Last summer I took a family roadtrip and was driven slightly insane by the heavy rotation of Kidz Bop CDs on the car stereo. In a rare moment of solitude carved out of a frenzied week, I sent out these missives via Twitter:
1. if one promise of musical urbanism is Simmel’s vision of authentic individuality forged thru encounter w/social difference & public space
— Musical Urbanism (@MusicalUrbanism) August 15, 2012
2. then surely Kidz Bop is the interpellation of children into musical suburbanism
— Musical Urbanism (@MusicalUrbanism) August 15, 2012
in sum, if I hear my kids’ Kidz Bop CDs once more, I’m gonna… write a 20,000-word article about the Kidz Bop phenomenon #weaponsoftheweak
— Musical Urbanism (@MusicalUrbanism) August 15, 2012
I’m going to let the possible brilliance of those statements just hang in the air for awhile… Suffice it to say, my obsession with Kidz Bop really hasn’t subsided, and a blog like this is just the place to try to articulate just what’s so fascinating and so significant about Kidz Bop, right?
Implicit in the critique I was trying to make was Theodor Adorno’s thesis of music as commodity and his fear of regression in listening. From his 1938 essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”:
All contemporary musical life is dominated by the commodity form; the last pre-capitalist residues have been eliminated. Music, with all the attributes of the ethereal and sublime which are generously accorded it, serves in American broadcast media as an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music. If the advertising function is carefully dimmed in the case of serious music, it always breaks through in the case of light music….
The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded. Whenever they have a chance, they display the pinched hatred of those who really sense the other but exclude it in order to live in peace, and who therefore would like best to root out the nagging possibility.
Now, if ‘everybody knows’ that there are serious problems with Adorno’s thesis, still his questions are compelling. Trust me, if you listen to Kidz Bop CDs on endless repeat, Adorno will suddenly make troubling sense! After all, what’s more insidious yet starkly visible than the ways that Kidz Bop CDs shape the listening habits of young children — a task they were fundamentally designed for? To be a little more even-handed about this, the Kidz Bop phenomenon highlights the multiple stages of cultural transmission — production, text, and reception — and so offers a fruitful site to revisit some of the hoary debates about commodity music and regressive listening that have concerned cultural scholars ever since the Frankfurt School. So let’s look at the evidence, shall we?
Readers, this is going to be a long slog, one which will easily surpass the 20,000 words I originally envisioned. Furthermore, to do this topic justice, I’m going to have to conduct some listener research — my own deep listening, but also interviews with other Kidz Bop listeners. Since it will take some time to do all this, I’m breaking this essay up into three parts according to the production/text/reception framework. Below, Part One examines the production of Kidz Bop.
THE KIDZ BOP FORMULA
Kidz Bop, the million-selling CD series, is to children’s music what a company like Cisco Systems is to the computer industry: highly successful, even paradigmatic, possibly eclipsed by other competitors, yet still obscure to anyone with no connection to its niche. But those with skin in the game that Kidz Bop plays — and, as a parent of a 7 and 4 year old, I count myself among them — have a variety of moral and economic investments. For parents, Kidz Bop is an acceptable form of musical entertainment for their “tweener” (between toddlers and teenager) children; alternately, it may be a gateway to the inappropropriate consumerization and sexualization of childhood. In the music industry, Kidz Bop is the vindication of a certain kind of marketing strategy, and maybe the saviour to a business wrestling with teenagers’ disinterest in consuming music the old-fashioned way. Listening to Kidz Bop offers a pop-cultural coming of age for kids in its 5-12-year-old demographic, just as getting rid of those Kidz Bop CDs does for teenagers.
If you haven’t heard Kidz Bop before — as found in 23 volumes, limited edition mini-CDs stuffed in Happy Meals, or a million computer chips installed in karaoke toys, toothbrushes and greeting cards — its essential formula is prepubescent voices singing covers of the day’s pop hits. Its vocalists, the so-called Kidz Bop Kids, pass the microphone among themselves within the space of a verse, even a verse line. They sing in pairs and trios; they take a solo for a line or two; they invariably mass their chirpy vocals to hit the big chorus in unison. The musical arrangements are usually faithful to the original recordings, although they’ll alter the length of the original composition, maybe eliminating a verse or trimming an outro, to achieve a 3-4 minute length. Famously, lyrics might be changed to erase age-inappropriate references, sometimes with curious results:
You wanted control/So we waited/I put on a show/Now we’re naked/You say I’m a kid/My ego is big/I don’t give a shit (Maroon 5 & Christina Aguilera’s “Moves Like Jagger”)…
… becomes You wanted to know/So we waited/I put on a show/Now we’re jaded/You say I’m a kid/My ego is big/I don’t even care (Kidz Bop 21).
