Nothing says Christmas like an oversized tree ornament outside Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. Photo credit TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

As holiday music went (chest)nuts, independent artists reaped the benefits

You may not know their names, but independent artists have some of the most popular holiday music on Pandora.

By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora

· Holiday music was Pandora’s top genre leading up to Christmas. Michael Bublé topped the list of most popular artists. Songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” outperformed all but a few of the non-holiday hottest singles.

· Independent artists can do extremely well this time of year. Michele McLaughlan, who has self-released three albums of solo piano Christmas music, gets as many spins as hot newcomers and perpetual favorites.

Have you heard any new or unfamiliar artists in your Christmas stations this year? Probably, yes. Some independent artists do fantastic this time of the year and can get more spins than many household names.

Listening habits shifts after Halloween. Holiday music swells after the calendar turns to November. Come December, holiday songs are as popular as the best-performing pop, hip-hop, and R&B songs.

In the week ended December 26th, holiday music dominated a handful of Pandora’s top 10s:

- 9 of the top 10 artists
- 9 of the top 10 tracks
- 7 of the top 10 stations

In a sign of how crazy Americans are for holiday music, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” sits at #9 on the current Billboard Hot 100 chart (Billboard includes Pandora spins in its calculations). A handful of other holiday favorites are also among the country’s top songs. December is the only time of the year a 59-year-old song (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”) by a then-13-year-old singer (Brenda Lee) will chart above new singles by SZA and Taylor Swift.

Christmas is also a time for lesser-known artists to shine. Take Michele McLaughlin, a solo pianist whose catalog includes three Christmas albums and 13 studio albums. Michele, a truly independent artist who owns a recording studio, is one of the top artists on Pandora’s New Age Instrumental and New Age Solo Piano channels — although she insists pianists hate the term new age pianist and prefers to call her recordings musical storytelling. In terms of genomic traits, Michele performs new age songs that are marked by melody, focused on the arrangement, and multi-sectional. In any case, she plays piano, her songs are relaxing, and listeners love her music.

Spins of holiday music jump after Halloween and rise through Christmas day. Michele’s seasonal bump sent her daily spin count from a steady 400–500,000 before Halloween to over 1 million by November 27th. In the week leading up to Christmas, Michele’s daily spins reached 1.4 million and peaked at 1.9 million on Christmas day. (I found that Michele knows these numbers well. She keeps close track her recordings’ activity on Pandora’s Artist Marketing Platform.)

To borrow a phrase from Andy Williams, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for (some) royalty checks. Independent artists can reach weekly spins of two million to six million spins in late December. At the standard royalty rate an independent artist, one who owns their masters and self-releases the music, is halfway to buying a nice car with just a couple of weeks of December royalties. This year’s Christmas bump sent Michele’s total spin count — both holiday and non-holiday music — to 11 million in the week ended Christmas day.Royalties from Pandora are my main source of income [from royalties],” said Michele, whose home page prominently displays a link to her Pandora page. Sales of CDs and digital downloads are her second and third-best sources of revenue from her recorded music.

Michele McLaughlin has 868 million spins on Pandora

In some cases, an independent artist in the vein of McLachlan has nearly as many, or in some cases more, spins than well-known names. Her combined catalog of regular and holiday music put her on the cusp of Pandora’s top 100 artists last week. Consider whose Christmas music also performed well right now: Jackie Evancho, Sarah McLachlan, Ellie Goulding, Sia, Gwen Stefani, Celtic Woman, Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor, Colbie Caillat, Grace Potter, Faith Hill, Enya, and Jo Dee Messina. Nearly all have signed to a major label and are household names. The top men are familiar, too, among them Josh Groban, Jim Brickman, Keith Urban, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael Bolton, and Chris Tomlin. All are familiar names. Some are legends. But have you heard of Brian Crain? He’s another pianist who self-releases his music. Christmas is good to Brian, too; Brian reached the top 100 artists spinning on Pandora’s Christmas station, not far behind Jon Bon Jovi and the The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s voluminous catalog of Christmas music released on indie label Surfdog Records.

Recognized or not, Michele now has 890 million spins at Pandora, putting her about 10 months from the exclusive 1 billion club. “I’m so grateful people are listening and sharing it. For an independent musician that’s what you hope for,” Michele said.

McLaughlin also fares well in the offseason. Outside of Christmas time, Michele’s spins are in the 300–400,000 over almost any 7-day period. Her non-holiday recordings are typically new age songs marked by melody, focused on the arrangement, and multi-sectional. The song titles are perfectly descriptive; “Causeway Coastline,” “Stargazing” and “Blue Ice,” all evoke picturesque musical storytelling. Piano music does well at Pandora. (Other genre’s easy listening does well, too. See my article on Mat Kearny and his amazing Pandora spin count). Whether or not it’s background music isn’t the point. People enjoy it, and artists get spins. Often those artists, like Michele, are independent in a sense they record their own music, own the master rights to their recordings, and act as their own record label. Yes, for some independent artists, it’s definitely the most wonderful time of the year.




I write. I do numbers. Usually about the music business.

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Glenn Peoples

Glenn Peoples

I write. I do numbers. Usually about the music business.

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