Journalists love a cliche, and there are few better than the one which is used time and time again in reference to the music industry at this time of year. In tabloid-speak nobody, but nobody just releases records in time for December. No, anyone who has a single out even remotely approaching the end of the year is without fail said to be “Entering The Christmas Number One Race”. It doesn’t matter that your track is the fifth from an album which has already sold half a million this year, or whether you are the member of a niche interest group whose last offering stalled at Number 32. The only reason anyone puts a record out at this time of year is to try to be Christmas Number One. At the top of the charts on the last survey revealed before the big day itself. Because that is apparently the only thing that matters.
At least it matters to the newspapers who have picked up the concept and run with it, to quite ludicrous extremes over the past few years. Almost certainly to the amusement of most people in the know. Because here is the funny thing: Christmas Number One now means virtually nothing to the people to whom it originally counted – the music industry itself.
You can argue that it was Brian Epstein who first invented the idea of being the Christmas Number One or at least being conscious of the importance of having a record out for the end of the year. From 1963 onwards he made sure that a brand new Beatles track was in the shops in time for the holiday period. His eye for detail meant that a Lennon/McCartney track was on top of the charts on December 25th every year between 1963 and 1968, with the solitary exception of 1966 when the group were locked in the studio recording the Sgt Pepper album and had no time to release a new single.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, the top of the charts were without fail occupied for Christmas either by a novelty hit (Benny Hill or Little Jimmy Osmond) or as the decade wore on the latest addition to the catalogue of seasonal classics – you will note that a Christmas themed record was Number One every year between 1973 and 1978 once again with the sole exception of 1975 when Bohemian Rhapsody swept all before it and thus relegated Greg Lake’s I Believe In Father Christmas to the Christmas Number 2 spot instead. In truth though the only people who really paid attention were the record labels themselves. With shops racking singles in order of chart position, being at or near the top meant you caught the eye first, and in the final days before the holiday this was of ever greater importance. You might argue this is what prompted the flood of festive songs during this period (resurrecting a musical form which had been dormant since the 1950s). Slade proved they were what sold, and if your act didn’t have a seasonal song in the shops for Christmas you risked missing out on an easy payday. You will note from Top Of The Pops re-runs on BBC4 that the close of year Number One records are rarely hailed as “the Christmas Number One”. They are just the records which happen to have closed out the year at the top of the charts.
The idea of an actual meaningful race for the top was actually the creation of high street bookmakers. William Hill tell me that their laying of odds on the pop charts stemmed from the initial popularity of the White Christmas market they had introduced in the early 1980s and in searching for something else festive to take bets on they hit on the idea of asking punters to divine just what would be Top Of The Pops on Christmas day. So it was that in November 1984 they opened the first-ever Christmas Number One book, allowing punters to place money on what would be top of the charts come the end of December.
They actually nearly got their fingers badly burned in the process. As Twitter user @DizzyJB noted:
So it was that the first-ever winners of a Christmas Number One bet also included people who had placed money on Wham! to come in in second place. By the end of the decade, bookmakers were regularly taking over £100,000 in bets each December as the concept continued to grow. As a result by the time the 1985 festive season rolled around the press was starting to get in on the act, this Daily Mirror clipping the earliest write-up I can find about the result of the festive race and in particular what it meant for bookmakers.
A year later we had the first genuine upset of the modern era as Jackie Wilson topped the charts at the last minute and Hills took a 25 grand bath.
It does make you wonder just why they continued to run a book on something as random as the singles charts. I make that three years running that the leading high street bookmaker of the time lost huge money on the market. Still, it continued and this all meant that by 1987 the idea of speculating on just what would be Christmas Number One was an integral part of popular culture and even justified double-page previews in some of the tabloid newspapers as they weighed up the runners and riders and speculated wildly and incorrectly about what might end up on top.
