Imagine a land where it’s never cold but Christmas celebrations, and the holiday music associated with them, last for months. Such is life in the Philippines, where Christmas songs are played from Sept. 1 through the holiday itself, generating good cheer — and royalties for rightsholders — for almost a full third of the year.
The global pattern of Christmas music consumption is that countries with colder weather start listening to it earlier, which generally translates into more streams, according to internal data from a major label shared with Billboard. The Philippines is the giant exception.
The country, which has a population of 109 million — a bit less than a third that of the U.S. — was the sixth biggest market for holiday music for Spotify in 2021, according to the company, after the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Canada and Sweden. (This data is skewed by the popularity of Spotify itself in various markets, and it and YouTube are the dominant platforms in the Philippines.) It’s also Sony’s sixth biggest market for streaming holiday catalog music, according to that company. In general, the Philippines is the 32nd-biggest market for recorded music revenue, according to the trade organization International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
One reason for the popularity of Christmas music in the Philippines is that it’s a predominantly Roman Catholic country — the only one in Asia — because it was ruled Spain from the 16th century to the end of the 19th century. Later U.S. rule brought English and an immersion in American pop culture. One popular saying has it that the country spent “300 years in a convent, 50 years in Hollywood.”
The Christmas season traditionally starts in what Filipinos call the “ber” months — SeptemBER, OctoberBER and so on — when the weather turns a bit cooler and workers look forward to a bonus 13th month of pay.
“There’s a stereotype that we can all sing, and we have a very communal culture,” says Victoria Maria Malong, Warner Music Philippines’ marketing & audience engagement director, domestic. “So we have lots of Christmas parties, with lots of food and singing — sometimes drunken singing.”
The big Christmas hits in the Philippines are mostly the songs you would expect — there’s a lot of “lean-back listening,” driven by playlists, according to Sony. “In terms of Christmas songs, it’s mostly the same around the world,” says Enzo Valdez, managing director of UMG Philippines Inc. (Universal Music Group’s business there goes by that name, since there’s an independent label Universal Records in the country.)
There’s one major exception, in the form of Jose Mari Chan, a performer, songwriter, and businessman known as the King of Philippine Christmas Carols. Although music isn’t his main job — he also runs a sugar company owned by his family — Chan is one of the country’s iconic singers, who is known for holiday songs like “A Perfect Christmas” and especially “Christmas in Our Hearts.” His biggest Christmas album, Christmas in Our Hearts, came out on Universal Records — the local company — but is now distributed by Ingrooves, which is owned by Universal Music.
As the dominance of streaming drives Christmas recordings to the top of the charts every year in the Philippines, just as it does in the U.S., Chan has become an online harbinger of the season, albeit one that appears earlier than Mariah Carey. Memes of Chan peeking through an opening door start to appear around Sept. 1, and he has capitalized on this success. In a country where tours of malls are part of promotion and endorsements are an important revenue stream, Chan has signed a deal with Uniqlo that has him singing the chain’s Christmas jingle, and appearing at events.
Playlist promotion works much the same as in other markets, and preparation for holiday music marketing starts in the summer. Sony Music has a Christmas music team with a core of eight to 10 executives that expands to about 30 internationally. “It’s international music and some of ours,” Malong says, “so it’s Mariah Cary and Jose Mari Chan and our challenge is to put [Warner Music Group artist] Michael Bublé into the conversation.”
Emerging local artists want to be part of that, too, and “we also have a lot of younger acts who are making new Christmas songs,” Valdez says. The duo Ben and Ben collaborated with Chan, and the young singer Juan Karlos has a new song, “Maligayang Pasko” (Merry Christmas in Tagalog, a dominant language), which came out November 10. Now, Valdez says, “Karlos plans to do a full Christmas album next year.”
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