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Let It Stream: The Label Holiday-Playlist Strategies That Keep The Clicks Coming

Holiday-music generates more than $170 million annually, and streaming numbers are so massive that labels now have year-round teams to keep the plays flowing.

If you search “Christmas 2021” on Spotify, the top result will be a massive playlist—124 tracks and six hours long—that opens with Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas,” then dips into a range of old and new holiday songs from Bing Crosby, Katy Perry, Ella Fitzgerald, Kacey Musgraves and others before landing on “I Want You Home (#heimnachten),” a track from last year by European relative unknowns Bowie & Pyrah. It’s not user-generated. Rather, it’s carefully curated by Universal Music Group, using “data, insight, analytics,” according to Mike Biggane, UMG’s executive vp music strategy and tactics.

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“Our hope is somebody’s going to discover our playlists by the holidays, put it on and just let it go,” he says. “They won’t have the urge to change.”

The holiday-music streaming season, which unofficially begins the day after Halloween, is big business for labels. Last year, Universal’s more than 500 holiday playlists, created by 200 curators in 67 countries, generated over 120 million streams from Nov. 1 to Dec. 21, according to Biggane. In the CD era, some 20 years ago, labels’ fourth-quarter strategies centered on turning superstar releases into stocking stuffers. Now that streaming accounts for 83% of industry revenue, as of 2020, however, holiday-music clicks are a bigger focus of fourth-quarter plans. Holiday music generated $177 million for the U.S. music industry in 2018, Billboard estimates.

Vinnie Freda, a former Warner and Universal digital music executive, isn’t surprised by UMG’s six-hour playlist since holiday music is often a lean back and listen experience. “People put that stuff on repeat,” he says, adding that it’s a win when listener can essentially set it and forget it, that’s a win. “Generally, Christmas music is fungible: ‘If I can get you to listen to this thing for the next six hours, that means you’re not listening to Sony Music.’”

Because the holiday-music streaming numbers are so massive, labels now have year-round project teams and staff to promote catalog evergreens, from the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas to Bing Crosby’s Christmas Classics to Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift to You. They also encourage contemporary stars to record new holiday albums, like Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas last year or Kelly Clarkson’s recent When Christmas Comes Around, whose “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” went viral and generated 1.5 million Spotify plays and 1.2 million YouTube views by early December.

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande performs “Last Christmas” and “Santa Tell Me” during the taping of the Disney Parks “Frozen Christmas Celebration” TV Special in the Magic Kingdom Park at the Walt Disney World Resort on Dec. 9, 2014 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Mark Ashman/Disney Parks via GI

Even if a recent recording gets lost amid the annual avalanche of holiday content, its use in a Christmas movie or TV special could promote streaming for years to come. Amazon Music has noticed recent streaming spikes for Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas,” from the 2000 soundtrack to the Jim Carrey movie Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as Ariana Grande’s 2014 single “Santa Tell Me.” “Holiday music can grow,” says Karen Pettyjohn, Amazon Music’s senior music curator. While new releases are expected to deliver instant hits, “that same expectation doesn’t apply here, because it’s about nostalgia and memory.”

In the few days before Christmas 2020, Alexa requests for festive songs on playlists like Merry Mix totaled more than 15 million per day. “People use it to soundtrack things, like a party or gingerbread-house making,” says Pettyjohn. “It’s long listening and it’s lean-back listening.” Adds Universal’s Biggane: “Voice is a major driver of streams for us, and our artists understand what a huge opportunity holiday music is for them.”

Craft Recordings, the catalog label owned by Concord Recorded Music, doesn’t have to do much to market its biggest holiday release, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. According to Concord’s vp streaming Andrew Woloz, however, label reps try to ensure Guaraldi (and Craft’s other holiday songs), wind up on important streaming playlists. Sometimes that’s as simple as a label-generated playlist, like Jazz Christmas. It can also be a matter of finding the right playlist title to activate in response to a keyword in a common Alexa request. “People tend to search what they want to hear thematically. They drink hot chocolate, they sit by the fire, they’re wearing sweaters,” says Woloz. “You hone in on those words and build in those schematics.

“Holiday is such an evergreen genre, so catalog will take up so much of the real estate,” he adds. “New songs, even if they don’t hit an algorithm this year, maybe they’ll hit a wave in years to come. Artists have to keep feeding the content machine.”

Labels tend the content machine as well. Concord’s Craft, for example, pitches holiday music to music-streaming products like workout giant Peloton, which has a roster of holiday-themed classes and a new Holiday Collection playlist; Sony studies voice-activated streaming requests, looking at how to combine music with popular Alexa games or place strategic Amazon Music advertisements. And every label focuses on pitching holiday songs to top playlists, from Spotify’s Christmas Classics, which has 2.3 million likes, or Amazon Music’s Merry Mix, which hit the streaming service’s list of the top 10 playlists after launching in November.

Sony Music’s holiday-music project team is 10-15 employees, drawn from the company’s content, A&R, marketing and international departments. Unlike the project teams that focus on Valentine’s Day and Halloween, the holiday-music team works year-round, with one exception. “They have January off,” says Lyn Koppe, executive vp global catalog for the label’s catalog division, Legacy Recordings. “It’s not like on Halloween, suddenly we say, ‘We better start thinking about Christmas!’ We think about Christmas all year. We gather data and learn from it and experiment.”

Read more about the Booming Business of Christmas Music here.