Incidentally, the story of the man who staked £200 on Joe Cocker has become rather infamous and the first-ever example of silly money going on a record which was nowhere near the Top 40 by the time the end of the year rolled around. The odds-on favourite that year was Rick Astley with When I Fall In Love and who ultimately ended up in fourth place. Winners in 1987 were the Pet Shop Boys who, the Daily Mirror insisted in its “exclusive form guide”, did not stand a chance.
The 1990s brought with them another famous upset when Mr Blobby bested Take That in 1993, William Hill this time noting that it saved them a six-figure payout. However a year later a new game had been invented as Creation Records boss Alan McGhee hit on the perfect way to draw further mainstream attention to his latest rock sensations. Thus Oasis became the first act to deliberately attempt to gate-crash the Christmas chart, deliberately holding back the release of one-off single Whatever until the very last moment in an attempt to become the first ever act to enter the charts at Christmas Number One. They failed, and the single only managed Number 3, but where they led the way others would follow.
The 1990s closed with the Spice Girls following the Epstein model, locking down the end of year Number One three years running with immaculately timed Christmas ballads, even if this did make for some unexciting betting markets (their 1996 release 2 Become 1 managing to do what Oasis had failed to two years earlier and became the first Christmas Number One to enter the charts in Christmas week itself). By this time interest in “the game” was mutual, the public buying into it as a major part of the holiday tradition whilst the music industry sat back and watched pre-Christmas sales climb ever higher as high street entertainment chains became besieged by shoppers during December, many of whom would never contemplate setting foot in HMV or Virgin Megastores at any other time of year. To be Number One at Christmas meant you were the sales winner at the very time when it mattered the most.
Then came the 21st century and the two Simons – Fuller and Cowell – who ruined everything. The first two incarnations of the talent search genre had both reached their climax in early spring, the first Hear’Say single landing in the shops in March 2001, Will Young a year later. When it became clear that the coronation single from a talent show winner was guaranteed a huge sale no matter what, it seemed only logical to combine that with what was already the biggest sales rush of the year. For the TV companies this made perfect sense too, timing a guaranteed ratings winner to climax at Christmas time, just when advertisers were prepared to pay the most as well. So it came to pass in 2002 that Popstars – The Rivals aired, built entirely around the idea that the show would create two groups who would each release a single just in time for Christmas. The race to be Christmas Number One was no longer about ordinary singles, but about talent show winners.
Girls Aloud won that particular race and whilst the 2003 series of Pop Idol tactfully avoided the season altogether, delaying the release of winner Michelle McManus’ single until the new year, the launch of X Factor in 2004 established the pattern once and for all. When 2005 winner Shayne Ward sold three-quarters of a million singles in four days to become Christmas Number One the writing was on the wall for the rest of the market. Each new series of the show opened with the arrogant assumption that the eventual winner would have a Number One hit for Christmas and after one punter successfully staked £15,000 at odds of 1/15 (to win just £1,000) on Leona Lewis being victorious in 2006, bookmakers as a matter of routine laid odds of “without X Factor” to essentially make the race to be Number 2 for the holiday the true test of chart popularity.
Even at the time, there was no greater critic of this than I. In a 2007 article for Yahoo! Music I wrote of the continuing dominance of X-Factor singles:
This is of course utter madness. Early versions of the TV talent shows proved that they had the ability to drive people to record stores in their thousands no matter what time of the year. Indeed both Hear'Say and Will Young were launched into the world in March, giving sales a welcome boost at what is traditionally a rather fallow time of year. Instead of being presented with product which has been promoted, developed and invested in all year, the buyers who cram themselves into record stores during the last week of December are being conditioned to ignore virtually everything else and instead snap up a rush released single from what is often a sub-par karaoke singer just because they voted for them on TV. Inevitably this is followed by 11 months of navel-gazing as record companies wonder why they are pitching their real acts to ever-dwindling numbers of buyers.
I made a similar point on a Radio 2 documentary about the singles charts the following year. It wasn’t so much that it bothered me that nobody got to play the game of deciding who would be Christmas Number One each year, just that going shopping for records in the last week before the big day was no longer about your own favourite established pop stars but instead hunting for the X Factor winner and leaving the store with that single alone.
