Christmas tree with decorations

Jingle bell rock: Festive hits in the streaming era

As festive tunes make their traditional appearances on adverts, in shops and in the charts, Mark Sutherland looks at the growing importance of having a Christmas song in your catalogue.

Mark Sutherland
  • By Mark Sutherland
  • 20 Dec 2022
  • min read

It’s become as big a pre-Christmas tradition as stirring up your figgy pudding or writing your cards in front of a re-run of Love Actually: as soon as Halloween is over, Mariah Carey takes to Instagram and declares that ‘It’s tiiiiiime!’ to start streaming Christmas songs again. 

From there on in, festive hits start to dominate streaming services in the UK – Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas Is You made its first appearance on the Official UK Singles Chart this year as early as 11 November. But for some people, Santa season starts even earlier…

‘I always find it fascinating to see when streams start picking up for iconic tracks like Mariah,’ says Sara Sesardic, Spotify’s editorial lead for the UK & Ireland. ‘It’s always a great way to judge the festive thermometer of the nation. In 2022, the gradual uplift started as early as July, so it’s definitely a moment that continues to build year-on-year…’ 

By the time the big day itself approaches, it can seem like the nation is listening to nothing but festive tunes. Last year’s Christmas Day Top 40 featured no fewer than 29 Yuletide-related songs, while figures from the Official Charts Company showed 2022 consumption of the Top 20 Christmas songs was up 6.5% year-on-year at the start of December.

And it’s not just streaming. Twelve of the latest Airplay Top 20 are Christmas related, Heart Xmas has been playing nothing but Nöel-friendly numbers since late September (i.e., when many people were still wearing shorts, rather than wrapping up warm for winter) and Radio 2 launched its festive season with an hour of back-to-back Yuletide anthems on the 1st of December. 

That’s great news if you’re the writer of one of the classics on heavy rotation but what about everyone else? As festive streaming and airplay increases, so non-seasonal plays shrink. No wonder more and more acts are getting in on the act, with a host of new Xmas recordings, originals and covers, from the likes of Lizzo, Maisie Peters, Phoebe Bridgers, the Backstreet Boys, Camila Cabello and many others jostling for attention like Christmas Eve shoppers trying to grab the last bargain.

And when artists need a modern Christmas classic, they often call Iain James. The songwriter penned countless non-festive hits for the likes of Little Mix and Emeli Sandé before co-writing Leona Lewis’ One More Sleep. Since its initial release in 2013, it has become a chart perennial with 158 million streams on Spotify alone, and Iain has been involved in further festive anthems for Paloma Faith and Gregory Porter, Lewis (again) and Ne-Yo and this year’s seasonal offering from The Vamps, Seat At The Table.

'While an Xmas song may only earn money for a couple of months of the year, the best ones will return every year.'

‘I’ve been unofficially christened the king of Christmas,’ he laughs. ‘Which is bizarre to me because One More Sleep came about purely as a bit of fun and a break from the norm.’ 

‘When we did One More Sleep, there weren’t many Christmas songs out, so we got in the door at a nice time,’ he adds. ‘But now I know from writers and producers that there are so many more opportunities for this kind of song to be heard. Twenty years ago, it was just on the radio – now it’s streaming, adverts, sync, tons of things. Labels, managers and artists can see that it’s a money-spinner, so everyone goes for it.’ 

Iain admits that writing a Christmas classic is ‘very lucrative,’ joking that his children will end up like Hugh Grant’s character in About A Boy, who lives off the royalties from his father’s old festive hit, and noting that the post-Christmas PRS cheque is always a good one. Because, while an Xmas song may only earn money for a couple of months of the year, the best ones will return every year.  

‘If you can break through and get on that playlist, it’s a home banker, which is what we all try and aim for as writers,’ he says. 

Those songs that do break through tend to sound as familiar as the festive TV schedules look. Iain notes the limited sonic palette that seems to be acceptable for the genre, pointing out that even last year’s Christmas Number One, Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s Merry Christmas, ‘was very classic sounding – Ed’s a current, modern artist so the fact that he’s done that shows you are quite limited with what you can produce.’ 

Even when you evoke the classic Christmas sound, however, supplanting the legacy recordings is a struggle. Only two of Spotify’s Top 10 most-streamed Christmas songs of all time were released in the last decade (Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me and Sia’s Snowman). And with festive tunes streamed over 69 billion times in total during Spotify’s existence, it’s difficult for any new music – festive or otherwise – to gain traction at this time of year. 

‘It’s harder at this time of year, but it can definitely be done,’ Sara Sesardic insists, citing Raye featuring 070 Shake’s current smash Escapism as an example. ‘It’s always inspiring to see these kinds of stories cut through the increasing Christmas consumption.’ 

'If you don’t have some sort of presence on seasonal playlists, some will feel they have little to lose by joining the Christmas party.'

For many songwriters and artists, however, it’s a case of, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well at least try and join ‘em. And with monthly listener numbers potentially falling like drifting snow during December if you don’t have some sort of presence on seasonal playlists, some will feel they have little to lose by joining the Christmas party. Although hitting the festive jackpot remains the preserve of an elite few… 

‘The effects of streaming mean there are millions of bands that are struggling and one or two that are making all the money,’ Justin Hawkins of The Darkness – who crafted a new Santa-friendly standard in 2003 with Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) – told me last year. ‘When you do a Christmas song nowadays, if you don’t put everything into it and give it your best shot, it’s not going to do anything.’ 

Of course, when The Darkness had their festive smash, Yuletide songs were anything but cool. Streaming had yet to be invented and most radio stations restricted seasonal songs to the last few days before Christmas itself. So could they go out of fashion again, allowing newer artists and non-festive material to once more flourish at the end of the year? Well, as Christmas wishes go, that one seems unlikely to come true.

‘Music is such an important element of the Christmas experience for so many people, not having Christmas music to soundtrack the festive season would be like not having mince pies and Brussels sprouts,’ says Sara. ‘I can’t imagine it not dominating user behaviour at this time of year.’ 

And Iain James, who has had festive approaches from major artists every year in recent times and is confident he’s ‘still got a couple of Christmas classics’ in him, thinks festive hits will be with us for the foreseeable future. 

‘Popular music is cyclical,’ he notes. ‘Which would suggest that it will probably die and then come back. That’s how most genres of music work but, with Christmas songs, because of the level of demand, it wouldn’t surprise me if every year it just carried on and grew and grew. Every year me and the wife say, “Do you think [One More Sleep] will do anything this Christmas?” And every year, thankfully, it does.’ 

Time then, for songwriters everywhere to don their Santa hats and get with the seasonal programme: a festive hit is now for life, not just for Christmas.