When Edison Research published a recent list of this year's least-liked holiday songs, there were a lot of questions, especially from people outside the radio business who hadn't seen other, similar research over the last decade.
Edison, where I am VP of music and programming, has just completed its fourth major test of holiday music. The respondents were the 30-49-year-old women who like or love hearing Christmas music on the radio. Much of the information is proprietary to clients, but readers were as galvanized by the available results as the survey's respondents, just not always in the same way.
Readers understood why "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs was the least-liked Christmas song of the year. They weren't surprised by "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" or Barbra Streisand's heavily stylized reading of "Jingle Bells" among the bottom 10. But why was the Beach Boys' seemingly innocuous "The Man With All The Toys" at No. 2? Why wasn't Newsong's tear-jerking "The Christmas Shoes" on the list?
Having worked with radio and seen how the radio industry programs holiday music for nearly a decade, these are some of my observations on what you hear on the radio during the holiday season.
Why Is Holiday Music On The Radio So Soft & Traditional? More than a decade ago, when the Adult Contemporary station in your market began playing Christmas music for 4-6 weeks every year, AC became the format that set the agenda for holiday music on the radio. When that happened, a lot of the standard-bearers from other formats stopped getting as much airplay, whether it was the Temptations' "Silent Night" or Billy Squier's "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You."
Why Are There So Few New Holiday Songs That Take Hold? If you've listened to holiday music on the radio in recent years, you've noticed that there are few recently written songs and a lot of classics, often dating back to the 1940s. New offerings from contemporary artists tend to be new versions of the standards. Again, it's a function of AC radio's influence. When AC became holiday HQ, much of the new holiday music was geared toward what would fit there.
There have been new holiday songs from top 40 acts in recent years, from Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Justin Bieber, but top 40 is no longer the gatekeeper for holiday music. Besides, labels don't actively promote those songs to top 40 and they typically get only a handful of spins over a 2-3 week period. Top 40's influence on other formats this year is huge. Top 40 could probably break the right superstar holiday single this year, but they would have to treat it like any other hot song, starting from about now.
Labels are more likely to approach AC with a new recording of an old standard--that's what program directors seem to want. That's why each year's holiday albums contain yet another version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" or "Baby, It's Cold Outside" or "Last Christmas," and Rod Stewart just topped Billboard's AC chart with "Let It Snow." But even if AC decided to throw its weight behind a new holiday song, six weeks is not a long time to establish a song against a field of familiar favorites.
How Could Anybody Like "The Christmas Shoes"? "The Christmas Shoes" is hardly a personal favorite. There was even a much better novelty tear-jerker with the same gimmick nearly 25 years earlier. But unlike other new songs, it has managed to cut through, perhaps due to its story-song aspect. And certain other holiday-related tear-jerkers have traditionally done well. There's no attempt in holiday music testing to recruit "Christian bible-thumpers," as one commenter alleged. But it is traditional AC listeners who get to vote and they aren't so cynical about "The Christmas Shoes."
How Could Anybody Dislike The Beach Boys? It would be simple to say that time marches on. Monitored airplay information from Nielsen BDS routinely shows fewer '60s songs that make the cut these days, even at the oldies format. Even with their recent brief reunion, the Beach Boys don't have the radio footprint they once did. "Good Vibrations" may last forever, but you probably haven't heard "Sloop John B" on the radio as recently as you might think. Regrettably, I understand how "The Man With All The Toys" might seem mannered now, or like a trifle, especially to listeners who didn't grow up with it.
The admitted contradiction here is that holiday music fans seem to have no such problem with Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Burl Ives, or any number of other long-exiled crooners from the same era. Oddly enough, the cachet of '60s Middle-of-the-Road music (as it was then called) has improved in recent years. From Amy Winehouse on, the new artists making throwback records seem to be drawing just as on the punchy, horn-driven, boss MOR sound of the '60s as the Phil Spector Holiday Album '60s. (Besides, some of the same studio musicians were responsible for both.)
One answer about the enduring nature of '60s MOR holiday music is TV, especially some of the holiday specials that have made "A Holly Jolly Christmas" for multiple generations of listeners. In that regard, TV is doing the same thing it does for new music now, helping clear a path to radio for a handful of select titles. In the same way, it will probably not be long before we see a holiday song start virally; there will be "A Gangnam Style Christmas," if not this year, then in the very near future.
Sean Ross is VP of music and programming at Edison Research and writes the " Ross On Radio" column that appears in Billboard Top 40 Update and on Billboard.biz. ( Head here to receive the Billboard Top 40 Update, including "Ross on Radio," via email every Monday.)