Since the business of Christmas music is growing so fast – it occupies five of the top 10 places on the Billboard Hot 100 this week – we are re-presenting some of our stories from Christmas past. This piece, about Jimmy Iovine’s “Pro tips for producing a hit Christmas album,” originally ran in 2019.
As Christmas music compilations go, only two have stood the test of time: The first, 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, featured songs performed by the “Wall of Sound” producer’s stable of artists, including The Crystals, The Ronettes and Darlene Love. The second, A Very Special Christmas, is the 1987 collection of holiday tunes executive-produced by Jimmy Iovine before he went on to co-found and run Interscope Records; found with Dr. Dre (and then sell for $3 billion) Beats Electronics; and serve as the architect for Apple Music. The album was an extremely personal endeavor for Iovine — a tribute to his father, Vincent “Jimmy” Iovine, who loved Christmas and died in 1985 at the age of 63. In 2014, Iovine told Billboard that making the project “was the purest thing I’ve ever done.”
Stacked with the most popular artists of the time — many who remain popular and relevant to this day, including Madonna, Whitney Houston, Run-D.M.C., Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Sting, John Mellencamp, Chrissie Hynde and U2 — A Very Special Christmas, an A&M Records release, went on to sell some 4.7 million copies (when its RIAA double-platinum certification and post-1991 Luminate numbers are combined). It also spawned nine more volumes — Iovine was only minimally involved in the second — that have raised over $100 million for the Special Olympics.
Given the initial album’s success — the lion’s share of its tracks continue to be holiday season staples on radio and streaming — Billboard Pro asked Iovine for his do’s and don’ts of producing a hit Christmas album. In the process, he talked about some of his all-time favorite Christmas songs and why they will always be part of his holiday-music playlists.
Do Use Top Talent “If you don’t want to make disposable Christmas music, don’t start with disposable artists. You’ve got to work with artists that are going to last,” says Iovine. “When I play Christmas music, I play Spector’s album, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole — the people that will be around forever.”
Don’t Do It for the Money “I made that album from my stomach and my heart. I didn’t give a shit what we did with the money. I just knew we were going to give it away. And no one — not A&M, not a publisher, none of the artists, not me — made a dime from that record. That’s why $100 million has gone to the Special Olympics.”
Do Be Original “If you are doing a Christmas album, you’ve got to come at it in a unique way. If you are going to take on Phil Spector producing Darlene Love singing ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),’ you’ve got to go with a male [singer], because you can’t touch it otherwise.” Hence, U2’s exuberant cover on A Very Special Christmas, which captures the longing of the original without copying it, thanks to Bono’s soaring vocals. Iovine says the song was recorded backstage in Scotland before one of the band’s shows “in a giant room with real echo — ‘our version’” of Spector’s famed Wall of Sound.
Don’t Fear the Corny “Some parts of Christmas are corny — and that’s cool. Over the top is good at Christmastime.”
Do an Album — Even If It’s a Compilation “A Very Special Christmas had a feeling behind it and an idea. There was supposed to be joy and a tug at your heart at the same time. It wasn’t made like, ‘Here’s 10 Christmas songs.’ It was made like one artist’s album.”
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Sequencing “Today no one sequences anything, but when I was making albums, sequencing was almost as important as the songs. A Very Special Christmas is put together like that. The sequencing took forever. I pictured myself at dinner or at a Christmas party, and I would just play a song and ask myself, ‘Am I bored?’ That’s why I opened the album with The Pointer Sisters. They came in and just killed ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.’ And then I went from there. What song comes next is very, very important. What makes a great DJ is he or she gets bored before you do and knows what to play next. That’s what’s missing in a lot of streaming today.”