Christmas Number One 2019

The 2019 Christmas Number One will be announced at 6pm on Friday, December 20th. This liveblog features all the latest news on what remains the most scrutinised chart race of the year. Who is in contention. And perhaps importantly who is not.

November 13th: Novelty Value

It is time to deal with the massive elephant in the room. All attempts at predicting how the charts might play themselves out at the end of December, all of our supposed expertise and analysis become irrelevant in the face of the unexpected novelty.

And it is wise to be cautious given the way the 2018 Christmas Number One market was upended literally at the last minute by Ladbaby, an online blogger who self-released a charity track and blasted past the competition to take the crown.

In doing so, he shattered a number of preconceptions. The prevailing wisdom (expressed boldly in these pages) was that in the streaming era it was no longer possible for a one-off charity release to gain the kind of traction needed to obliterate the market. After all, such tracks rely on old-fashioned sales, which are fewer and fewer in number now. But of course it is Christmas and the usual rules of engagement do not apply. No matter that no singles ever sell more than 10,000 copies or so in an average week. If you release a track which hoovers up enough publicity (and has the added cachet of then far more people than usual will buy it - most importantly people who do not normally buy singles.

Several years of relatively "normal" pop records - Clean Bandit, Ed Sheeran - reaching Christmas Number One lulled us into a false sense of security. And having had a few years off from playing the "game" of sending something quirky to the top of the charts at Christmas, last year it was just like old times and everyone piled in. Yes, the absence of Amazon mp3 store data midweek gave a false position of the fate of the single, but in retrospect, we all should have seen it coming.

So, could the same thing happen again this year? I'm still tempted to say "no", if for the simple reason that lightning rarely strikes twice. Second time around the joke isn't as funny. Everyone had their fun last year and with a few exceptions will want to move in. Plus of course, where Ladbaby led, plenty of others will have the notion to follow. He stood out last year because he was the only person attempting such a stunt. This year we may well see an abundance of chancers. None of whom are likely to end up with the kind of publicity and traction needed.

In one sense there is cause to regret the events of last December because once more the Christmas Number One was elevated to something in and of itself, an event separate from the usual ebb and flow of popular music. The 2016 and 2017 festive chart-toppers will be played forever as pop classics. I guarantee I'm the first person since January to remind everyone that Ladbaby existed. And that's wrong. Because the song at the top of the biggest chart of the year should be one we all want to remember.

Even so, keep an eye out, and treat any one-off novelty that marches its way up the midweeks with deep suspicion. Especially given the way the current second-favourite in the Paddy Power betting is an entry which scares the crap out of me.

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November 5th: Market Moves

It has been a couple of weeks, so time to check out what kind of changes have been made to the bookies odds. Always remember at this stage it is all still pure guesswork, with perhaps a few moves here and there based on where the money has been going so far (if any).

First to Paddy Power, our go-to high street outlet for these occasions:

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Well now that is indeed all of the interesting. Since last time a brand new favourite has been installed at the head of the market, this extraordinarily being Robbie Williams. He has a Christmas album of his own out, and whilst it will sell many copies set to be gifted to mums and grans, the chances of him having a hit single off the back of it, never mind one large enough to scythe through the competition is slightly wishful thinking. But if it attracts the money then who can blame them for pricing it up this way. 

Otherwise there are no other real shocks. Lewis moving ahead of Ed, Ariana slipping back a bit out to 8-1 from 6-1 last month. This despite the fact that there is chatter that her duet with Barbra Streisand on No More Tears which caused such an online sensation when Babs brought the starlet out to perform with her in concert back in August is set for a full commercial release. Although Ariana has participated in her fair share of star power collisions this year with diminishing returns.

Wham and Mariah are at 5-1 and 6-1 respectively. Which frankly is very high given what we discussed yesterday, although that is still a crash in odds from before. So if you missed Mariah when she was 10-1 a few weeks ago, bad luck.

Onto the Betfair Exchange, free of bookmaker influence and based on people betting against one another. That is in truth a market which only really gets going in the final sprint to the finish and if there happen to be two or three tracks all duking it out. However, for now, it is interesting to see which lines are enjoying the most liquidity - where there has been money staked and bets waiting to be matched:

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Yep, Mariah Carey again. Backable at 6 (or 5-1 in old money) at the time of writing, not too far away from the high street odds. More fun to note are the bets available at the extreme end of the market. Some chancer has staked £2 at odds of 990 and is now waiting for someone to match that with a lay. Although given this requires a bold punter to risk £1900 in an attempt to win two quid they may have a long wait. Similarly, there's £1000 available to back Mariah at odds of 1.01. Essentially winning 1p for every £1 you stake.

