December 1 marks the date when Christmas music becomes not just acceptable, but pretty much compulsory across the UK.
And nowadays, the streaming revolution means festive sounds are not just a matter for shops and radio music programmers – although their continued importance in those areas is shown by Magic Radio playing 100% Christmas music from last week – they’re big business. If you have a Christmas classic in your catalogue, it could be the key to the biz’s new Holy Grail: a perennial chart hit and therefore perennial big earner for writer, artist, publisher and label.
The question is, how do you get people to stream your Christmas classic, rather than someone else’s, especially in the voice control era? Anyone who owns a smart speaker will know it’s much easier to say “Alexa, play Christmas music” rather than ask for specific tracks.
This isn’t the most scientific bit of research Music Week will ever do, but when your correspondent asked Apple's Siri to play Christmas music on the HomePod, the first five songs were pretty much exactly the Christmas classic you’d expect: Mariah Carey, Wham!, The Pogues, Wizzard and Slade.
When I asked Amazon's Alexa the same question though, Mariah aside, the list was different: Ariana Grande, Shakin’ Stevens, Cliff Richard and Katy Perry’s Cozy Little Christmas, non-coincidentally an Amazon exclusive (see this week’s cover story for more on that).
There are no doubt complicated algorithms and previous listening habits involved in some of those choices (although few of Alexa's selections would be elective favourites in our house). But, as a higher proportion of streaming moves to voice-controlled devices (particularly during Christmas, peak time for having people over for drinks and shouting at Alexa in your kitchen), cracking how and why such songs are chosen will be crucial for the biz.
Don’t be surprised to see more artists go down the exclusive route in order to gain traction for new festive tunes. But it also won’t have escaped the industry’s notice that some classic (non-Yuletide) catalogues from the ’50s and ’60s will soon run out of their traditional audience. Christmas music, however, seems immune to such demographic shifts (Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra all feature on Spotify's most-streamed Christmas songs list), as long as you can still get it in front of people.
So, while everyone else is facedown in a vat of egg nog and Quality Street, that's the new streaming battleground for execs to get to grips with this Christmas. So never mind Santa, the biz needs to make sure it’s on Alexa’s nice list this year, and for every year to come.
* To read Music Week's Amazon Music cover story with UK boss Paul Firth, see this week's print edition or click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.
A good maxim for life in the music business has always been that, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. YouTube, however, has decided to buy a bigger shovel.
Having lost the Article 13 argument in the European Parliament, many in the music business expected YouTube to drop the ‘Save Your Internet’ line, or at least change tack. But the tech giant has spent the last couple of weeks doubling down on the tactic, presumably in an attempt to soften the wording of the new legislation.
There’s a certain irony that a company sometimes so taciturn that it can refuse to answer the most simple questions, should suddenly find its voice on a much more complicated issue. It’s certainly a lot more complex than some of YouTube’s flurry of blogposts makes it sound.
YouTube global head of music Lyor Cohen has, of course, earned the right to be listened to, and he may well have a point about the potential disparity between the money YouTube pays rights-holders and the cash those rights-holders pass on to artists and songwriters. His call for transparency is one the industry should respond to positively – that, after all, is what all artists want, and most businesses have long since been doing the right thing by them.
His call for the industry to avoid “the unintended consequences” of the legislation is also no doubt well-intentioned, but it's hard to imagine the music biz genuinely launching a mass takedown attempt on online cover versions (although if it spared us another pop-punk take on a pop banger it would have my whole-hearted endorsement). In fact, the real unfortunate by-product of this renewed row may be rather more serious. YouTube is to be commended on the commitment it’s made lately to repair its industry relations and make YouTube Music a serious subscription player.
But, while YouTube has undoubtedly made a significant contribution to music biz finances, its free tier is yet to compare with other platforms, and remains out of line with the scale of its own business which, after all, has been largely built upon copyrighted material. So, with the rhetoric ramped up to 11 on both sides (and not everything said by the biz has been entirely constructive either), the danger is that – whoever eventually emerges the victor in Europe – YouTube’s relationship with the music industry might consequently be reset to ‘toxic’.
Lest we forget, in the immediate aftermath of the Copyright Directive vote, YouTube owner Google called for a “close partnership” with the creative industries. Time then, surely, to heed that advice: let’s all stop digging, and start talking.