What We Learned From Testing Christmas Music In 2007

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

25 replies
  1. Ed Osborne
    Ed Osborne says:

    Hi Sean,
    Another fascinating article! After years in radio, I spent 15 years at BMG Special Products during which I programmed many Christmas-themed CDs for clients. Again and again potential clients rejected newer tracks (no matter how good they were)in favor of the standards.
    This didn’t surprise me too much since many contemporary holiday tracks are simply pop productions with seasonal lyrics. They don’t “sound” like Christams songs nor do they evoke the feelings one associates with the season. It’s very difficult to create a truly great holiday record. One can’t simply throw in a few “mistletoe” and “Christmas tree” references and succeed.
    As a side note: I’ve spent quite a few hours this week listening to a local major market all-Christmas station and have found it to be a relatively joyless experience. Kelly Clarkson caterwauling her way through “O Holy Night” just doesn’t compare to the most-loved standards. Emotion trumps technique every time.

  2. Effie Rolfe
    Effie Rolfe says:

    Hey Sean…Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” is a classic. I’m surprise it was not included in your findings. Keep up the great works….
    Happy Holidays

  3. Randy Sherwyn
    Randy Sherwyn says:

    Re: Don Hallett. If the “barfing cats” are happening in Vegas, let’s us hope it “stays in Vegas”! :>) Personally I like the “I farted on Santa’s Lap, and now Christmas is gonna stink this year”.

  4. steve warren
    steve warren says:

    Country is a considerable exception to many of the findings, i expect. hard to compare apples/oranges, as we’re not playing bing, nat, burl, etc. no matter what they’re singing, our top stars are instantly familiar….and when chesney or toby or strait or, (this year) sugarland sings a standard, it appears to get an instant positive reception. i’ve always hit with a high mix of Xmas every hour (3-4 songs) beginning thanksgiving day, using a tight Power rotation of about 30 to 40 records…some standards by our stars and some new ones, also by our stars. always saw big phone response and back when i watched such things, the weeklies for the first two weeks of december always showed a spike. the good thing about my format is that the “new” stuff generally sounds much like our current hit singles. in the 80s, the Judds xmas songs sounded very much like the Judds hits. today, i’m playing new Xmas songs by toby keith, chesney, taylor swift…and, good for us, these songs sound like they could be Hits on their own, even without the xmas factor of their lyrics.

  5. Kenny Shelton
    Kenny Shelton says:

    I appreciate the research. Our country format is full of covers of all the classics. I have Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swifts new Christmas songs in regualr rotation. This year I am also playing Bing, Burl and Nat King Cole. I think these recognizable Christmas classics work in our format.

  6. chris
    chris says:

    I guess im not in the focus group sample range. I turn off any stations that play holiday music before mid-December at home or in my car. Soon it will be the 12 months of Christmas.
    Too many of the new songs are played because who is singing it, not if it is good or has any originality, and a stations that plays on many radios in my office plays many songs at almost the same time everyday (or so it seems).

  7. Richard Pegue
    Richard Pegue says:

    Great findings think alike
    Heritage is holy for Christmas. There are worlds of difference by ethnic group…But NAT is CHICAGO everywhere YEAH. Congrads on the comment in Feder.
    Merry Happy
    ps Effie KNOWS !!!

  8. Gary Reynolds
    Gary Reynolds says:

    After having been PD at all-Christmas formats for the better part of the last 10 years, it amazes me how usually good programmers seem to throw out the rules when it comes to programming Christmas music.
    All of these findings that Sean is talking about are exactly what I’ve seen…over and over again.
    BTW, I’ve never seen a good score in AC, Oldies, Soft AC or anywhere on 2 of the top-played songs: “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John and “Celebrate Me Home” by Kenny Loggins.

  9. P Kowtiuk
    P Kowtiuk says:

    I’m not in the radio biz, and I won’t even sample a 24-hr Christmas station…they dilute the spirit of the season for me…but here’s my favourite five:
    1. Jingle Bells – Singing Dogs
    2. Merry Christmas All – Salsoul Orchestra
    3. Mary’s Boy Child – Boney M
    4. Sleigh Ride – Ronettes
    5. Pretty Paper – Roy Orbison
    You can see the heavy influence of CKLW during my formative years…LOL. P.S., I just wanted to add that I always look forward to reading your articles. Nice job. Paul.

  10. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    This Year, It’s Singing Dogs By A Nose

    If you haven’t yet seen this week’s Ross On Radio, it’s the recap of our 2007 National Christmas Music Test. See the five most-loved and most-hated songs (the Singing Dogs nudge out the South Park/Cartman version of “O Holy Night”…

  11. Mikey Nelson
    Mikey Nelson says:

    Gary Reynolds: Couldn’t have said it better.
    Maybe it’s because Christmas music is a mystery to PDs. The best thing a programmer can do is take three callout surveys (it’s the slowest time of the year anyway), test 30 Christmas songs per survey, find those Christmas songs that test highest locally, and play them.
    And for the record, I agree with you on Kenny Loggins “Celebrate Me Home.” May I add one to the list? Dan Fogelberg “Same Old Lang Syne.” I know, I know… blasphemy :)

  12. Greg Williams
    Greg Williams says:

    In exposing new Christmas music, could presentation play a role? Everything is so ingrained in our music DNA, we accept the classics (and start singing along on the first note). On stations NOT “All Xmas-All the Time”, a creative stager or sweeper might prime the pump of acceptance. Kind of a “Here, try this…”.

