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Valentine’s Day Has Labels Asking Playlist Makers: Will You Be Mine?

If Mariah's the Queen of Christmas, then Al Green Is King of Valentine's Day.

Fat Possum Records, the scrappy Oxford, Miss., indie label known for raw blues albums by R.L. Burnside and Cedell Davis, begins preparing for Valentine’s Day streaming every October. “It’s 100% a priority for us,” says Patrick Addison, label manager. “This is Valentine’s headquarters.”

The reason? Al Green. The label licensed Hi Records’ catalog, home of most of the reverend’s R&B love classics, in roughly 2008. Every Feb. 13, “Love and Happiness” and the rest hit a “significant peak,” leading to a Feb. 14 “massive peak,” Addison says; “Let’s Stay Together” streamed 307,000 times last V-Day, compared to an average of 198,300 every other day, according to MRC Data. “Each year, we take the data and form even more plans,” Addison adds.

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As music-streaming holidays go, Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas. “It’s a much more compressed opportunity,” says Tom Corson, co-chairman and chief operating officer of Warner Records, which releases a Michael Bublé cover of Paul McCartney’s “My Valentine,” produced by Sir Paul himself, on Feb. 11, in advance of Bublé’s March 25 album Higher. “It’s a different calculus. It starts at the beginning of February and really picks up steam the week before.”

A centerpiece of labels’ Valentine’s Day streaming strategy is Spotify’s 124-track Valentine’s Day Love playlist, which has nearly 482,000 likes and includes classics by Billy Joel, Carole King, Seal and the Beatles in addition to contemporary stars like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton. Amazon Music’s Greatest Love Songs playlist skews more sentimental, including Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” and the service collaborates with Ne-Yo, Jazmine Sullivan, Miguel and others on artist-curated playlists. Apple Music is teaming with Fat Possum to mark the 50th anniversary of Green’s Let’s Stay Together album, including an interview with the reverend himself on Estelle’s Apple Music Hits radio show.

Another common entry on many V-Day playlists these days is 2016’s “Real Love Baby,” which indie star Father John Misty made while recording demos for Lady Gaga and producer Mark Ronson. They chose not to cut the track back then, so he posted an MP3 from his phone to SoundCloud, where it took off. “There was no marketing campaign around that song,” says Tony Kiewel, president of FJM’s label, Sub Pop Records. “We spent zero dollars. It’s his biggest song by about 10 to one.” (Until a few weeks ago, the song was at the top of Spotify’s Valentine’s playlist, but it has abruptly disappeared. “I think Spotify just tried to freshen it up from what they had last year,” Kiewel says.)

“Real Love Baby,” which today has nearly 129 million Spotify plays and streamed 21 million times overall in 2021, according to MRC Data, has become a V-Day phenomenon. Sub Pop’s data show the track averages about 80,000 daily streams, but last year it hit 133,000 on Valentine’s Day; the previous year, it averaged 60,000 per day and hit 104,000 on Feb. 14. “Maybe people have their own love playlists that they’ve built over time and included ‘Real Love Baby,'” Kiewel says.

In the pre-streaming era, some artists were famous for timing CD releases to Valentine’s Day — Norah Jones put out 2004’s Feels Like Home just before the holiday and sold 1 million copies in its first week. More recently, labels coordinate everything from singles (like Michael Bublé) to anniversary reissues (like a vinyl version of Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable due Feb. 4) to the holiday. But mostly they focus on holiday-themed streaming playlists — Concord’s Craft Recordings placed Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me” prominently on Spotify’s Valentine’s Day Love – until the track, like Father John Misty’s song, disappeared in recent weeks — while its classic-jazz catalog is all over Apple Music’s “romance” playlists and stations.

“It’s mostly just working with the [streaming] partners. We just ask them to consider them,” Craig Hammond, Craft’s vp commercial development. “‘This song belongs on this playlist’ might be a bit of an overreach, for a label, but certainly we’ve done that from time to time,” he says.

Warner Records’ Mike Chester says the process of breaking Valentine’s Day songs is more nuanced than identifying romantic standards in label catalogs and pushing them anew to streaming services. His team focuses on “counter-programming,” keeping in mind frustrated teenagers who might be open to Gayle’s profane “abcdefu,” Lauren Spencer-Smith’s breakup ballad “Finger’s Crossed” or Saweetie’s love song with H.E.R., “Closer,” due Friday (Feb. 11). Warner’s team communicates with artist fanbases to discern their V-Day emotions and tries to drop songs in that context to influencers on TikTok, Instagram and other social media.

“That’s where you’ve got to be,” says Chester, the label’s executive vp of promotion and commerce. “That’s when people are going to listen to shit over and over and scream it out loud in the shower. That’s the ‘Say Anything’ moment, with the stereo over your head.”