited holiday material may be sent to:
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