A New Christmas Hit Under Radio’s Tree

Ibira at cnightFor the last few years, most artists have just given up on the notion of trying to get a new holiday song played at radio. There’s a glut of new holiday albums each year, but even the most contemporary artists go for the old (roasting) chestnuts. Lady Gaga and Rihanna both had new holiday songs at the height of their stardom that went mostly unnoticed. Michael Bublé, who certainly had AC radio’s ear at holiday time, included a new song on his holiday project, but didn’t promote it.

That makes Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath The Tree” a pleasant holiday surprise. It’s getting spins at Mainstream Top 40. It’s the No. 1 current song at AC this week, but it’s also the No. 23 song overall at AC, surrounded by almost nothing from the past 20 years. So how did Clarkson manage her holiday mini-miracle?

Because Clarkson is an artist with CHR and AC support. Clarkson has reached that place in her career where she grapples for a place at Top 40 each time out, but can now pretty much count on being in power at Hot AC and Mainstream AC, as was the case with “Catch My Breath.” But she’s still in CHR’s consideration set, giving her a multi-format opportunity that Bieber or Gaga’s holiday songs didn’t have.

Because AC is a little more aggressive this year. When AC became holiday headquarters more than a decade ago, CHR decided to pull back on the reins, (and the reindeer). AC wasn’t likely to break a new Christmas song that would fit at Top 40. CHR was even less likely to come up with a “Do They Know It’s Christmas”–the type of Christmas song that pushed from holiday rotation to the same rotation as any other hit record. And since labels don’t have much impetus to promote a 3-4 week record, it was almost certain not to happen.

Clarkson’s hit coincides with the somewhat more aggressive, somewhat-closer-to-Top-40 sound of today’s mainstream AC. Cumulus in particular has been playing newer music in heavier rotations on its mainstream ACs — stations that would have been considered Hot AC not that long ago. “Underneath The Tree” is one of several new holiday songs receiving significant spins in Cumulus’ holiday formats, not all of them by established artists.

At the same time, “Underneath The Tree” is a rare example of a holiday song cracking the 100-spin mark at Top 40 more than a week out, although it’s behind this year’s cover of “Last Christmas” (by Ariana Grande, this time) and well behind Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But look for spins to increase in the next few days.

Because “retro” is a core sound. Like “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” virtually the last “original” Christmas song to find a significant place in the Christmas canon nearly 20 years ago, “Underneath The Tree” is yet another throwback to the Phil Spector Christmas Album, released more than 30 years prior to Mariah. The wall-of-sound has been a ready touchstone for “new” holiday songs for multiple artists ever since — it’s how you give an AC holiday station something in its comfort zone.

The difference in recent years is that Top 40 has become significantly retro flavored, too. Sometimes the touchstone is ’70s disco (see Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake this year), but the mix of Motown, Spector, and swingin’ ’60s MOR pop has also been part of top 40’s DNA at least since “Rehab.”

Over the last decade, Edison Research has conducted several highly-publicized tests of holiday music. Here’s “What We Learned From Testing Holiday Music 2012.

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