Remember Hugh Grant’s character in the 2002 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy? A wealthy and shallow bachelor in his late 30s whose life appears to be perennially soundtracked by Badly Drawn Boy’s dreary tones, Will Freeman lives in a plush apartment, habitually dating women and browsing the shelves of HMV in the daytime, free from the burden of having to go to work every day.
And how does he afford to live such a life of luxury? It’s all owed to his dad penning a famous Christmas hit in the ‘50s; its rolling snowball of royalties ensuring that Hugh – sorry, Will – can live comfortably without ever having to lift a finger.
The backstory draws largely from reality, with many of the musicians whose hits soundtrack our Christmastime shenanigans 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 to house their vast, vast Fabergé egg collections?
The real question is this: 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 to shine a light on music’s real-life Will Freemans.
Slade – ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ (1973)
Noddy Holder’s handsome money-maker earns the Black Countryman a hell of a lot of money – like, a sickeningly-high amount. 2013 figures estimated that the single, which has sold over 1.2 million copies and is, according to the Performing Right Society, the most heard song in the world, earns Slade (including the much-forgotten songwriter Jim Lea, who wrote ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’’s chorus) £512,000 a year. A year! According to Daily Mail stats from 2015, meanwhile, that figure hasn’t dipped, sitting at £500,000.
The 1973 Christmas Number One has since been referred to by Holder as his “pension scheme” (which gives added poignancy to the lyric “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun”). Puts the £20 a month you stow away for later life to shame, doesn’t it?
Jona Lewie – ‘Stop The Cavalry’ (1980)
An unlikely Christmas smash 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 seasonally without that triumphant brass section, or that wistful “wish I was at home for Christmas” line.
According to the Mail, Lewie’s hit makes him just over £120,000 a year, which the 69-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 says. “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 (Paul McCartney’s – or, rather, Wings’ – cover of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ just isn’t a Yuletide song) should have ensured that its creators never needed to work again. But, in an interview with The Guardian in 2011, the group’s 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 later went on to estimate that each member of the quartet has been entitled to “maybe a seventh of 1%” of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’’s 1.19 million sales. Ouch.
Shakin’ Stevens – ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ (1985)
Michael Barratt makes a tidy sum every December thanks to his chirpy seasonal hit ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. Barratt, as you might have guessed, is the birth name of one Shakin’ Stevens, whose star might have fallen long ago were it not for this perennial song.
Whilst the singer pockets the windfall from the song’s radio plays (£5,000 to £10,000), much of the estimated £130,000-worth of royalties goes to the song’s writer, Bob Heatlie.
Wham! – ‘Last Christmas’ (1984)
Following the sad passing of George Michael on Christmas Day 2016, sales of Wham!‘s ‘Last Christmas’ are set to significantly increase on the Official Charts Company’s (OCC) previous estimate of 1.78 million copies sold as fans honour the late pop legend. In previous years, the estimated total royalties for the song came in at £300,000 per year (via The Mail).
Wham!’s hit lost out to Band Aid in the race for Christmas Number One back in 1984 – but it is tipped to top the charts in 2017.
Mariah Carey – ‘All I Want For Christmas’ (1994)
Despite only just passing a million sales in the UK, Mariah’s thumping take on Christmas – which, rather interestingly, was made entirely on co-songwriter Walter Afanasieff’s computer – has enjoyed huge success across the world, with one figure quoting the song’s royalties at $50million. In 2015 the Daily Mail estimated she was making £376,000 from it per year.
‘All I Want For Christmas’ has found a special kind of popularity in Japan, where it’s twice gone platinum – Carey has even been known to perform it over there 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 Irish band only went and won that bet, creating one of the finest seasonal pop songs of modern times in the process.
Shane McGowan and MacColl’s back and forth is still as timeless as ever, and it’s no wonder that people continue to snap up ‘Fairytale of New York’ every December: the OCC estimates that it’s been bought 1.18 million times. It certainly earns McGowan enough to be able to afford a much-needed new set of dentures, anyway – £386,000 a year, according to those 2013 figures, and £400,000 according to the Mail‘s ones from 2015.