Turn the lights out now/Now I’ll take you by the hand/Hand you another drink/Drink it if you can (The Wanted’s “Glad You Came”)…
… becomes Turn the lights out now/Now I’ll take you by the hand/Hand you another dance/Dance it if you can (Kidz Bop 22).
Hey/Sexy lady (Psy, “Gangnam Style”)…
… becomes Hey/Hey lady (Kidz Bop 23).
The end result is an hour-long CD of safe, peppy musical content that kids can sing along to and parents can approve of. Even more, and in contrast to most of the other music targeted to the tweener demographic, Kidz Bop solicits several identification/aspiration responses in its listeners.
As Kidz Bop co-creator Cliff Chenfeld has said, this demographic comprises a musical audience that is “too young for Eminem but ready to move on from Barney.” The connotations of those two references — Barney being too saccharine and babyish, Eminem being too menacing and mature — illustrate the emotional and developmental signposts that kids journey through in these years. Kidz Bop is premised on the fact that pop music is an important site for this development, maybe more ubiquitous and less parentally fraught than television and video games. Through the genre and specific songs it features, young listeners aspire to pop’s age association with teenagers’ leisures and freedoms. And parents can regulate their young children’s growing up with this controlled taste of pop music. Just as importantly, Kidz Bop’s vocal conceit lets kids sing with each other and, by doing so, observe their own age peers and internalize age-specific ideas about what’s fun and cool.
The anonymity of the Kidz Bop Kids’ voices and personalities is strategic. Again, Chenfeld: “When we started it in 2001, we consciously decided not to have stars, because we wanted the kids who were listening to be able to relate.” The Kidz Bop Kids on each CD generally number about five, three girls and two boys, but they don’t handle the vocal duties exclusively. The most recent ensemble (roll call: Steffan Argus, Charisma Kain, Eva Agathis, Elijah Johnson, and Hanna Yorke) has been in service for the last four Kidz Bop volumes, but close listening reveals a number of unidentified guest vocalists, including some very professional youthful-sounding post-pubescents. I haven’t listened to the entire Kidz Bop oeuvre (yet!), but my research suggests this hired-gun arrangement, including vocalists in their twenties, is the norm.
What the featured “Kidz Bop Kids” most importantly provide is their visual appearance, lipsyncing, dancing, and pushing the product on the famous Kidz Bop TV commercials and sundry promotional events. They also provide celebrity content on KidzBop.com, the social media and video website, and appear in the big-budget Kidz Bop concerts. Then, once they reach some unspoken age, individual members are let go and replaced; from time to time, the Kidz Bop Kids ensemble is reformed wholesale.
RAZOR & TIE
Behind the Kidz Bop phenomenon is Razor & Tie, an independent, New York-based music and entertainment company that has successfully exploited the convergence of several industry trends over the last couple of decades. The growing clout of children’s music is one of them, but perhaps just as significant are the extinction of CD stores; shrinking space in other brick and mortar retailers like Walmart and Target for music products; the rise of niche brick and mortar CD retailers like Starbucks; and the continued importance, in shifting contexts, for old-fashioned ways of selling and consuming music.
Razor & Tie was started in 1990 by Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, then two young lawyers who decided to go into the music business. The company’s name represents the two things Chenfeld and Balsam never wanted to do again — “shave or wear a tie.”. Chenfeld and Balsam identified a niche in churning out quick and dirty greatest hits compilations that you may recognize from thrift stores and garage sales, like The ’70s Preservation Society series (1990’s Vol. 1, Those Fabulous ’70s, was their first release) and 1999’s hair-metal compilation, Monster Ballads. Obsessive collectors might recognize Razor & Tie’s less well-known releases, like the 1995 anthology It’s Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek or 1994’s two-albums-on-one-CD reissues of classic Alex Chilton titles.
From the beginning, Chenfeld and Balsam were open to pursuing opportunities they could leverage from their small but resourceful position. In 1995 they signed their first act to produce new and original material, folksinger Dar Williams, who went on to release 10 albums with Razor & Tie and remains associated with the label today. To many this seemed like an unexpected expansion of Razor & Tie’s business, but Chenfeld recognized early on that Williams’ DIY, new-economy approach made a good fit: “She never played a lot of commercial venues but she has built a consistent following and tours all the time. She was also one of the first artists to use the Web to communicate with her fans. Even back when we signed her she was using e-mail and doing an early version of a blog.”
