Hilary Duff, Clay Aiken Unwrap The Mysteries Of Holiday CDs

When's the right time to make one? Covers or originals?

"My dream is to do a Christmas album," Jessica Simpson said backstage at a recent holiday festival. "But I gotta have a really big hit album first."

From Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Mariah Carey, that has traditionally been the strategy, but is it still the route to go? Forget about "Do You Hear What I Hear?," the question singers are asking this holiday season is: When exactly is the right time to record a Christmas album?

Hilary Duff certainly feels differently than Simpson. Her hit pop record Metamorphosis came out in August, but the "Lizzie McGuire" star debuted with Santa Claus Lane 10 months earlier.

There really is no clear formula these days. 'NSYNC released Home for Christmas after their first album. Christina Aguilera, Ashanti and 3LW waited until after number two. Destiny's Child released 8 Days of Christmas after their third record.

"I think it takes a while," said Clay Aiken, who contributed to October's American Idol: The Great Holiday Classics but plans to release his own some day. "You gotta make sure people will buy it."

Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé's father and manager of Destiny's Child, agrees. "The timing of putting out a Christmas album is key," he said. "You certainly don't want to put out a Christmas album when you have only sold 600,000 records, for example, but preferably when you have a respectable sales base of 3 million or more."

Or, as 3LW co-manager and Universal Records Vice President of A&R Tse Williams said simply, "The best time to do one is when you're hot."

Maybe so, but try telling that to Neil Diamond. His career was fading when he released The Christmas Album in 1992 and sold some 1.8 million copies, more than triple what 1991's Lovescape sold. Barbra Streisand has revived her career twice with Christmas albums, and certainly Whitney Houston was not capitalizing on being hot when she released One Wish: The Holiday Album in November.

Whether you're striking while the iron is hot or hoping to rekindle the flame, the truth is there is no wrong time to release a Christmas album, which may explain why so many hit the shelves every year.

"Financially, these albums tend to be inexpensive to record and quick to turn around," Williams said. "They're really are no risks at all to the artist."

Christmas albums usually sell a small fraction of the artist's latest studio album — Ashanti's Christmas has sold only 37,000 copies, compared to 1.2 million of her Chapter II — but the potential to strike gold is there. Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas, for instance, has sold more than 4 million copies. Boyz II Men's Christmas Interpretations is almost double-platinum

Worldwide, Destiny's Child have sold more than a million copies of 8 Days of Christmas. And because the album featured originals and reworkings of traditional songs, the group made more from publishing royalties than it would've with a Christmas album of just straight covers.

"And the beauty of a Christmas album is it becomes annuity income for years to come," Knowles said. "It gives you visibility in the marketplace with re-serviced videos and Christmas TV specials where you can promote your Christmas album. The other great revenue streams for Christmas albums are putting some of those songs on other Christmas compilations, as well as licensing to film and TV."

Even mild sellers are almost always money makers. "The marketing spend is low as well," Williams said. "And the label can re-release the same Christmas album for a couple of years in a row."

Duff did just that with Santa Claus Lane, adding one new track, "What Christmas Should Be," a year later; the disc has now sold a solid 206,000 copies. The idea was born in mid-2002, when the actress first considered crossing over into music. Doing a Christmas album was a way to test the waters without spending a lot of time and money writing and purchasing original songs. Plus, "I love Christmastime," Duff said, "and I got to do a lot of cool songs."

That's another thing about Christmas albums — some artists just enjoy the music.

"I'm really into Christmas," said Kelly Clarkson, who wanted to make a Christmas album this year but was so busy that her manager turned her songs in to American Idol: The Great Holiday Classics. "Next year, you'll probably have my own. I'm a Christmas chick."

Ginuwine also got too tied up to record a holiday album in 2003, but he plans to make one soon. "If you're feeling the Christmas spirit, you wanna do a Christmas album and make the people feel good," he said. "I like to write my own songs, so I wanna try to come up with a song that'd be around for years, like 'Silent Night.' "

The R&B crooner also sees a business advantage. "It's just good to have something out," he said.

Anthony Hamilton seconded that, saying, "At least around Christmas time you can count on that check." He checked himself a second later, though, adding, "You can still be considered kinda corny if it don't come out right."

Chuck Comeau, drummer for Simple Plan, who've recorded a Christmas song but have no plans for a whole album, offered another drawback. "There's only so much you can write about Christmas," he said. "After a song or two, you're like, 'All right, that's it. Moving on.' "