Remember Hugh Grant’s character Will Freeman in the 2002 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy? A wealthy and shallow bachelor in his late 30s, Freeman lives in a plush apartment, habitually dates women and browses the shelves of HMV (remember doing that?) in the daytime – free from the burden of having to go to work and actually earn a living every day.
And how does he afford to live such a life of luxury? It’s all because his dad penned a famous Christmas hit in the ‘50s, and its rolling snowball of royalties ensures that Hugh – sorry, Will – can live comfortably without ever having to lift a finger.
This backstory draws largely from reality, with many of the musicians whose hits soundtrack our Christmastime shenanigans every year being set for life off the back of one song. How else can the likes of Noddy Holder, Jona Lewie and Shakin’ Stevens be able to afford to add another extension onto their princely mansions without first receiving their annual festive pay packet?
The real questions we want to ask, though, are: how much dough is actually being earned by these artists at this most wonderful time of year? Who has to share the pot with songwriters, labels and hangers-on? And who got screwed over by the vampires of the music industry? Join us, won’t you, as we dash through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh to shine a light on music’s real-life Will Freemans.
Slade – ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ (1973)
Noddy Holder’s Christmas money-maker earns the Black Countryman a hell of a lot of pennies each and every year. The Performing Right Society estimated in 2013 that the Slade single generates £512,000 a year – with a sizable portion of that going to Holder’s co-songwriter Jim Lea, who wrote ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’’s chorus – while a Daily Mail article from 2016 claimed that the figure is actually now closer to one million quid a year.
Holder has referred to the 1973 Christmas Number One as his “nice pension plan” (which gives added poignancy to the lyric: “Look to the future now / It’s only just begun”). Puts the £20 you stow away each month in the slim hope that you’ll ever be able to afford a house deposit to shame, doesn’t it?
Jona Lewie – ‘Stop The Cavalry’ (1980)
An unlikely Christmas hit due to its anti-war theme – Lewie himself has expressed some bemusement with its festive appropriation – ‘Stop The Cavalry’ has gone on to become a staple sound of Christmas morning: think where we’d be without its triumphant brass section or that wistful “wish I was at home for Christmas” line. According to the Mail, Lewie’s hit garners over £120,000 a year – which the 75-year-old rakes in all for himself, since he wrote the lyrics, melody and backing instrumentation.
“‘Stop The Cavalry’ constitutes 50 per cent of my real income,” he once explained. “The thing is, I do everything on the track. I write the lyrics and the melody, so that’s all of the publishing. And because I’m a musician I can do all the backing track, so that’s all the recording royalty. I was a one-man show. And if you can get a track associated with Christmas, you get annual regurgitation, and potential for earning every year.”
Boney M – ‘Mary’s Boy Child – Oh My Lord’ (1978)
The royalties generated from the UK’s biggest-selling non-charity Christmas single (Wings’ cover of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ just isn’t a Yuletide song, sorry) should have ensured that its creators never needed to work again. But, in an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Boney M singer Liz Mitchell revealed that they’d been screwed over by a nasty circle of Grinch-type figures in the music industry.
“If I was to spend time working out what the record company got – and those in that team of people around us – I would lose my mind,” she fumed, before going on to estimate that each member of the quartet has only been entitled to “maybe a seventh of one per cent” of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’’s million-plus sales. Ouch.
Shakin’ Stevens – ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ (1985)
The Welshman born Michael Barratt makes a tidy sum every December thanks to his chirpy seasonal hit ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ (wonder what it’s about?). While the singer pockets the windfall from the song’s many, many radio plays (£5,000 to £10,000), much of the estimated £130,000-worth of annual royalties actually goes to the writer of the song, Bob Heatlie.
“Not blowing my own trumpet, but it’s the perfect Christmas song,” Stevens told NME in 2020. “It’s got everything there: the bells, uplifting tempo, lyrics. Prince William and Kate Middleton recently requested that I play it for them while they were doing their royal duties, as it’s one of their favourite Christmas songs. They were down-to-earth like me, and it was a pleasure to meet them.”
Wham! – ‘Last Christmas’ (1984)
Following the sad passing of George Michael on Christmas Day 2016, sales of Wham!‘s ‘Last Christmas’ significantly increased on the Official Charts Company’s (OCC) previous estimate of 1.78 million copies sold. The Telegraph previously suggested in 2015 that royalties from the track could be worth up to £470,000 a year.
Wham!’s festive hit originally lost out to Band Aid in the race for Christmas Number One back in 1984, but it finally reached the top spot in January 2021 after racking up 9.2 million streams in a week. Celebrating its success 36 years on from its initial release – a UK chart record – Wham!’s Andrew Ridgeley wrote on Twitter: “I am delighted, somewhat amazed & profoundly pleased that WHAM!’s iconic Christmas classic ‘Last Christmas’ has finally achieved the accolade of becoming a No 1. It’s a fitting tribute to George’s songwriting genius and one of which he would’ve been immensely proud & utterly thrilled.”
Mariah Carey – ‘All I Want For Christmas’ (1994)
Mariah Carey’s thumping take on Christmas – which, rather interestingly for the time, was written and recorded entirely on co-songwriter Walter Afanasieff’s computer – has enjoyed huge success across the world, with one figure quoting the song’s royalties at being an eye-watering $60 million (£48.4 million). In 2015, the Daily Mail estimated that Carey is making £376,000 from ‘All I Want For Christmas’ per year, while the track finally topped the US and UK charts in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
The track has also found a special kind of popularity in Japan, where it’s twice gone Platinum – Carey has even been known to perform it in the country in the middle of July.
The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl – ‘Fairytale Of New York’ (1987)
Apparently, this song came about as a result of a bet with Elvis Costello that The Pogues couldn’t write a Christmas song “that wouldn’t be slushy”. Well, the band only went and emphatically won that bet, creating one of the finest seasonal pop songs of modern times in the process.
Shane MacGowan and the late, great Kirsty MacColl’s back and forth is still as timeless as ever, and it’s no wonder that people continue to revisit ‘Fairytale Of New York’ every December: the OCC estimates that it’s been bought well over 1.2 million times. How does that translate into cold, hard cash? Well, a 2016 estimate from The Mail reckoned it generates around £400,000 a year – not a bad outcome from that original bet, eh?