Writing a Christmas hit is a songwriter’s dream. If you strike a chord with the public and your song has any staying power, you may be set for life. Just ask Noddy Holder of Slade, who reportedly earns more than £500,000 a year from his 1974 festive hit “Merry Christmas Everybody”.
But because Christmas songs have the potential to be so lucrative, they’re not in short supply. In 2014, music data analyst Aaron Daubman found nearly one million Christmas tracks in Spotify’s catalogue. Of those, about 200,000 were unique songs.
So is there a musical formula for a Christmas hit? And is there any way for new Christmas songs to resonate long-term with an audience hooked on the classics? We analysed Spotify’s Global Top 200 chart data, and there may be good news.
Over the last four years, Christmas music listening on Spotify has trended upwards, as a proportion of total listening.
Could this greater appetite for seasonal music translate to an openness to new Christmas songs? And can we predict which songs will have any staying power? Let’s look at seasonal hits that have demonstrated their longevity. We’ll call these Christmas Crackers.
Which decades are responsible for the most enduring Christmas hits?
First off, Christmas crackers – songs that frequently appear in the Spotify Global Top 200 in December – are predominantly over 30 years old.
Intriguingly, the 90s and 00s produced far fewer Christmas Crackers than the preceding decades, based on the chart data we examined.
Note that the figures for the 2010s are artificially high because they are still so recent. Nevertheless, other trends may underpin the slump in lasting Christmas hits in the 00s.
When we analyse moods, we may be able to see why there are so few Christmas songs from the 2000s that are still getting high play counts. In virtually every other decade, the predominant moods are happy, romantic and relaxed. By contrast, of the tracks we analysed, those with high play counts have no romantic mood but instead have exciting and powerful moods. This combination can perhaps be attributed to the era’s polished pop production and the prevalence of US rock bands.
It's beginning to look a lot like Bublé
In the 2010s, the mood breakdown more closely mirrors the 40s to 80s. This is in no small part due to one Michael Bublé. His 2011 record "Christmas" reset the tone for yuletide releases. In doing so, he also became the poster boy for a long-standing festive trend that’s bad news for aspiring seasonal songwriters: the Christmas cover.
Of those tracks released since 2010 and still charting around Christmas on Spotify, a whopping 58 per cent are covers. Bublé accounts for half of those.
When it comes to relatively recent Christmas songs that still perform well, Bublé reigns supreme. Incredibly, he alone accounts for 36 per cent of streaming among Christmas tracks that still chart from the 2010s.
By tapping into the rich tradition of crooning Christmas covers, his tracks sit neatly in playlists populated by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. And that can translate into streams. Bublé has created Christmas-playlist friendly music and has made a lucrative business from it. So, any 2021 contender might be wise to aim for a nostalgic vibe, happy/romantic moods and a positive emotion to fit with trends in the Spotify Global Top 200s for December listening.
Bublé’s success also highlights the long-term value of the Christmas album. The smart money is on releasing a festive record packed with classic cover versions, then sneaking a couple of originals in for some sweet publishing royalties.
This is an old play, but in recent years Michael Bublé, Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones have done it. It’s not an iron-clad recipe for success, though. And just because a song performs well in its year of release, or even a year to two later, it’s far from guaranteed notoriety as an ice-cold Christmas Cracker.
Which 2021 Christmas songs have the most long-term appeal?
So what predictions can we make about the long-term success of this year’s seasonal releases? We can use data aggregated from previous years to make some.
From our shortlist of 2021 hopefuls, we filtered by tags based on the traits of other Christmas hits. The aim is to find tracks that are the most playlist-friendly. We kept only those with:
- Positive emotion
- Medium energy
- No rock elements
- Romantic moods
- ‘Retro’ use case tags
We were left with three results:
- “Christmas Isn't Canceled (Just You)” by Kelly Clarkson
- “Glow” by Kelly Clarkson & Chris Stapleton
- “Kiss Me It's Christmas” by Leona Lewis
The fact that Kelly Clarkson makes two appearances here suggests that her strategy of releasing a Christmas album may pay off long-term, even if none of these tracks have (at time of writing) blown up in the charts.
But, wait. No Ed Sheeran?
Isn’t his “Merry Christmas” collab with Elton John a surefire hit? In the short term, certainly. It’s already dominating trending charts. And it has some traits that are popular among seasonal songs with staying power: a romantic mood and a retro tag.
However, looking at its genre breakdown, we can see that it more closely aligns with the genre and mood profiles of lasting hits from the 70s. Maybe Ed and Elton could revive that decade’s sound the way Bublé has for Christmas hits of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Ultimately, creating a Christmas Cracker is incredibly difficult, even if you are one of the biggest acts on the planet. And, like Santa squeezing down the chimney, normal rules don’t apply at this time of year. There have been all sorts of wildcard hits. But to have the best chance of getting on to a playlist and accumulating streams, it might be sensible to play it safe rather than rocking out.