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Elsewhere there is also liquidity in the market for Wham, which also seems logical. More fascinating is the money being staked for and against TOWIE star Megan McKenna. She is at present apparently running away with the Celebrity X Factor competition currently airing, suggesting she is primed to have a single out for the end of December. But there's only value in laying her in truth, she surely is never going to be Christmas Number One under her own steam.

 

November 4th: Just One Thing I Need

A follower writes:

Ah yes, the "impact of classic seasonal hits". Or, as we like to call it in the business, "those f***ing Christmas songs".

Every December the streaming market undergoes a profound and enormously impactful shift. The "long tail", that parade of millions of catalogue tracks which make up the overwhelming bulk of online streaming traffic each week, begins to contract. Instead of 10 million people listening to about 8 million different tracks between them, they all converge on one particular set of songs - the ever-growing libray of Christmas classics. Ranging from standards by Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, to the usual pop suspects from Slade, Wizzard, Band Aid, Shaky and yes of course Mariah Sodding Carey. The net effect of this is to cause a wholesale invasion of the top end of the market by these catalogue tracks, music that ranks side by side with contemporary pop hits in the charts. It means any conversation about what the biggest hits of Christmas time are going to be simply must factor in the parade of golden oldies as well as anything the Sheerans and Adeles of this world are likely to contribute.

This has been going on for 12 years now, ever since the digital era kicked in back in 2007 and back catalogue of any kind was free to reach the charts once more as long as enough people were buying it. For the first few years of that era the annual chart inundation of Last Christmas and Fairytale Of New York was a fun distraction, one that was clearly going to be transient in nature as the purchase of these songs reached saturation point. In any event, none were ever in a position to mount a serious challenge to be Christmas Number One.

Streaming changed that. Because streams of festive favourites don't have a saturation point. Playlists featuring them all are front and centre on all the apps and services, and at Christmas time most people will bung one on and let it run in the background. As a result, songs that are a full 30 or 40 years old fly into and up the charts and by the end of the month have all but swamped most other contemporary hits.

Truth be told, the music industry finds this a pain in the backside. For a fortnight at the end of December, it is pointless trying to promote new product, because it just isn't visible. Chart shows on contemporary hit radio stations are reduced to playing a parade of songs which mostly date from even before the management were born. And from a chart watching perspective, it renders the listings absurd. Up and coming hits are removed from the Top 40 altogether, only to rebound in dramatic fashion the most the first week of January hits. The end of December Top 40 rundowns used to be the most fascinating to analyse. Instead, I might as well just cut and paste the words I wrote 12 months earlier.

In 2018 the Official Charts Company made a subtle attempt to try to tone things down a little. Tracks over three years from release were banished to permanent ACR status, their streams counting for exactly half those of newer hits, regardless of the extent to which they had increased week on week. But as the charts from December last year demonstrated, this was the equivalent of turning the volume down from 10 to 8. The final chart of December, covering sales and streams in Christmas week itself, 8 of the Top 10 hits were Christmas songs, only one (Leona Lewis' One More Sleep) dated from the 21st century, and there were a further 10 festive hits between 11 and 20. Again, just one of those (an Ariana Grande track) was what you might call a contemporary pop hit.

Nothing in the rules published since will change things this year. A change that made it easier for a track to reverse ACR status (changing the requirement for demonstrating a streaming increase from 50% week on week to 25%) does not affect the Christmas hits as all are more than three years old. Furthermore, peak Christmas song listening is in the days before and on December 25th itself, and as this blog has already noted the Christmas chart will be based on data from a week earlier.

However, there is an interesting twist to come. The "all songs older than 3 years on ACR" rule is waivable, with labels able to request a manual reset if they are due to actively re-promote an older track. That is why we presently have the Lizzo hit Good As Hell in the Top 10, the track reset to normal levels despite its original March 2016 release date theoretically disqualifying it.

It just so happens that the two biggest Christmas favourites of recent years may well be entitled to this kind of reset. Mariah Carey is set to re-release her original 1994 album Merry Christmas in honour of its 25th anniversary - and along with it releasing a brand new video for the evergreen if annoying All I Want For Christmas Is You. Furthermore in the latest edition of Music Week George Michael's label Sony admit they are set to aggressively market 1984 favourite Last Christmas (famously the biggest-selling single never to top the charts) to a newer and younger audience to coincide with its use in the new comedy film "Last Christmas" set to be packing them in to movie theatres during Christmas shopping season.

So the biggest change to the potential fortunes of festive oldies isn't actually new chart rules. It is the fact that the two biggest of them all may well end up freed from the handicap intended to hold them back and allow newer releases to breathe. If this does happen then there is every chance that everything else will wilt in the face of competition. Because a track which is being streamed by both kids and their parents at the same time is to all intents and purposes unstoppable. Leaving us with a f***ing Christmas oldie at the top of the charts to end the decade.

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