As Mariah Carey’s holiday classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” assumed its position on the Billboard Hot 100 in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25, reaching its highest-ever spot at No. 6, some more unusual chart activity was also taking place. Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Dean Martin’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” both released in the 1940s, debuted on the Hot 100 for the first time this year. In fact, a slew of decades-old festive favorites, including Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” from 1965, and Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” from 1957, hit new highs on the Billboard charts in 2018.
These resurrections are not a Christmas miracle, but the result of more homes with families requesting to hear songs about the most wonderful time of year via voice-activated virtual assistants by companies like Amazon and Google — and the increased adoption of Amazon Music Unlimited, which debuted in October 2016 and has been gaining steam over the past year-plus. In April, Amazon Music vp Steve Boom told Billboard that its number of paid subscribers more than doubled over the prior six month period, to “tens of millions,” with a demographic that encompasses the tech-illiterate and listening in the home, and has been spurred this season by dedicated holiday playlist curation by Amazon Music’s team of programmers.
“Holiday music, more so than any other genre, is a shared listening experience at this time of year and that alignment is really tight, and it’s driving a lot of Christmas listening,” says Alex Luke, director of global content programming for Amazon Music. “We’ve seen it grow as voice has grown, as Echo and Alexa have grown.”
Amazon Music’s marketing and editorial pushes have paid off. “We’ve had holiday growth at our music service from a customer perspective, and what you’re seeing, especially with this holiday season, is that combined with the strength that we have with all our music,” says Amazon Music director Ryan Redington. Its Holiday Favorites station is on track to deliver more than a billion streams this year, and total global music plays since Thanksgiving week have nearly doubled compared to the same time period last year. For example, “All I Want for Christmas” received 54.9 percent more streams the first week in December than it did during Christmas week last year. (It helps that Amazon Music listeners really, really love holiday music: they streamed four times the industry average in the United States.)
Luke and Redington have taken a multi-pronged approach to capitalizing on Amazon’s particular resonance with subscribers over the holidays, encouraging membership deals and rolling out focused advertising for the streaming service coupled with personal assistant Alexa. For a limited time, customers could sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited for three months for only 99 cents (subscriptions are $9.99 per month, $7.99 for Prime members) to the tune of Katy Perry’s Amazon Original “Cozy Little Christmas,” the centerpiece of 2018’s “A voice is all you need” campaign, which was first rolled out in August. As proof of concept, more users streamed “Cozy Little Christmas” on release week than any other single premiering on Amazon Music in the last four years in the U.S., and Perry’s holiday entry charted at No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart for terrestrial radio.
Amazon Music also spruced up its already substantial collection of holiday playlists and commissioned content. For lean-back listeners of all ages who are inclined to let Alexa have dealer’s choice, there’s the Holiday Favorites station, which mixes beloved standards with contemporary hits.
“My grandmother’s in her 90s, my kids are four and six years old, and what Alexa is able to do is remove the friction,” says Redington. “They’re both able to ask for holiday music very simply and very easily.” That has, however, led to some internal debate as to whether Autry’s original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or the version sung by Burl Ives, which appeared in 1964’s stop-motion animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and is nostalgic for most staffers (and this writer), was more appropriate. “I grew up with the Burl Ives version, but we were seeing data that the Gene Autry version is the one that people love and know,” says Luke. “It’s across more than a dozen Christmas playlists.”
More adventurous listeners might seek themed and visually enticing playlists like Christmas Tree Lighting and Waiting for Santa. “‘Play holiday music’ is that primary entry point on voice, but on visual, the Ugly Sweater Party is going to grab you as a customer, and you’re going to click through out of simple curiosity,” says Luke. Both playlists include holiday-specific commissions for the Amazon Original song series, which has been ongoing since 2014, from the likes of Train, Smokey Robinson, the Dandy Warhols and Jon Batiste. Even with playlists where you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to get (Christmas Road Rage, anyone?), the experience is customized as much as possible. Each time a listener skips a song or scans through the library for what they’re looking for — or says, simply, “Alexa, I like this song” — that feedback is incorporated into song selection.
As the market for Christmas music has expanded geographically — Amazon Music and voice have landed in over 40 countries — and people have begun buying seasonal albums from retailers like Target and Walmart earlier in the year, the future is bright for the kind of inter-generational holiday listening Amazon Music offers. “You see songs from the 1940s, the 1950s side by side with Katy Perry and Mariah Carey and Pentatonix, and you realize how important these songs have been, and now they’re just part of the fabric of people’s lives,” says Luke. “There’s no other genre outside of holiday music where you can point to a 70-year-old song still being relevant and connecting emotionally with people.”