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Taylor Swift’s rivals this holiday: Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole

Chad Batka/The New York Times

Taylor Swift is one of the few pop stars whose late-in-the-year releases can compete with streaming Christmas music.

By Steve Knopper New York Times 

NEW YORK — It wasn’t so long ago that a blockbuster fourth-quarter album by a music superstar could rescue a record company from financial ruin, or at least a slow sales year. Think of Jay-Z’s “Kingdom Come,” which sold 680,000 copies during Black Friday week in 2006 and showed up beneath plenty of Christmas trees that year.

But in today’s world of Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music, music fans are paying less attention to those kinds of late-in-the-year releases. They’re too busy streaming Christmas music.

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“For the first time, this year, we are actually dissuading our labels from releasing albums in the December time period,” said Vinnie Freda, the Warner Music Group’s chief data officer. “It’s like the world stopped between Dec. 7 and Dec. 28. It’s like people stopped listening to music.”

These are boom times for holiday music, with overall streams increasing to nearly 2.4 billion in the fourth quarter last year from almost 1.3 billion in the same period in 2015, according to Nielsen Music. But with the exception of a few traditional pop-star releases, including Taylor Swift and Sam Smith this year and Adele in 2015, shopping-season superstar albums have become noticeably more absent.

Many in the record business are encouraging the biggest stars to put out albums in other months like January, after people receive iTunes gift cards and streaming subscriptions for Christmas presents, and September, when students get ready to go back to school.

“The business is shifting,” said Steve Berman, vice chairman of the Interscope/Geffen/A&M label. “As you look at where consumption is going, it certainly will become less and less reliant on that big, fourth-quarter tent pole.”

Earlier this year, after pop star Sia informed her manager, Jonathan Daniel, that she liked Christmas music, he encouraged her to write two holiday originals. She responded with a full album. The result, “Everyday Is Christmas,” has 10 songs that have streamed a combined 55 million times on Spotify, generating revenue of nearly $385,000 via that service alone, according to estimates based on data from the Recording Industry Association of America. It has also sold 16,000 physical CDs and 17,000 digital versions.

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“It feels like streaming is the way people are going to listen to Christmas music in the future,” Daniel said. “It’s so practical and logical. Giving CDs as gifts — if it’s still a thing, it’s probably as little of a thing as it’s ever been. It’s not extinct yet. But at some point, it will be, for sure.”

Revenue from paid subscription services increased to $2.5 billion last year from $780 million in 2014, according to the RIAA. Amid this industry upheaval, artists and labels find it makes little sense to hew to traditional release-date dogma. Albums used to come out only on Tuesdays, for instance, until labels loosened that policy two years ago. Music fans, especially young ones raised on iTunes and YouTube, are so accustomed to instant singles on SoundCloud and surprise album releases that they cannot understand waiting until after Thanksgiving to hear a finished work.

So December is now primarily for holiday music. Streaming has increased the popularity of chestnuts like the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Bing Crosby’s “Merry Christmas,” as well as newer stars like Michael Bublé and Pentatonix. (“A Pentatonix Christmas” sold more than 900,000 copies in the fourth quarter of 2016, dwarfing non holiday themed releases by Metallica and Bruno Mars.)

Berman pointed to Gwen Stefani, who, he said, released her new “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” in part to become an “evergreen,” Mariah Carey-like streaming hit.

“It will, for years to come, be an important holiday piece of music,” he said, perhaps hopefully. A music-business emphasis on holiday music is not new — radio stations tend to flip formats from Top 40 or country to all “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” all the time around Thanksgiving. But streaming services have increased the volume. Spotify has 16 in-house holiday playlists, like “Christmas Pop” and “Blue Christmas,” totaling nearly 4 million followers; SiriusXM has added eight holiday-music channels, including one devoted entirely to Hanukkah music.

“It’s easy for people to stream holiday music,” said Sig Sigworth, president of Craft Recordings for Concord Records’ catalog division, which puts out Guaraldi’s album. “Go to a playlist, there it is.”

Universal Music, the world’s biggest label, has increased streaming from Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and the rest of its holiday catalog by 50 percent annually, according to Jane Ventom, the company’s executive vice president of marketing and product development. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” increased its streams by 57 percent this year, compared with the same period in 2016.

Still, superstars do seem to be able to upend the holiday theme. Swift sold more than 1 million copies of “Reputation” in its first release week last month; Adele’s “25” came out in November 2015 and sold 7.4 million albums by year’s end. Alex Luke, global head of programming and content strategy for Amazon Music, which is emphasizing holiday content such as Smokey Robinson’s new “Christmas Everyday,” said fans were simply consuming more of both holiday and pop music this time of year.

“I think it’s additive,” he said.

John Fleckenstein, executive vice president of RCA Records, home of Sia and Pentatonix, noted that the fourth quarter, which the music industry considers the final three months of the year, was the time of prominent award shows and important TV appearances. The Country Music Association Awards and the American Music Awards, for instance, both take place in November.

“Until those two things start to change, you’ll still see a lot of the big names come out at the end of the year,” he said. Indeed, data from Nielsen Music shows that the top five singles from the last two fourth quarters combined to stream just a little more than the overall holiday-music songs during the same periods. But that difference has been shrinking. And although it does not mean Crosby is about to pull even with Swift on the charts, it does suggest a shift in listener behavior.

“The fourth quarter becomes a lot less important in a streaming world than it is in a physical world,” David Bakula, Nielsen Music’s senior vice president of industry insights, said. “That’s not just because of holiday music — that’s because of the way music is being consumed now.”