The solution, in the minds of other members of the public, was to stage an intervention of their own, using the new-found freedoms of the digital age to go clickbombing, using social media to organise mass purchases of an exceptionally alternative offering to “stop Cowell getting it all his own way” as the rage against the new musical demon of the age would have it. I’ve written extensively about the events of 2009 both at the time and since, but suffice it to say that whole reason that particular chart invasion worked then was because the rules on chart hyping always assumed it was record labels who would attempt to manipulate the singles listings. The idea that the general public would try to do so had never been contemplated. So it was that online orders of “30 copies of this single” were waved through and formed part of the survey and a bizarre bit of history was made as a 16-year-old rock single became the 2009 Christmas Number One. This again cost bookmakers a fortune, on the first day the market was available Rage Against The Machine were priced at 250/1, only to be eventually backed down to 1/2, losing them £50,000 in the process.
Although its backers cheered (and then oddly enough failed to continue buying chart music for the rest of the year) the unintended consequence of this has been to further ruin the idea of being Christmas Number One – or more significantly the whole Christmas chart itself. What was once a fun game of finding out which mainstream pop record would sell the most in time for the holidays has now been elevated to an issue that sits outside the usual flow of popular culture. Never mind the tabloid cliche, some records are indeed released with the sole aim of “trying to be Christmas Number One” as if this somehow makes them matter more. People rally on social media behind different songs to try to make some kind of statement or because they think it will be funny to see Surfing Bird or Dominic The Donkey in the Top 10 for Christmas Day. Proof positive that the madness has jumped the shark once and for all came last week when politicians were attempted to show both how caring and how down with the kids they were by suggesting that everyone made Free Nelson Mandela Number One for Christmas as if this somehow would further validate the apparent need for everyone to associate themselves with the late South African president.
In 2013, after two years of finishing the show a week early and thus releasing the winners single in mid-December, X Factor has returned to the fray and it seems a fairly safe bet that normal service will be resumed and that the singles chart will be topped by an act who may well have been propelled there by a talent show but who will at least go on to further sell records later in 2014 rather than being nothing more than a passing novelty, even if places in the rest of the Top 20 are likely to be clogged up with whatever ancient track has been resurrected from the iTunes catalogue for the sheer LOLs of it.
Yet here is the fun part. The Music Industry isn’t actually all that bothered about the Christmas chart any more. Sure, sales will be higher than normal, but the demise of the high street record stores means that consumer entertainment spend is now focused on box sets from Amazon or Michael Buble albums picked up at the kiosk at Sainsbury’s. None of the reasons why it meant something to be Christmas Number One actually exist any more and the final countdown before Christmas is now a "bubble chart", unrelated to normal sales or musical trends and which in the context of the full story of the year is little more than an irrelevance.
No, what now really matters is what you might call the New Year chart. Once a barren desert of minimal sales (and in years gone by no actual sales chart compiled at all), the hours from Christmas Day onwards are the industry’s own version of Black Friday. New devices are unwrapped, online gift tokens are produced and Christmas money is spent on populating these new toys with material to watch and to listen to. This all adds up to near record-breaking levels of sales. The post-Christmas week in 2009 saw 4,220,000 singles sold, rising to 4,747,000 in 2010, 5,451,000 in 2011 and then an incredible 5,696,000 at the end of 2012. Numbers the like of which the industry thought it would never see, and the only thing that will stop these totals being exceeded this year is if the rise of subscription streaming services is finally starting to bite chunks out of the sell-through market.
So it is that the single with the highest profile, one of the biggest sales of the year and a part of the largest market of all time will not be the last Number One before Christmas, but the first one immediately after. And wouldn’t you just know it, in the four years since the game got ruined for everyone this has been either an X Factor winners single or an act who performed on the X Factor final. Yet not one single penny will have been placed in bets on it.