  13. Don Beno
    Don Beno says:

    I’ve always programmed “the hits” whether it’s AC, CHR, AOR, etc. When I program Christmas 24/7. I pound the hits. About 90 titles, with another 50 in spice. My ratings were ALWAYS #1. The top ten rotated 2 1/2 – 3 hours. You think that is hot? Darren Davis was pounding 3 songs every 90 minutes!

  14. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    One major problem with an all-Christmas format, at least to me, is the potential for listener burnout.
    Sure, you could assemble a library of 700 to 1,000 (or even more) Christmas selections.
    But that library may have no more than about 45 different songs, with numerous versions of each song.
    I would expect that in the years ahead, many more efforts will be made for top artists to record original Christmas songs (whether such artists write these songs themselves or not), in part to help keep listeners tuned-in to all-Christmas radio stations.
    But your survey suggests that it may be an uphill battle.

  15. Mike McDowell
    Mike McDowell says:

    If indeed the phrase familiarity breeds contempt has any validity, then I would definitely reconsider the king of overkill Christmas records, that Nat King Cole track. Seems like Bobby Helms’ monster hit or the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “O Holy Night” would make a great substitute.

  16. T. Edward Bensen
    T. Edward Bensen says:

    Just curious: If your music test started with songs from 1939, does that mean you left out Leroy Anderson’s original Boston Pops recording of Sleigh Ride? It was recorded in 1937 and is pretty much the definitive version.

  17. The Original Larry
    The Original Larry says:

    I judge some of my own Christmas music ideas (not on my OWN personal preferences, but those who actually care about Christmas music and these days many people do.) My guesstimate confirms many of the Edison Research findings, that most people DO like the very traditional recordings, such as “White Christmas” Bing Crosby, “The Christmas Song” Nat King Cole and “The Little Drummer Boy” Harry Simone Chorale, etc.
    I believe what ALWAYS works is the traditionals sung before 1967, Because they have been passed down for so long, and these songs have ALWAYS been passed down over the years, so that’s how we ALL know them. They are family heirlooms in most cases (I still have my copy of the ’60s released Decca label Mono version of the “Merry Christmas with Bing Crosby” LP after all these years. And I still play it every year that was passed down from my Grandma after all these years. ANd I STILL play it. And it STILL sounds GOOD-even after all these years.) It is still a tradition with my own kids and because of it, THEY are now FASCINATED with vinyl records.
    Which to tell you the truth, vinyl wasn’t all that bad-or OBSOLETE anyway….
    Merry Christmas!,
    The Original Larry

  18. Gregg Colamonico
    Gregg Colamonico says:

    Can I ask programmers at AC stations playing Christmas music… PLEASE don’t play downer Christmas songs!
    The season is all about happiness, excitement, joy and good memories. So please, no songs about mommy dying and needing new shoes to meet Jesus! And no songs about bumping into an old girlfriend and drinking a beer in her car and her not happy with her marriage and me leading a dysfunctional life.
    It sounds like I’m joking but I really am not. Even if those songs get a great call-out response or your listeners phone in to request them, I think downer Xmas songs hurt more than help. (And by the way, even though I don’t want to hear Same Old Lang Zine, I really like Dan Fogelburg. But I think that song makes no sense on two counts… the downer factor AND some stations play it the rest of the year anyway.)
    I also can’t figure out why WLTW, my local Christmas music station, fails to play three of my faves… Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer, Dominic The Donkey and Mamacita, Donde Es Santa Claus by Little Augie Rios. Maybe they all lean too novelty, although with our high Italian and Hispanic populations, I’m sure exceptions can be made on the latter two.
    WLTW also plays the Sinatra and Elvis Christmas CDs in VERY slow rotation. Again, in NYC, shouldn’t Sinatra’s version of Jingle Bells and his Christmas Waltz be heard with regularity? And how about his duet with Bing on “I Wish You The Merriest”? I also think Steve & Edie’s “Happy Holidays” should get the same pass that Harry Simeone, Gene Autry and Andy Williams get, despite their Adult Standards sound. We all heard Steve & Edie play on our parents’ radio stations and record players.
    Just my two cents. Merry Christmas!

  19. Jimi Bruce
    Jimi Bruce says:

    Greetings Sean.
    Great to hear Nat and my main man Johnny Mathis still runnin’ strong through the snow!
    My #6 on the “loved” list is the old classic from the Salsoul Orchestra “Christmas Time” I have a clean copy if anyone needs a dub.

  20. Gary Theroux
    Gary Theroux says:

    There are essentially three kinds of Christmas records: carols (religious numbers, such as “O Holy Night” or “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”), Santa songs (fantasy tracks like “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”) and sentimental songs (“White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”). All three are needed to comprise a complete musical portrait of the season. Your research underscores what I have understood for decades as a radio and CD box set programmer: the older, more Christmasy classics usually outpoint newer, seemingly less heartfelt remakes. As a radio programmer, you should know the hits and play them, even if they are from before your time. (And keep in mind that some Christmas classics never actually charted, like the Mathis track.) I’ve assembled and sold millions of Christmas CD box sets and my own reserach and sales figures bolster your findings. I’d love to see your complete list and am surprised that it apparently omits some key Yuletide million-sellers, like “The Chipmunk Song” and The Boston Pops’ “Sleigh Ride.” The latter track, by the way, first charted in 1949 as RCA Victor single 78-1484. Composer Leroy Anderson’s version (Decca 16000) was released in 1950 and is also excellent, but did not chart.


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