If you found yourself shopping for brand new music to give as holiday gifts, you probably found it difficult. The December album release calendar is traditionally sparse, to say the least. What does hit record store shelves usually arrives in the form of albums by former American Idol contestants or major label hip-hop artists. So why is it that your options for new music this month consisted mostly of a Jessica Simpson Christmas album and R. Kelly’s latest effort?
It turns out there are several reasons labels don’t release albums around the holidays—most of which are financial or practical. For smaller labels, December is nearly a period of inactivity, a transitional month between fall releases and the upcoming activity that will commence in the new year. The span between December 24 and January 2 is a dead time in the music industry, a lull during which most industry players and musicians sign off their e-mail and go home to their families. It’s an acceptable time to take off both because of the holidays and because there are so few releases.
According to Equal Vision Records general manager DAN SANDSHAW, one of the main obstacles indie labels face in December is the cost of retailing a record. Some indies already spend most of the year fighting for distribution and precious store placement, so once holiday shopping comes around, it becomes harder and harder to the win battle for that space. “Most of the physical retailers focus on larger pop artists and Christmas-related releases in December,” Sandshaw explains. “It’s hard to get independent product into the marketplace at the same time. It also costs more co-op marketing money to sale-price and position releases in stores, which makes it cost-prohibitive for indies.”
CHRIS TROVERO, director of marketing for Epitaph Records, has dealt with similar issues. “On the indie front, it doesn't seem beneficial to release albums in December,” he says. “The holidays seem to be a time for most majors to re-release successful albums or put out holiday box sets. On a retail level, the stores are way more apt to carry the best sellers of the year to cater to the mainstream record-buying public.”
Equal Vision, don’t actually shut down for the holidays since they are paired with a merchandising company that functions year-round, still they have zero releases this December, although Sandshaw notes they have had them in the past. Epitaph, on the other hand, had two minor releases this year—a digital-only EP from Frank Turner and a 7-inch from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert. Trovero, who has also worked at Warner Bros. and Interscope, says, “These are the only two releases that we've had in December since I started working here in 2008.”
But what about those artists who actually do release an album in December? THE DAMNED THINGS offered up their debut album, Ironiclast, on Dec. 4, mostly because there were no other real options for the band due to the hectic schedules of the members, most of whom also have other groups. “To a degree we had no choice,” says guitarist JOE TROHMAN. “Half of it had to do with scheduling. We had to make sure everyone's touring schedules were totally open to coincide with the release of the record. The other half of it was out of our control. I'll just say we were somewhat at the mercy of outside forces.”
Trohman, who has seen his share of album releases thanks to his time in Fall Out Boy, says that in his past experiences with releasing album, it’s somewhat taboo to release a record in December. “It used to be that December was the worst time of the year to release anything non-Christmas related,” he says. “Usually there's little money left [for labels] in the fourth quarter of the year to put into anything but Christmas releases. Major labels used to forbid bands and artists from releasing anything post-November. Nowadays, it doesn't matter if you release your record in the fourth quarter. The rules have changed. The industry has fallen apart, and people don’t buy records like they used to. There’s no record-buying regimen for kids growing up today. They're gonna get [albums] for free regardless of when it comes out.”
CACIE DALAGER, singer/guitarist for NOW, NOW, who released the Neighbors EP earlier this month, has found no major drawbacks to putting out new music in the midst of holiday madness. “The EP release date was pretty much out of our hands when we decided to release through No Sleep [Records],” Dalager says. “It needed a fresh press run and redesigned packaging, so December was the soonest it could work out.” In fact, Now, Now have found that being able to release something in the winter has been beneficial. “The timing of releasing the record has worked out just fine in that regard,” Dalager says. “It’s opened many discussions with people in the music industry and allowed us to tour with the EP for the rest of winter. Press hasn't skipped out on coverage lately either. It’s been quite nice.”
Sandshaw says that a label’s budget and financial motivations can factor into what is released and when. “Our larger releases usually come out during the summer and fall during the festival touring season,” he says. “The costs of releasing physical product in December are too much for us.”
But even though the Damned Things aren’t immediately touring around their album release, Trohman doesn’t feel they’ve lost out on press attention or fan response—mostly because the people who work for them haven’t used December as an excuse to slack off. “I didn't even expect the amount of radio and press we've received,” Trohman says. “It's fun to stare, and everyone finds us stare-worthy. It seems that most of their ears find us listenable, as well. It helps to have a record people like, and it helps to have people working their asses of for you. We at least have the latter, and I'll let others decide on the former. Regardless, we have a good team of people working through the month on this with us.”
The newest benefit to December releases, across the board, is the advent of the digital release. iTunes gift cards are a common stocking stuffer, and many labels feel their benefit after the holidays. “We always work for price and positioning of our records at retail during the holiday season,” says Trovero. “This year, we additionally offered a Bad Religion box set of all of their albums on vinyl in one collector box. We've run sales on the Epitaph store as well. Occasionally, we'll release a single just after the holiday season to entice those with holiday cash and gift cards to check out our forthcoming albums.” Sandshaw concurs: “We traditionally see a pretty remarkable sales lift after the holidays due to iTunes gift card redemption.”
So there you go. Don’t want to run to Best Buy on Dec. 31 to pick up the new Kimberly Caldwell disc? Your answer lies in a gift card. Or a vinyl box set. Either way, you can get music you like this month—it just might not be hot off the presses.alt