The Sleigh List

Snowmen in Carnaby Street-6

In the last couple of days I’ve read a couple of pieces on when is the right time to start playing Christmas music on the radio.

David Lloyd has updated a blog he wrote a couple of years ago, including some research Orion Media conducted on this very matter, alongside various other pieces of research that he has collated. In summary, the most popular option was the start of December, but a decent number of people wanted to hear music as soon as early November, while perhaps a fifth of listeners don’t want to hear Christmas music until three weeks’ out or less.

Yet there’s undoubtedly a bit of a race on with some stations starting very early with their Christmas output – particularly in the US. And in the UK Smooth Extra became Smooth Christmas mid-way through November. And Smooth is not alone. The latest Ofcom radio bulletin notes the addition of The Wave Xmas, Signal Xmas, Pulse Xmas, Royal Marsden Xmas and Nation Xmas to various DAB multiplexes.

(It’s also worth noting that some of those slightly tatty satellite movie channels rebrand themselves as “Christmas” channels at the start of November, somehow finding stocks of Christmas themed TV movies that will last them the thick end of two and a half months. I assume it has some kind of uptick in their ratings, although I think having my finger nails pulled off would be less painful than watching them.)

On Radio Today, Steve Penk has written a piece explaining why he thinks most stations start too late. He says he started adding Christmas music to his Music Channel from 6 November.

So are stations out of whack with listners? Should they be playing more Christmas music and sooner?

Well here are some of my issues with starting earlier:

  • The “Sleigh List” is not that deep. Every year another bunch of artists release Christmas albums, perhaps in the hope that one of those songs will generate royalties for ever more (c.f. main character Will Freeman living off his father’s royalties in the Nick Hornby novel, About A Boy). But the selection of bona fide Christmas hits seems to still fit happily on one Now That’s What I Call Christmas box set (and even then, the 2015 release seems to have quite a few dodgy “filler” entries, particularly on the third CD). This is important because…
  • Your core listeners spend many hours with your station. Basically a relatively small proportion of a stations’ listeners account for the vast majority of its listening hours. These listeners are really important for commercial services, since they’re accounting for a large chunk of a station’s commercial inventory. You do not want to annoy these listeners. While much radio research talks about “P1” listeners – those who’s first radio preference is your station – that doesn’t taken into account the fact that even P1s have different levels of listening. If I’m an Absolute Radio listener, but only listen to the radio in the car going to work and coming home again, then I’m an Absolute Radio “P1”, but don’t come close to the listening hours of someone who spends most of the day with Absolute Radio. They’re also probably P1s, but they listen much longer.
  • Not everyone treats Christmas the same. Young families get more excited about it; some people start buying presents in June; my downstairs neighbour put their decorations up over the weekend; I saw a healthy trade in Christmas trees from one of those layby places the previous weekend. But others are more measured. Trees are sold throughout December; presents are bought right up to Christmas Eve; poorer families don’t enjoy the cost of Christmas, and perhaps don’t like the pressure of the season; not everyone decorates their homes on 1st December (then ripping the decorations down on Boxing Day, somehow forgetting the “12 days of Christmas” are actually the days after Christmas); some don’t celebrate Christmas at all, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons.
  • But all the shops are playing Christmas music, so my station must! First of all, let me say I feel very sorry for shop workers at this time of year – that Now album on a continuous loop. I recently visited a branch of Muji which was playing an appalling version of Silent Night on the 20th November. I couldn’t get out of that shop fast enough. Not everyone needs to hear this music all the time. But in any case, most people don’t spend that much time in shops. Visiting a supermarket for a weekly shop, or hitting the stores to buy presents is one thing. But in comparison to the amount of time people spend listening to the radio – 21.5 hours a week – very little time is spent in shops. So it’s understandable that stores want you to feel Christmassy and buy Christmas stuff in the relatively brief time you spend on their premises. I’m not aware of any radio programmers who otherwise pay much attention to what music Asda’s playing in store!

Personally, I don’t need to hear Christmas music incessantly between now and December 25th. Indeed at this point, any station that plays a Christmas song too soon is likely to be tuned out very quickly if I’m within reach of the set.

But just because John Lewis and Sainsburys had their Christmas ads out in the middle of November, it doesn’t mean that the Christmas tracks should immediately be front of stage. Remember, not everyone wants to hear Wizzard, Chris Rea and Wham! on a loop. Don’t hate me, but I’m profoundly fed-up with Fairytale of New York too…