Tween Time

A growing kids' market is singing the music industry's future

Keri Carlson

Unless you’re 10, you probably didn’t recognize the top three selling records on Billboard in the first week of March.

“High School Musical,” “Kidz Bop 9” and “Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George” all trumped mainstream, top-40 artists that get mass radio play across genres and video spins on MTV and VH1.

The soundtrack for the Disney Channel TV movie “High School Musical” receives airplay only on Radio Disney. And “Kidz Bop” is virtually ignored by radio altogether, generating buzz through television commercials.

So it came as quite a surprise to the music industry that these albums could generate huge sales. It all goes to show the power of a new demographic – the tweens – who represent children around the ages of 5 to 12. These kids have outgrown the alphabet song but aren’t quite ready for the Ying Yang Twins.

Radio Disney attracts kids by selecting the most sugary, bubbly and upbeat songs off the charts and combining the established hits with songs by younger stars – often teens from Disney shows and films. “Kidz Bop” takes this a step further by having a choir of children cover hit songs from the likes of Beyonce, Modest Mouse and Kelly Clarkson.

But considering that teenagers, in particular young girls, always have had an impact on record sales, perhaps the tween music boom shouldn’t come as such a shock.

Preteen girls’ tastes always have dictated much of pop music – from Ricky Nelson and Annette Funicello in the ’50s up to New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls in the ’90s. And don’t forget about the bubblegum genre, which began in the late ’60s and filled radio with kiddy-friendly songs such as “Simon Says,” “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Sugar Sugar.”

The radio and music industries have been courting youngsters since the ’50s, coincidently the same time as the introduction of the allowance. Kids love buying music with their disposable income.

The difference today is that tween music has been specifically marketed and segregated from the rest of contemporary pop. While “Sugar Sugar” is undeniably a teeny-bop song, people of all ages and tastes know it. Music for younger listeners has always coexisted with rock and pop radio, but it was always under adult supervision. There was a balance between “serious” rock and teen novelty.

Now Radio Disney has created not just a radio station, but an entire music movement all about novelty songs. Radio Disney is probably the only station in the country still playing “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Mambo No. 5.” (The rest of us want to forget.)

Most importantly though, Radio Disney and Kidz Bop have created popular music – but music only grade-school kids and their soccer moms know about. Popular music no longer is something that has to reach a mass cultural consciousness.

Tween music has created its own world and is only slightly interested in adult pop. But mainstream radio is interested in tween. Already, pop has been forced to include Hilary Duff and

Jesse McCartney. And now that the industry has seen the money they can make from tweens, it’s likely that teeny-bop will again be a driving force in music.

We’re all ears

Radio Disney began in 1996 in four markets, one in Minneapolis.

“This is a good music market, we sell really well here. And teen acts especially have always sold well,” said Tommy Ramirez. Ramirez runs the Web site tommy2.net, which has tracked trends in tween music for four years.

Minneapolis also happened to be the home of Radio Aahs, the station that started one of the first exclusive children’s music formats and became the flagship for Children’s Broadcasting Corporation. For a time, Radio Aahs had a relationship with Disney, but when Disney launched its own station, Radio Aahs was unable to compete and ended two years later, in 1998. Children’s Broadcasting Corporation sued Disney over a breached agreement and in 2004, Disney paid the company $12.4 million.

Ramirez acknowledges the power of the Disney brand name. It allows the company to crush competitors in practically any area of the children’s market.

But he also attributes Radio Disney’s close attention to market research as a main reason for the station’s success. Radio Disney, Ramirez said, differed from Radio Aahs because Disney discovered the tweens – who wanted more pop and less typical children’s music, including Disney cartoon soundtracks. From their research, Disney changed their original slogan of “radio for kids” to “your music, your way.”

“Kids don’t want to be called kids,” Ramirez said. While Radio Disney may sound goofy and childish to older ears, the station works hard to create the image that its listeners are in control. To its credit, Radio Disney hardly ever sounds like it’s pandering to the audience.

Another reason Radio Disney has flourished is that the company could buy unpopular AM stations. Disney found that most kids have no concept of or don’t care about high-fidelity sound, Ramirez said. While Radio Disney continues to increase its presence on FM, a majority of Radio Disney stations remain on the AM.

