When we did our first national test of Christmas music in 2004, we predicted that there would be a proliferation of new Christmas titles in the next three years, as the number of stations going all-holiday music each November and December reached its peak. Sure enough, each fourth-quarter brings a barrage of new holiday music, both from emerging artists and those who would have no other route to contemporary radio. But the old standards of Christmas programming–some of them more than 60 years old–have become more entrenched than ever.
That was one of the findings of Edison Media Research’s 2007 National Christmas Music Test. We tested nearly 600 songs with a national sample of 30-to-49-year-old women who told us they liked or loved hearing Christmas music on the radio. We did not specifically screen for usage of an AC station, but we found that the results paralleled what we had seen before with AC listeners. And the paradigm of the last few years of Christmas programming–a handful of records heavily rotated in a way that recalls the early ’90s era of Oldies radio–has clearly taken hold, with very few newer titles breaking through the glut of new product.
The lessons of 2004, you may recall, were that:
- Despite all the different versions of the holiday standards out there, people had pretty clear preferences as to which versions they liked. And the hits weren’t always the ones getting the most airplay. As with most formats, there was no such thing as a truly “safe list”;
- The new, new-age flavored Christmas music was polarizing;
- While Programming 101 had once taught PDs to save sacred-themed holiday music for the weeks or days nearest the holidays, listeners had no problem with hearing that music throughout the season;
- With very few exceptions, the standard Christmas songs of other formats, whether “Silent Night” by the Temptations or “200 Miles” by the Pretenders, came in toward the bottom of any test of the AC audience. (The only significant exception, then as now, was Country, whose hits were not widely familiar, but had strong scores among those who did know them.)
So what did we see this time?
- Looking at our national sample, there were far fewer universal songs. There was a considerable gap in familiarity between the standards and newer songs. As with last time, there are some newer versions of standards where the combination of familiar voice and familiar song puts a remake within range of the original–but those are the exceptions.
- Whether it’s “Grey’s Anatomy” helping warm up Snow Patrol for AC or holiday music, the impact of TV is undeniable. To run down the top of the page is to see the songs associated with a handful of much repeated Christmas specials that were at the peak of their influence as our audience was growing up: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; “Linus & Lucy”; “Frosty the Snowman”; “The Little Dummer Boy” and even the not-explicitly-holiday-themed “My Favorite Things.”
- The older titles are a lot less susceptible to burn. Newer or more novelty-leaning songs have a tendency to show high burn, even when they also show high preference (e.g., “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” “Santa Baby”). (There were a few of the big songs, such as “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” that showed both big preference and higher burn.) You can probably also look at A&R trends for why the big songs are getting bigger. There are a lot of new Christmas albums every year and most depend heavily on the same standards.
- There are a lot of newer recordings that have been passed from station-to-station over the past few years as the all-Christmas format proliferates. You can almost call them the “turntable hits” of Christmas (although the turntable was long gone before any of them were recorded.) There’s a considerable gap in the scores between those songs and the more entrenched titles. Listeners who love Christmas music tend to know and like them. Listeners who merely like Christmas music are more indifferent.
- Because the standards are so much better entrenched, there’s a decided bias toward older titles. The newest song among the top 10 is “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon, which is now 36 years old. Of the top scoring songs (the first sixth of the test):
48% were from 1967 or before (we tested songs going back as far as 1939)
24% were from 1968 – 1988
14% were from 1989 – 1994
14% were from 1995 to 2007
With all this said, we are now proud to unveil the five most-loved and five most-hated Christmas songs of 2007:
1. Nat King Cole/The Christmas Song
2. Bing Crosby/White Christmas
3. Johnny Mathis/Do You Hear What I Hear
4. Burl Ives/A Holly Jolly Christmas
5. Harry Simeone Chorale/Little Drummer Boy
1. Singing Dogs/Jingle Bells
2. Cartman/O Holy Night
3. Elmo & Patsy/Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (the only one that can be called polarized, not just hated)
4. Jackson 5/Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
5. Barbra Streisand/Jingle Bells