Christmas albums obviously are big business each holiday season. More than 40 such albums have topped two million copies sold, and a successful seasonal release can continue to pile up sales for years after its initial release.
Not only have many artists enjoyed the fruits of releasing even just one holiday album, several acts have built a niche where they're known for Christmas music, can tour every holiday season and have a tidy stream of income from annual sales of their holiday albums.
Chip Davis, founder of Mannheim Steamroller, has certainly been having many merry Christmas seasons since he decided to venture into Christmas music with the 1984 album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.”
Like other acts that have developed a Christmas career (the Oak Ridge Boys, Brian Setzer or Dave Koz), Davis and Mannheim Steamroller already were successful and established when Davis tried his hand at holiday music. The first five in Mannheim Steamroller's series of “Fresh Aire” albums had essentially created a new genre of music -- New Age -- and had sold huge numbers for being in a niche genre.
But today, Mannheim Steamroller is primarily known for its presence at Christmastime, and its10-plus holiday albums (not counting numerous compilations) are approaching 30 million in combined copies sold.
But Davis said he didn't expect even a fraction of that sort of success when he decided to make the “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” album.
“I remember when I did the first Christmas album and everybody said 'That will never work. It will die on the vine and blah, blah blah,'” Davis said. “Then, after nine million units were sold (worldwide), in about two years, everybody was making a Christmas album. I think there was one year where there were 60 releases. It was crazy.”
Back in 1984, Christmas albums were something of an afterthought in the music industry. Classic holiday albums would get reissued and sold at bargain basement prices -- $2.99 for a cassette. But making a new Christmas album was something of a black mark on an artist. It was the kind of project done by “has-been” artists or when a singer or musician had run out of ideas for new albums.
Davis and Mannheim Steamroller turned the perception of Christmas albums on its ear. According to Davis, “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” was released at an $18.98 price point and marketed as a high-end audiophile release. The “Fresh Aire” albums had all been marketed in a similar fashion, and Davis felt he would be cheating his audience if he did anything to cut corners and lower the price of his first Christmas album.
“I had no problem charging $18.98, and I figured you know, if it falls off the shelves, OK, it didn't work,” Davis said.
The prospects for success in the Christmas market, though, were not at all in the forefront if Davis' thoughts in making “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.”
It was purely a musical venture, he said, built around the idea of playing holiday songs in the Renaissance style combined with the kind of modern production and instrumentation employed in creating the signature blend of classical and pop/rock music of the “Fresh Aire” albums.
“I really didn't give it a thought at all,” Davis said when asked if he felt a Christmas release had commercial potential. “I was all about counter-balancing the Renaissance with the 'Deck The Halls' technological sound and stuff. I was more interested in the album construction.”
Davis has continued to find inspiration within holiday music for 31 years now. Along with once again launching the annual Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tour in November, he's also released a holiday concert CD and DVD, “Mannheim Steamroller Live.”
The idea of a live release -- the first Christmas concert recording from Mannheim Steamroller since 1997's “Christmas Live” -- originated with PBS.
“They wanted to do a one-hour special,” Davis said. “I said 'Of course.'”
So, Davis booked two shows on the 2014 Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tour at the Orpheum Theater in his home town of Omaha, Nebraska, and plans for the filming and audio recording of the shows went into motion.
Davis is more than pleased with how the live project turned out.
“We got an awfully darn good looking special, I can tell you that,” he said. “It really looks incredible and I couldn't be happier with it. And it's being used for pledge programs on PBS.”
The DVD and CD feature 18 tracks, including Christmas classics like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Carol of the Bells” and the group's signature version of “Deck The Halls,” plus originals like “Chocolate Fudge” and “Catching Snowflakes on Your Tongue.”
With the DVD and CD out, Davis has turned his attention to the Christmas tour. As in past years, two separate companies of Mannheim Steamroller are hitting the road to play more than 80 cities on this run.
The biggest change in this year's show is visual.
“We had been doing rear screen projection of videos and we had a pretty big format and everything,” Davis said. “But we've changed that to LED, like a wall of LED screens. Oh my gosh, I can't even begin to tell you what an enormous change that has made and how much it's brightened up the show.”