Chenfeld and Balsam’s genius lay not in cornering certain musical styles or product formats, but in connecting whatever content they released to its specific, narrowly defined audience. Most crucially to this end, Razor & Tie resurrected the direct-response TV advertisement that, in the 90s, would have been associated with musical fare like K-Tel compilations or Time-Life box sets. This marketing technique proved highly effective in reaching older audiences who had been aged out of the CD store in the decade of alt-rock and hip-hop. Furthermore, via the very method by which it completed the sale, as customers call the 1-800 number (or, today, log on to Razor & Tie’s MusicSpace.com website) shown at the end of a 60-second commercial, direct response generated detailed information about a product’s consumers. Compilations like the eventually double-platinum Monster Ballads “were how we learned to market to specific demos,” Balsam explained.
In 1997, Razor & Tie launched its own in-house media-buying division. Over the following years, as the music industry observed the company’s success with TV advertising, major labels hired Razor & Tie to coordinate and manage their own direct-response TV campaigns. That Sade greatest hits or posthumous Michael Jackson compilation you may have recently added to your collection quite likely arrived via Razor & Tie’s media-buying division. Then, in 1998, Razor & Tie struck up a distribution deal with BMG, a relationship that continues today following the German entertainment conglomerate’s acquisition by Sony Music Entertainment. The essential ingredients for Razor & Tie’s Kidz Bop brand were now in place.
THE ROAD TO KIDZ BOP
The first Kidz Bop CD arrived in 2001, a year that saw the culmination of several fortuitous economic and demographic trends. Consider the following:
On September 9, 1995, the music-industry trade magazine Billboard began ranking the weekly top selling children’s music albums with a new Top Kid Audio chart, since renamed the Top Kid Albums chart. People born in 1964, the official tail-end of the American baby boom generation, would have been 31 years old that year. Like all things baby boom, the weight of this generation’s commercial impact on any market it embraced — in this case, music CDs for young children — would have been undeniable, as symbolized by the new Billboard chart .
1996 saw the release of the first Baby Einstein video, an important milestone for at least two reasons. First, it crystallized the consolidation of the children’s educational movement with the entertainment industry, as parents bought Baby Einstein videos and CDs ostensibly to stimulate their babies’ cognitive development. In fact, data to prove such benefits of Baby Einstein have never been conclusive, but a cultural association of “good parenting” with the careful purchase of children’s entertainment was nonetheless established. (Note: a child born in 1996 and offered Baby Einstein videos and CDs would be 5 years old when the first Kidz Bop CD was released.)
Second, in 1998 Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark sold a majority stake of her enterprise to the Walt Disney Company. Disney is of course the major force in all things related to children’s entertainment, but the 90s saw the corporation move boldly into children’s music unrelated to its film soundtracks. In 1996, it launched the Radio Disney franchise, broadcasting original recordings by artists young and old with material produced specifically for children’s ears. On March 16, 1999, Disney released its first Radio Disney: Kid Jams CD. This product moved a step closer to the Kidz Bop concept, albeit with a key difference, as Kid Jams compiled original recordings of artists featured on Radio Disney.
The market for consumer-friendly CD compilations of the biggest current hits expanded in 1998 when Now That’s What I Call Music!, a 15-year-old UK franchise, released its first U.S. volume. The artists featured on this album included the Spice Grils and the Backstreet Boys yet in hindsight it didn’t fully deliver the exuberant teenpop confections that we might associate with ‘pop music’ today.
That generic advance probably occured, at least symbolically, on January 12, 1999, with the release of Britney Spears’ debut album … Baby One More Time. The Backstreet Boys, NSync, Christina Aguilera and others quickly joined Britney in filling the charts with music made by young people — well, sung by them, anyway — for even younger people (and their fellow travelers). In short time, the Billboard 200 would seem dominated by a kid-centric ethos, with music designed to dazzle listeners and viewers with group vocals, and big-production videos emphasizing dance choreography (which in turn was ripped from R&B and hip-hop videos). To music listeners repelled by this kid’s stuff, it can seem as if the screams of teen and tween girls have yet to subside.
