Editor’s Note: This article was written by Monica Moser.
When do you start listening to Christmas music?
There’s the passionate age-old debate, albeit a bit childish, over whether it’s kosher to put your Christmas playlist on regular rotation before you’ve properly celebrated Thanksgiving. While I encourage everyone to start listening to Christmas music whenever they please, I for one, tend to be a bit of a traditionalist in this area. Seasons begin when they begin and end when they end to me, and I tend not to hit play on Andrew Belle’s wonderfully chill version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” always #1 on my personal list, until Black Friday morning.
Although this is my personal leaning, I throw it out the window when I put on my music business brain.
No matter what season, artists have to balance the following perspective with their own when factoring in what to release and when: the perspective of the average, passive, music-actually-ISN’T-my-life listener. The thought of going to Walmart or Target and simply buying the most popular CD on the rack may be…unconscionable! Disgraceful! But as a Belmont University professor had to remind me and my entire class once in a music business course was this: we are not the average consumers of music.
This was in 2012 when even the thought of purchasing a COMPACT DISC at a STOREFRONT was inconceivable to most of us. As you may remember, Spotify launched in 2006 in Stockholm and then started to see significant popularity and notable boosts in subscribers in the U.S. in late 2011 into 2012. We were the early adopters of digital downloads, the purchasers of the iPod with the most gigabytes, and the early-on foreseers of the future of streaming dominance.
I say this because I think most artists in general can relate to this sentiment. Not only does this happen in the creation of the artist’s work (the mistake of slipping in too deep into subjectivity) but it also happens when thinking about average listener habits and average music purchasing behavior.
I remember when I found out that 70% of people don’t listen to lyrics that it was quite a dark day for me. (Note: I had difficulty proving this specific statistic so here’s to hoping it’s a rumor.) No matter the specific percentage however, it seems that most people, the “average listener” or however you’d like to label this person, listens to the hits, doesn’t pay attention to lyrics, and doesn’t obsess over curating playlists. This point of view is crucial to factor in during the holiday season.
Before we talk about releasing Christmas music in our current consumption world and factoring in this average-listener perspective, we should first take a look at how Q4 and holiday music has changed over the last decade and how the goals for releasing music during this time have shifted.
Christmas used to traditionally be a fairly seamless money-maker moment for the music industry. For a business that always has to be innovative and in a constant state of thinking many steps ahead, Christmastime was one of those rare parts of the year where staying relatively close to tradition was the move. In addition to the alleviation of crazy mental energy, it was a cost-effective and revenue generating time of the year as well. The stead-fast, untenable demand was always there and even better, it was a time when artists actually benefited from not chasing after originality — listeners craved comfort and nostalgia which for the music industry means: covers of timeless standards. While licensing was a hoop to jump through, there wasn’t the need and cost for co-writes and crazy production.
While a lot of this is still true, streaming makes everything, once again, more elusive and more intangible. Even during a season that always welcomed the music industry like an old friend.
Instead of the “easy money maker,” CD-purchasing surge goal, the goal might simply be sustained relevancy and boosted algorithms in the era of streaming for the up-and-coming to the semi-established artist.
Streaming is “ferocious” at this time of year. Spotify’s Head of Global Partnerships actually underestimated this ferociousness for streaming in 2017. So why not get in on it?
The shelf life is also unique for Christmas albums or singles on Spotify. While a non-holiday release has about 4–6 weeks to really generate as much traction as possible, your Christmas release will be returned to year after year.
And although 2020 is different from 2010 at this time of year, according to this Rolling Stone article, “Twelve of the Top 50 most popular albums were made in the past three years.” And for the most popular artists, people are still buying physical CDs and digital downloads. While these are more lofty goals, this fact is still important to note.
Streaming isn’t a dictator during this season — just a less power-hungry king.
So when should I release my Christmas project and how should I do it?
Spotify used to gear up all its editorial Christmas lists for Black Friday (seems like their staff was a bit traditionalist like me), but three years ago they began decking their streaming halls promptly on November 1st. The shift was implemented after analyzing holiday music listener behavior.
Time your release by factoring in your most recent project of the year. If you just released an album in mid-October, it might be smart to wait till at least mid-November. If you haven’t released anything in months, get that Christmas single, album or EP out now.
Aim for more classic covers than originals.
A new original Christmas song becoming significantly popular has been a rarity if you look at the past four decades. Does this mean artists shouldn’t be writing original Christmas music? Of course not.
At worst, the original doesn’t get significant play time. At best, you pen the next Christmas hit that sustains your relevancy (and bank accounts) for years and years to come.
If you release a group of songs, consider sprinkling in a couple originals with quality covers, rather than the other way around.
Create a separate database of Christmas playlist curators.
You don’t need Christmas Hits to find new fans and bump up your numbers.
If you keep a spreadsheet of playlist curators, try keeping your Christmas one separate. Grow it each year, reach back out to the ones who have added you the previous year, and hit up new ones.
Also, Christmas playlists, though dormant for most of the year, tend to be rather loyal. If a curator has kept you on their Christmas list since last year or over several, re-share their playlist on socials. This will draw attention to the playlist, your release, and encourage that curator to keep you on that list for years to come.
Set up a virtual Christmas show.
While planning a short Christmas tour would be something I’d suggest in any year other than 2020, there’s always the option of spreading a little cheer online.
Set up your space with Christmas lights and add enough production value to set yourself apart. If you host your holiday show over Zoom, maybe find a host to interact with your audience. They can facilitate a vote for which Christmas hit you should play next and ask holiday-themed trivia questions. The more effort and intimacy you put into it, the more your holiday show won’t get lost in the shuffle.