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There's big money in writing a holiday hit

DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's that time of year again, and there's no escaping the Christmas music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) I don't want a lot for Christmas...

GONYEA: So what's in it for the artist who makes a Christmas hit? Music journalist and former record executive Tim Sommer joins us now to explain. Tim, welcome to the program.

TIM SOMMER: Thank you so much, and it's a pleasure to be here.

GONYEA: It feels like so many artists, different artists at some point or another try their hand at a holiday song. I guess it's like a lottery ticket, right? Maybe an annuity.

SOMMER: Annuity is a perfect way to put it. Mariah Carey is a Christmas industry, meaning especially since she is a primary co-writer of that song - it's only written by two people - which means that she makes an absolute fortune each Christmas on that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

CAREY: (Singing) Ooh, baby.

SOMMER: In England, having a Christmas No. 1 and having a Christmas song is an entirely different object, an entirely different industry. But there are artists whose entire careers are supported and supported happily just by the fact that they can always count on a Christmas standard.

GONYEA: So we've done a little bit of research. And this is an old figure, but it has been estimated that Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas" has made her an excess of $60 million since 1994.

SOMMER: That would make sense, yeah. That's a very logical figure.

GONYEA: You alluded to the notion that Christmas music in the U.K. is treated differently from how it is here in the U.S. You worked for the British press for a while. What's different there?

SOMMER: You know, first and foremost, their Christmas songs don't have to reflect a perfect Christmas. For the last three Christmases, the No. 1 single at Christmastime has been by this blogger comedy team called LadBaby, and their entire milieu is parody songs built around the words sausage rolls and their love for sausage. In 2019, it was "I Love Sausage Rolls," which is a parody of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE SAUSAGE ROLLS")

LADBABY: (Singing) I love sausage rolls, so put another one in the oven, baby.

SOMMER: In 2020, it was a parody of the Journey song "Don't Stop Believin."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP ME EATIN'")

LADBABY: (Singing) Don't stop me eatin', oh, sausage roll feelin'.

GONYEA: (Laughter). So what's the formula for a Christmas hit?

SOMMER: The formula for an idealized Christmas hit - and again, I'm going to speak solely about the United States. The perfect Christmas hit is a reflection of the idealized, nonrealistic Christmas, and that's fantastic.

GONYEA: So in the spirit of the season, I'm going to ask you to pick a song that we should go out on.

SOMMER: My all-time favorite Christmas song is one of those British Christmas hits that we've spoken about. It's a song called "Stop The Cavalry" by Jona Lewie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP THE CALVARY")

JONA LEWIE: (Singing) I have had to fight almost every night down throughout these centuries.

SOMMER: I think it was probably inspired by the legendary Christmas truce during the first world war when the British troops and the German troops, facing off against each other in the trenches, decided for just a few minutes to stop the firing. And it's a legendary moment in the history of war, and it's a legendary moment in the history of Christmas.

GONYEA: Tim Sommer, former record executive and author of "Only Want To Be With You: The Inside Story Of Hootie & The Blowfish," out in April. Thank you so much, Tim.

SOMMER: Thank you so very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP THE CALVARY")

LEWIE: (Singing) Wish I could be dancing now in the arms of the girl I love. Mary Bradley waits at home, she's been waiting two years long. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.