Needless to say, the late 90s and first few years of the 00s were the last great heyday of the corporate music industry. A relatively affluent U.S. consumerbase bought CDs in this period like never before and never again (see chart), with MP3 piracy just beginning to reach public attention and digital music files not yet available as legal commodities (e.g., Apple’s iTunes store wasn’t launched until 2003). These were also the years of increasing laments about rock music’s cultural decline, since the 90s’ post-Nirvana signing craze and pioneering “electronica” (a.k.a. EDM) releases by Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Daft Punk and others failed to capture the interest or dollars of the extant teen/20s white music market. Yet record companies evidently failed to care about such concerns, so flush were they with profits from teenpop as well as the premium goods and concert tickets of vintage artists (your reunited Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, etc.) that baby boomers were consuming.
KIDZ BOP HITS PAYDIRT
Little fanfare appears to have surrounded the October 9, 2001 release of the unnumbered Kidz Bop debut, perhaps unsurprisingly given the cultural mourning of the 9/11 attacks not even a month before. (The televised charity event, The Concert for New York City, wouldn’t be held until nine days later.) Nevertheless, it hit the ground with the Razor & Tie marketing machinery already running. Thanks to advance advertising on the Disney and Nickelodeon Channels, Kidz Bop debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Kid Audio. So did Kidz Bop 2, released on August 20, 2002.
By the time March 2003’s Kidz Bop 3 debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Kid Audio, the music industry began taking notice of the Kidz Bop phenomenon, as indicated by its first Billboard feature in the May 17, 2003 issue. Titled “Crossing Generations,” the article gave Kidz Bop pride of place as “[l]eading this pioneering genre” of tweener music; other contemporaneous examples included Disneymania: Superstar Artists Sing Disney… Their Way! (which “takes the counter approach” to Kidz Bop, “with Top 40 stars like ‘N Sync, Usher, Ashanti and Christina Aguilera covering the classic songs of Disney history”) and They Might Be Giants’ No! Quoting Razor & Tie’s Craig Balsam, the article also identified a broader marketing agenda behind the excitement over Kidz Bop and tweener music:
Whenever you are marketing to children, you are in some respects marketing to the parents. You want to make a product that they will feel comfortable with, that they feel will be comfortable for the child and that they’ll enjoy.
Balsam here speaks to the idea of co-consumption, the mutual influence on purchasing preferences and behavior that children and parents exert on each other. With less autonomy and individual income of their own than teenagers, tweeners are a special focus in marketers’ emphasis on co-consumption. This was the first, and not the last, time that the culture industries would foist upon Kidz Bop the burden of “saving” the music business. From a 2007 Advertising Age article:
By gaining the trust of parents, Kidz Bop has also gained access to corporate marketers’ favorite new catchphrase: coconsumption [sic]. In short, co-consumption refers to any event or experience where parents and kids are willing to jointly participate. In the old days, this might simply have been called “supper time,” but now its definition has been expanded beyond casseroles to include recreation and shopping. That has consumer brands, even automakers, salivating. According to MarketResearch.com’s Packaged Facts, 39% of parents of 10- and 11-year-olds say their children have a “significant impact” on brand purchases.
Extending the brand
Kidz Bop has been the golden goose at Razor & Tie records since its debut, accounting at present for roughly a third of the over 36 million records that the label has sold since 1997. But in its first five years, 2001-06, Kidz Bop’s ascent must have seemed especially meteoric to anyone who paying attention. With Kidz Bop 3, Razor & Tie committed to the two-a-year release schedule that still characterizes the CD series. And with only a couple of near-misses, each of the first ten Kidz Bop CDs went gold, selling more than half a million units.
After successfully experimenting with a seasonal Kidz Bop release (2002’s Kidz Bop Christmas, which also went gold), Razor & Tie extended the musical brand to specialty CDs that often outpaced in frequency the flagship series of current hits. Following 2004’s Kidz Bop Gold — “The Greatest Hits Of All Time,” featuring 60s/70s chestnuts like “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and “You’ve Got a Friend” — came additional titles drawing on pop-music eras well before the millenial generation, like Kidz Bop 80s Gold (2008), Kidz Bop Sings The Beatles (2009), and (you had to see this one coming) Kidz Bop Sings Monster Ballads (2011). Other specialty titles focused on contemporary genres with loose-to-no connections to the standard Kidz Bop fare, such as Los Kidz Bop (2005, featuring popular Latin music hits in Spanish and English), Kidz Bop Sports Jamz (2007), and Kidz Bop Country (2007). We might also include in this category Razor & Tie’s 2005 compilation Worship Jams, which was unrelated to Kidz Bop yet similarly aimed at the children’s market.