Today Radio Disney boasts that it reaches millions of kids and families and covers 97 percent of the United States through AM and FM radio as well as XM and satellite radio, digital cable and satellite TV and streaming from their Web site and podcasts. Radio Disney has even expanded to international markets such as Japan, the U.K., Argentina, Paraguay and more.

In 2000, Village Voice writer Metal Mike Saunders declared Radio Disney to be “The best radio station in 30 years.” Saunders found the “almost freeform” style of the playlist quite revolutionary. In some ways it is. Radio Disney merges pop music from all decades and the genres range from rock to R&B to hip hop to techno. The only rule is the song has to be catchy as hell. Saunders concluded that the new pop idols – Britney, Christina and Justin – could hold their own against Elvis, David Cassidy and Madonna. Pop is pop.

Unfortunately, the Radio Disney that Saunders writes about has lost some of its quirky charm these past years. The station doesn’t play as many older cuts as it used to. But this might have something to do with the increase of covers Radio Disney plays. Recent hits on the station include the Cheetah Girls’ “Shake a Tail Feather” and Hilary and Haylie Duff’s “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The latest release on Disney’s own record label is an entire album of kids singing Devo songs.

What sets Radio Disney apart from other mainstream stations in a completely bizarre and unique way is Radio Disney’s top 30. While Ramirez said the top-30 list does not necessarily reflect the actual playlist of the station, nonetheless it symbolizes what the kids want. On other radio countdown lists, the songs are relatively new and usually an artist has one song at a time. The genius of Radio Disney’s list is that a hit song can be several years old and one artist can have multiple songs. This past week the sibling group B5 and Hilary Duff each had three songs on the top 30. Best of all, the cartoon Hampton the Hampster has a song at No. 11. The “Hampsterdance Song” came out in 2000.

Why suddenly masses of children have decided a four-year-old euro-pop-like song with chipmunk voices is suddenly cool is unclear. And scary.

“Songs that you think would get old, don’t get old for these kids,” Ramirez said.

HmmBop

Disney often relies on cross-marketing their tween stars, such as Raven, so that they flood the market in television, film and music.

Kidz Bop on the other hand takes the opposite approach. There are no stars, no celebrities, not even recognizable faces associated with the series. It’s just a group of anonymous kids singing along with studio musicians covering songs such as Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” and Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.”

In this way Kidz Bop could be considered the most punk or revolutionary music around today. Even though the albums cover famous pop songs, it’s all about the songs, not the artists.

In fact, a group of second-graders at Our Lady of Grace in Edina who listen to Kidz Bop were detached from the original versions. They knew the songs only as they exist on Kidz Bop.

“I think Kidz Bop is really healthy for kids. It helps them see music as an art form,” said Sandi Hemmerlein, the senior marketing director at Razor and Tie (the label that puts out the Kidz Bop series).

“Kidz Bop focuses on the audience over the star aspect,” she said. “The idea is that kids are the stars.”

The second-graders agreed with Hemmerlein’s assertion; they like the fact that Kidz Bop is performed by kids like them!

Following the success of Kidz Bop, other recent records such as “Reggaeton Niños” and Disney’s “Q: Are We Not Kids? A: We Are Devo” have used the formula of kids covering adult pop. Disney plans on releasing another in 2007, the Po-Go’s will be kids singing covers of the Go-Go’s.

Living up to the hype

“There’s a hit aspect to choosing the Kidz Bop songs,” Hemmerlein said. “The songs have to have a certain sonic quality and energy. They also have to have a clear message that can be shouted, and the vocals can’t be too challenging.”

Kidz Bop does not simply have the children’s choir sing a note-for-note cover. The kids’ purpose is to add more crack-laced pop to the song by adding shouts of “woo,” “yeah” and “na-na.” If you listen to the Kidz Bop version of “Float On,” for example, the Modest Mouse original seems dull and empty in comparison.

A similar phenomenon happens with Radio Disney. The songs and disc jockeys are so hyper other stations sound sluggish.

Maybe all this catering to tweens will mean that those of us not a part of the demographic will be left alone. But because the music business is desperate for anything that sells (CD sales have been dropping for years), expect more Disney stars, frenzied-techno and high school teens singing musicals.

So either get some speed to keep up with the kids – or hold on to your bottle of Adderall.