The rising popularity of “All I Want for Christmas is You” shows the music industry is valuing old songs

A phenomenon unlike any other.
A phenomenon unlike any other.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” cannot be stopped. Already one of the most popular songs of all time, and the source of more than $60 million in royalties for Carey, the song appears to be more popular than ever in 2020. And it’s doing it against the odds—the top songs on Spotify are generally getting fewer listens than in previous years.

From Nov. 24 to Nov. 30, “All I Want for Christmas is You” averaged about 1 million daily streams on Spotify in the US, up from just over 600,000 streams per day over the same time period in 2019, and 800,000 during that time in 2018. It was already the second most streamed song in the US on Nov. 30, but only the 10th on the same date in 2019. It’s not just ruling Spotify. Rolling Stone’s streaming data, which includes Spotify streams as well as competitor services like Apple Music, also show a big bump in listens to Carey’s hit this year.

“All I Want for Christmas is You” success is even more remarkable given the large decline in Spotify streams for the platform’s biggest hits. Spotify does not share overall streaming numbers, but they do share daily streams for the top 200 songs. For the month of November, the total streams for the top 200 songs each day added up to 2.14 billion streams. This is down from 2.25 billion in 2019 and 2.5 billion in 2018, according to Quartz’s analysis of the data. Top 200 streams also declined in previous months.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the top hits are not streaming as much these days. Spotify’s subscriber numbers in the US have continued to climb, so it’s unlikely that overall streaming has dropped. And we can’t just blame the pandemic—the hits have been slowing for two straight years. One possibility is that Spotify has put more resources into surfacing a wider variety of music. The streaming giant has increasingly emphasized discovery on its platform with its popular “Discover Weekly” and “Daily Mix” playlists, which introduce users to new songs that Spotify’s algorithms thinks they might like.

The current success of “All I Want for Christmas is You” suggests another reason for the decline of the top of the pops. Perhaps listeners and music labels don’t care as much about whether music is “new” any more. Tim Ingham points out in Rolling Stone (paywall) that music labels BMG and Universal Music Group both report that “catalog” (music that is at least three years old) is making up a larger share of their revenues.

In the physical music era, it didn’t matter to a music label if a person who owned a CD listened to each song once or a million times. It just mattered that you made the one time purchase of the album. In today’s streaming times, old songs maintain their value. A stream of a song released in 1994, like “All I Want for Christmas is You,” is just as valuable as a stream of a new one. This means record labels less of a reason to find a new holiday hit, and more reasons to promote your old favorites.

Or, possibly, it’s just that holiday music has its own type of freshness—that once a year reemergence that evokes a certain kind of mood, especially during a year whose mood otherwise has been decidedly not festive.