Behind these developments was a major expansion of Razor & Tie’s equity capital and industry scan. At some point between 2002-05, Razor & Tie sold a non-controlling 50% interest in KidzCo LLC to ABRY Partners, a private equity firm. The firm’s website explains:
As experienced media investors, ABRY was aware of the growing Kidz Bop brand and formulated a thesis on the untapped opportunity. We arranged a meeting with Craig and Cliff to discuss those opportunities and a possible investment in the Company. The Founders were immediately drawn to the benefits an experienced investor could provide in growing the brand beyond its original scope. After a brief negotiation, we purchased a substantial stake in the Company, allowing the founders to achieve near term liquidity while participating in the potential future growth of the Company (ABRY Partners n.d.).
ABRY’s expertise, contacts and cash let Razor & Tie extend the Kidz Bop brand to all the non-CD consumer goods that parents might recall as gifts in birthdays and holidays past: the karaoke toys, the musical toothbrushes, the pre-loaded music players. Needless to say, this brand extension has continued in more recent years: Kidz Bop greeting cards, Leap Pad cartridges, mini-compilation CDs in McDonalds Happy Meals, the Kidz Bop Dance Party! video game for the Wii, and a line of print and e-books. An eBay search of Kidz Bop-related toys can induce brand vertigo.
In 2006, the children’s music tsunami that Kidz Bop helped usher in reached its high point. In a mid-March Billboard 200 chart — not the Top Kid Albums chart, but the Top 200 for all musical genres — the top three spots were occupied by children’s music albums: Disney’s High School Musical soundtrack, Kidz Bop 9, and Jack Johnson’s Curious George soundtrack, respectively. At the No. 2 spot, Kidz Bop 9 remains the series’ highest chart release to date, although August’s Kidz Bop 10 album sold more records in its first week: 117,000, enough to earn the distinction of the largest sales week for any Razor & Tie album, even if it only debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Whether you designate Vol. 9 or 10 as the zenith of the Kidz Bop phenomenon, 2006 brought to a close the brand’s greatest streak in CD sales; Kidz Bop 10 would be the last in the series to go gold.
IN THE DIGITAL MUSIC ERA
Almost certainly, the biggest factor bringing this record-setting period to an end is the fact that CD sales across the board were now in the steep decline from which they have yet to recover (see chart). Industry commentators initially viewed children’s music as immune to consumer’s startling disinterest in buying CDs, since tweeners appeared less likely than teenagers to illegally download MP3s. “Maybe the music-buying public has skipped a generation,” Razor & Tie’s Craig Balsam told Rolling Stone in 2007. “Teenagers may not be as interested in buying music, but hopefully the next generation is.”
As the music industry stared down the unknown of the MP3 era, Kidz Bop was once again assigned the burden of “saving” the music industry. To be sure, it shared this credit and duty with the still expanding children’s music genre. As Tower Records executive Russ Eisenman declared in 2006 (the same year the music retailer declared bankrupcy), “The younger kids are piracy-proof. You don’t see kids eight to twelve doing peer-to-peer stuff.” “I wouldn’t say it’s piracy-proof, but it’s less pirated than any other music,” said Bob Cavallo, chairman of Buena Vista Music Group, in 2007. “Kids want to bring something home, like a souvenir.”
Finding the post-CD consumer
Since the second half of the 00s, children’s music has thrived commercially via the support it received on children’s TV and video. An industry insider pointed out in 2007, “Nowadays, the Disney Channel plays more music than VHl and MTV combined.” The very nature of children’s cable channels, however, meant that that kids didn’t necessarily consume music in a music-only platform.
On March 24, 2006, the Disney Channel premiered the first episode of “Hannah Montana,” which it pre-advertised by a heavily-viewed iTunes-exclusive music video. Depicting a young teen leading a double life as a famous popstart, the show served as Disney’s synergistic vehicle to promote the music recordings of its star Miley Cyrus and guest stars like the Jonas Brothers. Other Disney Channel shows of this era lacked the musical storyline of “Hannah Montana” but nonetheless served as promotional vehicles for the multiplatform careers, including music recordings, of Disney performers like Selena Gomez (“Wizards of Waverly Place”) and Demi Lovato (“Sonny with a Chance,” the film Camp Rock).
If such Disney Channel fare competed for the upper end of Kidz Bop’s 5-12 demographic, the August 2007 premiere of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” on the Nick Jr. channel signaled the appearance of a new rival for the demographic’s lower end. Certainly this show draws upon the co-consumption marketing strategy that Kidz Bop pioneered, albeit with a “cooler” indie-rock profile congruent with the growing market presence of aging-out hipsters (a.k.a. “grups” and “yupsters”) who prefer co-consuming children’s music by familiar alt-rockers (Dan Zanes, They Might Be Giants, Bare Naked Ladies) or familiar alt-rock set to children’s music (the Rockabye Baby CD series).
