The Big Question: Is the influence of 'The X Factor' devaluing the Christmas No 1?

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The Independent Culture

Why are we asking this now?

The identity of the song that tops the charts at Christmas was once a matter of seemingly national concern. From St Winifred's School Choir to Slade and Boney M to Bob the Builder, the artists who can boast this accolade are or were in a special category, love them or hate them. But in recent years much of the interest in this annual entertainment ritual has been dissipated. That's because of the all-conquering ITV talent show The X Factor, which has been the source of the last two Christmas No 1s and is widely expected to achieve a hat-trick in 2007. So foregone a conclusion is it that Ladbrokes are not even taking bets on whether the winner of this year's series will occupy the Yuletide top spot. What is known is that the honour will go either to an albino-looking Welshman (Rhydian Roberts), a double-act with an over-enthusiasm problem (Same Difference) or a cheeky former Gap employee (Leon Jackson).

What about non-X Factor acts?

According to Ladbrokes, when you take the winner of this year's X Factor out of the equation, the next best contender is a duet that's benefited from some technological trickery, bringing together as it does Katie Melua with the late Eva Cassidy with a cover of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". Snapping at their heels is Leona Lewis, winner of last year's X Factor. Lewis is currently No 1 with "Bleeding Love" but is unlikely to still be there come 25 December. A number of old Christmas hits have reappeared in the chart, among them Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (1994), Wham!'s "Last Christmas" (1984) and Wizard's "I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day", which has had three previous Christmas outings, in 1973, 1981 and 1984. There have also been re-releases of Band Aid's 1984 charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and the unofficial Christmas anthem of every shopping mall in the UK, Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody", from 1973.

What do these old hits tell us about the industry?

One could argue that this slough of old hits is an indictment of the current scene. If we can only put out old material, should we be putting out material at all? The talent editor of the music industry trade magazine Music Week, Stuart Clarke, disagrees. "It's just the time of year when people like to see the nostalgic side of things," he says. "You have people at retail outlets who would not ordinarily go to music stores every week. You've got your Christmas shoppers coming out in their droves."

How did the X Factor get to be so influential?

Partly because of the business nous of its founder, Simon Cowell. He is the show's producer, an A&R executive for Sony BMG and one of the show's judges. Winners of X Factor are signed to Sony BMG, which also puts out their debut single.

Cowell started the X Factor format with its predecessor Pop Idol, which was wound up because he wished to own the programme's television rights. Part of the programme's power is the number of mainstream viewers it reaches. This potency is heightened at a time when music programming is dwindling. With its prime-time Saturday night billing, it reaches up to 10 million viewers at peak episodes. "In terms of prime-time platforms you don't get much better," Clarke says.

What kind of sales are needed to reach No 1 at Christmas?

Shayne Ward's "That's My Goal" achieved 732,000 sales to become Christmas No 1 in 2005. Leona Lewis's 2006 debut single, "A Moment Like This", sold 571,000 copies by the time Christmas came round that year, outselling the rest of the Top 40's sales combined; it went platinum with 800,000 earlier this year. When it was released in December last year, it was downloaded 50,000 times within 30 minutes. In comparison, Slade's 1973 classic "Merry Christmas Everybody" had advance orders of 300,000 and went on to sell over a million in the UK.

Was there a golden age of Christmas No 1s?

That depends entirely on how old you are. But the massive sales enjoyed by the biggest Christmas hits of the 1960s and 70s gave them a place in the public consciousness that repeated playings every subsequent Christmas renders them impossible to shift. The charts began in 1952 with Dickie Valentine's "Christmas Alphabet" three years later the first consciously themed Christmas No 1.

In the 1960s the Beatles were at No 1 at Christmas no fewer than four times, though they did not need to bother with specifically Christmas songs ("I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1963, "I Feel Fine" in 1964, "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out" in 1965 and "Hello Goodbye" in 1967). With Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody" in 1973, the Christmas floodgates were open. Cue Johnny Mathis (1976), Boney M (1978), Band Aid (1984). Honourable mentions must go to Wings' "Mull of Kintyre" (1977) and Pink Floyd for "Another Brick in the Wall" two years later. The Spice Girls have the distinction of three successive Christmas No 1s ("2 Become 1" in 1996, "Too Much" in 1997, and "Goodbye" in 1998).

Have there been any Christmas one-hit wonders?

Arguably, 2003's "Mad World", by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules, released off the back of the film Donnie Darko, was the artists' biggest hit in Britain. And who can forget Mr Blobby with his eponymous hit, 10 years earlier?

How does the industry view what's going on?

Some, such as Radio 2 DJs Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie believe that the X Factor show has in effect replaced the practice of A&R executives going out on the road to find talent and foster it. The show, which acts as a talent contest with knock out rounds, bypasses the need to discover talent the talent discovers the record industry. Others are not so sure this is a problem for the industry at large.

Stuart Clarke concludes: "You could argue it both ways. Music is still selling in large numbers. X Factor does have the element that other artists are on there. Michael Bubl performed on Saturday night and his album has jumped into the top five mid-week sales from outside the top 20. For the majority of people, the only time they see music is when it's put in front of them through mainstream media. You only have to look at the number of Christmas songs being released this year the bottom line is, it is not decreasing the amount of product in the marketplace."

Has The X Factor killed the Christmas No 1?

Yes...

* It has such an unfair advantage over the competition that it may discourage artists from releasing their singles at Christmas

* There is no longer much of a race between all of the contenders, which was part of the original appeal

* It may have killed the Christmas No 1, but the world is a better place without "Mr Blobby" (Christmas No 1, 1993)

No...

* As many acts as ever are releasing singles for Christmas even though the odds seem to be stacked against them

* The programme is encouraging people to buy music even if it is not particularly lauded by the critics

* Many other artists piggyback off appearances on the programme to boost their own careers

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