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.