The moment after Americans finished their Thanksgiving dinner and stormed stores for the Black Friday shopping spree, the atmosphere has changed for the next big seasonal holidays – Christmas. As it is every year, with changes in shop-windows, came also a new seasonal music repertoire for radio stations and recently also streaming services.
Aside of those stations that completely ignore the ‘Jingle-Bells’ season, there are two ways how they treat music playlists. One is — with Christmas Day getting closer, the frequency of seasonal songs is growing, basically by day. The other way, especially in large markets like Toronto Canada where I live, is that some radio stations start playing 100% Christmas music all the time. Here it is the 98.1 CHFM radio . The similar occurs on the satellite radio channels and streaming services. And don’t forget shopping malls!
I don’t know how people in those radios survive almost two months of severely restricted and endlessly repetitive music repertoire they broadcast.
Please don’t take me wrong. This is not against Christmas. This is primarily about music … and then about consumerism and the ‘shopping season’ starting too early and lasting too long.
So, back to music!
The Christmas music repertoire consist of mostly traditional songs. It covers a period of roughly last three hundred years and includes such hits like the Hallelujah Chorus written in 1741 by G. F. Handel, the Christmas carol Silent Night which F. X. Gruber wrote in 1816, or Jingle Bells by J. Pierpont from 1857.
Each nation and culture celebrating Christmas has its specific traditional music and songs, but those remain mostly unknown to the broader audience outside of each particular culture. So the repertoire consists of predominantly older German and English music and newer American traditional songs.
To keep their listeners and get at least some variety into their playlists, radio stations have one more possibility to expand their seasonal music — through many variations and interpretations of those traditional songs. You can hear the same Christmas song as a rock ballad, but also ‘dressed’ as reggae, R&B, hip-hop, a cappella, orchestral, jazzy … Probably each established music star has on their account at least one ‘Christmas Album’ where they attempt to approach mostly traditional songs in a particular unique, or personal, way.
And more often than not, singers also try to ’sneak in’ a few original new songs in the hope that they will get included into the classical Christmas repertoire. The fact is that this is extremely hard to accomplish. If successful, the reward is truly huge.
For example, the magazine The Economist estimated in 2016, that Mariah Carey’s song All I Want For Christmas Is You earned over $60 million in royalties since it was published in 1994. Another such songs are Last Christmas by the duo Wham! from 1984, or Santa Tell Me by Ariana Grande from 2014. The last two mentioned songs earned $1.5 and $1.1 million respectively, only from the streaming royalties on Spotify!
From these numbers we can see, that just one successful Christmas song could earn its authors a nice money. Especially if the holiday season lasts almost two months and the number of suitable songs is growing very slowly — basically only by a handful of titles every decade.
To make this more clear, let’s do some more math: if the average length of a radio song is 3 minutes, we need about 20 songs each hour, or 480 each day. (If there is also spoken word like the news and advertisements, then the number of songs is smaller.) I don’t know about you, but for me even the best songs, if repeated daily for two months, become an annoyance. And, in fact, I have a hard time not to feel the same about the whole approaching holidays.
And with this I am getting to the second main point I would like to write here about. Music, especially popular songs aimed for the mass consumption, has become omnipresent and superfluous. The situation with the Christmas music described above, is a rather specific example of this. Or to put bluntly — music is becoming a pollution, a smog inundating all available channels of audio dissemination and slowly choking our ability to perceive quality, and simply to enjoy it.
My strong belief is, that the fact that music has not only survived but helped throughout hundreds of thousands years of human evolution is due to its social function on an individual and community level. But now that same music, in the hands of mass media and corporations, is becoming a dangerous tool negatively impacting our social ecology.
As music transitioned from physical carriers (like cassettes, LPs and CDs) to the internet, its environmental impact seemed to become less negative in pollution, by using less plastic and energy in delivery. Unfortunately that same fact allows prolific creators and their teams to flood airwaves and the internet with their production almost constantly. Lets name just one example for all of them — Drake, the Canadian rapper, singer, songwriter, producer, and businessman.
BUSINESSMEN! That’s what these people are. They are the ‘exxonmobiles’, and ‘gazproms’ and ‘aramcos’ of the music world right now. If oil & gas companies are polluting our water, air and food, those music companies are polluting our internet, airwaves, and brainwaves.
There is just one difference between how these two polluting groups are perceived. On one side are consumers in many developed countries trying to diminish their carbon footprint by scaling back their use of plastics and disposable materials. On the other side is that constant inflow of the new and the newest songs and music. The traditional media, and the new media, and the social media, and advertisers, and producers and creators — all are vying for your attention, time and money. What was attractive and popular in the morning, is an ‘old news’ at lunch time, and already long forgotten in the evening.
It is with this consumeristic approach, when music becomes disposable in the short term, and a pollutant in the longer term. Under the constant influx of the new music, there is no time, nor the ability, to build a true relationship with someone’s preferred music. The social function and the importance of music has been changing, especially for the specific group of young people between 16 and 24 years of age. At the same time that exact young generation is being impacted by the current music pollution the most.
This situation is suitably depicted when you look at the title page of the IFPI annual report called Music Listening 2019 . This is the organization representing the recording industry worldwide. Clearly – the music listening has become a solitary activity with headphones and a smartphone. From the numbers included in the report it is obvious, that across generations people are listening to music more, the music industry is growing again, and producers, broadcasters, rights-owners, and also some artists are becoming wealthier. But I don’t think that that growth and the direction the music industry is heading, is ecologically and socially sustainable.
I don’t want to sound too traditionalistic, but the social function of music is based on the repetition and traditions maintained across generations. If music used to unite people and helped define and organize communities, now it separates. With the ear-phones deeply stuck in the ears, everyone can ‘live’ in their solitary world enhanced by individually built music playlists. Music consumption has become a potent drug administered straight to our heads. “Turn up the volume and feel better … feel great!”
If you’ve read it all the way here, maybe you are wondering, if I have anything positive to write in this blog-post. And the fact is that I would not even start writing this, if I couldn’t see any possibilities how to change things for better.
Maybe your experience is similar to mine. After young years full of revolting against music of my parents, I finally embraced some of their music and songs that represent the culture and traditions of the part of the world where I come from.
At the same level, there are very few moments in life that give me so much pleasure now, as playing and singing those same songs with my children. These are traditions that we need to keep and protect. And at the same time we have to create new ones as well, so that we can prevent the music pollution taking over our lives. Sometimes we may appreciate a little help from streaming services, especially when looking for additional lyrics, or similar songs. But the strongest it is when we all gather around the piano or the guitar, and do ourselves all that singing, and humming, playing, even dancing. And now also caroling as it is that time of year.
Merry Christmas to you all!