When Edison Research did its last national test of holiday music in 2007, nearly half of the best songs–those making up the top sixth of the songs tested–came from 1967 or before. In any other radio genre, time marches on, songs lose their currency, and new listeners age into the target demo and bring a new handful of songs with them. But not holiday music.
Edison has just completed a test of more than 200 women ages 30-49 who like or (in most cases) love hearing Christmas music on the radio. And the era balance of the music has held, essentially. Now 53% of the best-testing songs come from 1968 or before.
The top-testing song, the Andy Williams version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” is from 1963. The newest recording in the top 10, Air Supply’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” is from 1987. The newest holiday hit of any significance that is not a cover, Newsong’s 2000 tear-jerker, “The Christmas Shoes,” just misses the top 100. And developments below the top tier of songs make some of the holiday standards look even stronger by comparison than they were five years ago.
AC radio’s holiday strategy–more emphasis on the standards, earlier start dates to be “first in,” even at the risk of alienating listeners for a few weeks if they’re not really ready for holiday music–takes a little more flak every year, particularly for any AC station that looks vulnerable again after January. Yet, holiday music actually looks as strong as ever in the 2012 research.
That said, there are some familiar holiday songs that have become more polarizing since 2007–showing both higher love and higher burn scores. Those songs tend to be either novelties, songs from the ’60s/’70S pop oldies era , or both. The top tier of songs has proved to be indestructible by time. As in any music test, the second tier of songs wears less well—especially with the additional exposure that has resulted from tighter lists in recent years.
And there is turnover. Only four of the recordings in the top 10 were there five years ago. Six are new, and while they were all proven hits in 2007, one makes the top 10 this year that barely cleared the top 50 last time. Nine of the top 100 recordings did not exist when we did our last test. And while the overall trend is away from “oldies era” acts, there are a few early titles that have gained extra potency since 2007. We’ve also identified a few songs that fit the spirit of the season that AC stations may not have thought to test before that do very well against holiday listeners.
As with the holiday tests Edison has conducted since 2004, listeners are able to differentiate between the versions they like. Some songs sport more playable versions than others, or are multiply represented among the top songs, but there are clearly preferences that haven’t always correlated with the most-played versions of songs. Listeners also know what they don’t like (see The Least-Liked Holiday Songs of 2012, here.)
The increasingly traditional nature of the holiday hits is interesting because it runs counter to what’s happening in music overall — the burgeoning all-ages coalition for newer music in format after format. Increasingly, Top 40 sets the agenda for Mainstream AC for 10-1/2 months of the year. Once AC radio became holiday HQ, Top 40 got out of the holiday business. “Then” wins, in large part, because there is no “now” and little incentive to create or promote new songs against such overwhelming evidence.
That said, if Top 40 is interested in breaking a new holiday song, its chances would be pretty good this year. It’s no accident that two current-day standards, “Last Christmas” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” came in an era of similar all-ages potency for the format. A new song by a CHR core artist (or, like Band-Aid, a passel of them) that could make CHR rotation for two months would probably have a shot. But Adele released a James Bond theme, not “Set Fire To The Reindeer.” (Credit for that joke goes to Billboard Top 40 Update’s Rich Appel.)