by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
With holiday music having become such a significant force at AC radio every year, Edison Media Research decided to do some major all-Christmas music testing last fall. For us, the need seemed pretty obvious. AC stations that rely so much on music testing during the year turn the airwaves over to artists they wouldn’t usually play and pound songs in rotations that they wouldn’t usually consider. It made sense that programmers would want to know what the hits were.
No matter how many monitors you’ve looked at, if you haven’t done your own testing, you don’t have a completely safe list.
The tests differed from some of the other research that has been conducted on holiday music. For one thing, we tested 550-650 different holiday songs. Most of the other tests had been a much smaller number of songs, done in conjunction with a station’s regular fall test. We also specifically screened for 30-to-49-year-old women who listened to Christmas music on the radio during holiday season.
Here’s what we found:
After several years of doing the all-Christmas format, there probably aren’t many programmers who still think all holiday music is created equal. Nobody would expect to see the Singing Dogs at the top of the page (except for “hate”), but even the notion that “safe song” + “safe artist” = “playable” often does not hold up. There are very few standards where every version is golden. In most cases, we saw pretty clear preferences. People knew what they liked, even after hearing 10 different versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” And while a few soundalike versions of Christmas standards—newer artists doing note-for-note arrangements of the hits—tested playable, those were the exceptions.
To that end, no matter how many monitors you’ve looked at, if you haven’t done your own testing, you don’t have a completely safe list. Some of the previous tests that have been done for Christmas music are now floating around, and it’s easy enough to figure out from monitored airplay what other PDs think the hits are. But we found at least a handful of surprisingly potent songs that didn’t appear to have been tested elsewhere. More important, we’d found that some PDs had decided to go with representative versions of a Christmas standard that were playable, but not definitive. And at a time when PDs have a harder-than-usual time not burning songs out, the second-or third-best version of a song probably doesn’t have the same staying power as the first.
If 2004 was any indication, programmers can count on being deluged with new Christmas music in subsequent fourth-quarters. With AC shutting down for 6-8 weeks a year, releasing new Christmas product has often become not just a reliable way to put a veteran artist back on AC radio, but often the only way to make sure any artist is on AC radio during a peak sales time. While a few recent songs have gained traction, Newsong’s “The Christmas Shoes” and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas” among them, it still takes the better part of a decade for songs to get traction with the audience. (And having listened to Christmas music as a civilian in the past, I often found during the course of this test that songs I thought were relatively recent were actually a decade old.)
Likewise, there’s been a lot of new instrumental music produced for AC radio, following the sales success of Mannheim Steamroller, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and others. With a sample whose tastes skewed slightly older, the new age Christmas music did okay. On tests that went a little younger, the playable songs from instrumental artists went down to a handful. You could almost think of the instrumental artists as the Christmas equivalent of the Dave Matthews Band. They’re incredibly prolific with passionate fans that will buy a new album every year, but not everything they do is a radio hit.
As for older instrumental music, it barely did better than novelty songs. AC PDs have learned to live with the annual return of Andy Williams and Burl Ives from their usual home in Adult Standards. With one or two prominent exceptions, that didn’t translate to ‘50s/’60s instrumentalists or choirs.
AC programmers should be looking a lot more carefully at the Christmas music their Country competitors play. It’s the time of year that women who love Country and think AC is OK are likely to come back. And over the last few years, they’ve learned a lot of songs from Country. It doesn’t mean AC stations should go out-of-image to play, say, “Christmas Cookies” by George Strait. But we saw that the combination of a familiar song and a familiar Country voice was very potent.
On the other hand, it’s very distressing for me that most of the Christmas music I played as an R&B Oldies programmer (and grew up with on Top 40 radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s) is barely heard on the all-Christmas stations. After seeing the research, only “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway seems to have achieved standard status with the AC listener. “Silent Night” by the Temptations, the most powerful R&B Christmas oldie of all time, was near the bottom of the AC tests we did, although other more straightforward covers by R&B artists did well. Then again, since AC’s once standard Jeffrey Osborne/Patti Austin & James Ingram/George Benson sound has often been ceded to Smooth Jazz, it’s disappointing, but not entirely surprising.
Over the years, a programming maxim developed that it was better to save the Christmas music with a religious context until the end—a rule that made more sense when programmers were starting with two Christmas songs an hour, instead of 12. That truism seems to have broken down, if only out of programming necessity—people needed songs like “Oh, Holy Night” early on, just so they’d have something to schedule. In any event, the average scores for sacred and secular songs were pretty similar. In both groups, there were songs that listeners clearly liked and did not like.
By and large, it felt like stations did a somewhat better job with all-Christmas this year. Last year, the format often came across as a surprisingly sterile music machine that managed to preserve little of what was special about a given station during the other 12 months (including the “no repeat” image that so many stations work so hard on). But in terms of hearing Christmas as the ultimate special weekend—with the same sort of between-the-records content that you’d put in to a special weekend—there’s still a lot of upside left.
Here are the top 5 most-loved songs as tested with women 30-49 around the country just before the Christmas radio glut began:
1. Nat King Cole/The Christmas Song
2. Burl Ives/A Holly Jolly Christmas
3. Celine Dion/O Holy Night
4. Bobby Helms/Jingle Bell Rock
5. John Lennon/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Of course, not all Christmas music fared as well. Here are the bottom five, as selected by the same national survey:
1. Cartman/”O Holy Night”
2. See More Swine & Squeelers/Blue Christmas”
3. Barbra Streisand/”Jingle Bells”
4. Haya Doin’ Boys/”12 Days Of Guido Christmas”
5. Singing Dogs/”Jingle Bells”
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.