Christmas Music – What to Play, and When

Love it or hate it, Christmas music has become a permanent fixture of the holiday season on our radios and playlists. “Last Christmas” is fast approaching midlife-crisis age – don’t forget, it was made in 1984 – and radio programmers still aren’t sure what their listeners actually want come Christmas time. We’ve already had a look at different Christmas promotions – and shared our insights here – this time we wanted to take a closer look at Christmas music rotations and classic Christmas songs, to see if what we thought we know about holiday programming is still valid today

We looked at dozens of radio stations, hundreds of songs, and hundreds of thousands of listening sessions for our Christmas music insights. Let’s dig through the data together to find the answers to some of our questions:

  • When does Christmas music fatigue set in?
  • How early can I start to play Christmas music?
  • Is “Last Christmas” really the best Christmas song out there?


Christmas Fatigue

One of the most significant similarities in the data is the onset of Christmas “fatigue”. For almost all stations that start playing Christmas music by the end of November or early December, there is a noticeable drop in the appeal of Christmas songs during the holiday season.

Let’s take a look at the reaction to the Christmas “hits”. By that we mean the classics and the pop Christmas hits by newer artists. Here’s a list to get a feel for the type of songs we are talking about:

A list of well known Christmas music hits that get high rotations during the holiday season on Radio

Well known Christmas hits that get high rotations during the holiday season

These are the types of songs that stations across all kinds of adult CHR or AC formats share during the holidays. Looking at the listener reactions to the songs paints an interesting picture. Without exception, the overall reaction dips after about the first third of the month of December. Here’s the average reaction to the Christmas hits across a large sampling of stations and markets for the year 2020.

Maybe it’s the stress of getting around to the Christmas shopping, or the impending doom of a holiday visit from the in-laws that put a damper on the mood, but the data gives us an indicator for another problem: formatted rotations. Start on a low rotation, and raise it week by week, right?

By this time all of the stations queried have started playing their Christmas songs 2-3 times as much as when they started, while not adding more than a handful of new music to the mix (usually 0 or less than 10 songs) Put differently: they have started playing the same 15 Christmas songs you hear every year three times as much in the past 14 days.


It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

How early to start Christmas music can change a little bit year by year, and how well listeners react to Christmas music varies slightly as well – snowy weather and the presence of a worldwide pandemic seem to be the two biggest variables for Christmas music over the past few year – but overall the patterns remain the same across almost all stations in the mainstream market.

Based purely on listener reactions to the Christmas songs while they are playing, the ideal time is 4 weeks before Christmas, no sooner. If you want to start promoting Christmas earlier on your station, due to sales promotions, on air promotions, content, whatever: be our guest. Just know when you actually play those songs, there is more tune out going on than would be normal. Maybe just play the hooks a few times more and the songs a few times less?


“Wham! – Still King of Christmas?

We figured we would shed a little light on a few “new Christmas evergreens”, or the big 80s and 90s hits that most pop stations have in common when it comes to Christmas rotations. We took a look at “Last Christmas”, “All I Want For Christmas is You” , “Do They Know Its Christmas”, and “Driving Home for Christmas”.

“Last Christmas” by WHAM! and “Do They Know Its Christmas” by Band-Aid actually tie for best Christmas Classic when checking listener reactions to the song (higher is better). None of the Classic Christmas Songs showed an overall negative reaction during the holidays.

The three big “newer” sounding Christmas hits were all played around the same amount during the holidays as well, close to 100 spins on average. Chris Rea is played much less on average, mainly due to him missing from most younger pop stations, while the other three are still played there despite being just as old.

Average Appeal for each Song and Average total Spin during the Holiday Season.


Wonderful Christmas Time

In summary, our excerpt of Christmas music insight this time around is:

  • Don’t play the songs too early, the start of December is really enough. If you want the music on air before that, play hooks or use packaging elements instead.
  • Careful with your rotations. They don’t need to increase every week just because Christmas is getting closer. There can be some Christmas fatigue in the first part of the month of December.
  • The old Christmas hits still work, but some are starting to phase out for the younger audience. “Last Christmas” or “Do They Know Its Christmas” might be the new “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby for the next generation, but you might want to check the reactions to Chris Rea next holiday season again.

Its also worth noting that we have clients that very successfully break the typical Christmas music mold as well. Ones that go 100% Christmas music all holiday season, or others that boycott the idea entirely. It all depends on your brand, your audience, and the ever changing listener reactions to your programming.

Want more insight on your Christmas rotations? Reach out, we are happy to help!

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