Kidz Bop has made headway into the music DVD market, most notably 2003’s Kidz Bop: Everyone’s a Star, 2005’s Kidz Bop: The Videos, 2008’s concert video Kidz Bop: Live at the House of Blues, and 2010’s instructional video Kidz Bop: Dance Moves. Yet perhaps no Kidz Bop DVD proved as pathbreaking as another Razor & Tie release: We Are… The Laurie Berkner Band (2006), a music video compilation of the “sippy-cup Sheryl Crow” (Time Magazine) that has the distinction of being the first DVD sold at Starbucks Coffee stores.
What ties the Laurie Berkner Band DVD to the Kidz Bop phenomenon is their common vindication of Razor & Tie’s marketing strategies. Both brands flourished in an era when the music industry’s woes were connected to two related developments: the decline of CD sales and the demise of brick and mortar retail space for music. No doubt Razor & Tie’s direct-response marketing techniques may have seemed a good way to hedge bets against a retail environment in which CD stores seemed to be going the way of the dodo bird. Yet the situation was always more complex; for one thing, all those Kidz Bop TV advertisements with the 1-800 numbers and internet URLs generated data that helped Razor & Tie identify and support retailers who could stock their CDs.
“In 2003, people seeing spots on television would have gone to the stores,” Chenfeld told Billboard in 2010. The problem is that “now people are not just assuming that if they see it on TV, then they can get it at retail. The option of going to a store is not as easy as it used to be.” Here he referred to the folding of music retailers like Tower Records (in 2006) as well as the continuous shuttering of shopping mall retailers like f.y.e. (which has closed some 150 outlets since 2009). Of course, these endangered corporate franchises once presided over the extinction of the neighborhood record store that used to occupy many Main Street storefronts.
Yet while the music industry grapples with the decline of the generic music store — the place where self-identified ‘music fans’ and other music buyers could purchase new releases and back catalogue in a single-purpose retail environment — savvy labels like Razor & Tie had long accommodated the new face of music retail: the “category killer” big box store. Since almost the series’ debut, Razor & Tie has issued special editions of Kidz Bop volumes featuring bonus tracks available only on CDs stocked at Walmart and Target; also, the label frequently promotes new releases in Walmart and Target circulars (Harding 2008c: 19). However, by the end of the decade these stores were reducing the floor space they dedicated to CDs and other music products.
Hence the music industry’s search for new or underused brick and morter retail space, and hence its interest in Razor & Tie’s placement of the Laurie Berkner Band DVD in Starbucks. Itself one of the most influential brands in recent history, Starbucks represents one of the most distinctively conceived, well-researched “lifestyle boutiques” in the American consumption landscape. It turned heads when it began selling CDs (like Norah Jones’ debut and the Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company duets album) that suited the ‘tasteful,’ young-to-middle aged adult demographic it sold coffee to. To this end, Starbucks acquired the Hear Music label in 1999 to develop musical product for sale in its coffeeshops and elsewhere. The Laurie Berkner Band DVD exploited an underappreciated feature of the Starbucks demographic: young-to-middle aged adults overlap substantially with new parents seeking “edutainment” products for its children. To be sure, Kidz Bop probably couldn’t shift many units at Starbucks, since its purchase is more likely to be initiated by kids with more defined and vocal preferences than the toddlers in Berkener’s audience. Still, the Starbucks case illustrates the marketing savvy and forward thinking that Razor & Tie is applauded for by the music industry.
The social Kidz Bop experience
Razor & Tie extended the Kidz Bop brand into another obvious platform: live concerts. In the summer of 2007, the company launched an 80 city Kidz Bop World Tour in conjunction with the Vee Corporation, the live entertainment and event marketing company that handles Sesame Street’s events, among others. Dubbed “Your First Rock Concert” in advertising and promotional materials, the tour featured Kidz Bop Kids backed by additional vocalists (including two adults) and musicians performing popular Kidz Bop songs. As a way to generate advance interest, the tour was preceded by auditions across the country to incorporate local talent into segments of the tour. “Cameras will be rolling, in case the material can be used for a future TV show,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported, although to date no such show has materialized.
In another example of Razor & Tie’s co-consumption strategy, some legs of the world tour were sponsored by a decidedly non-kid brand, Dodge. At these shows, audience members could receive a custom music video showing kids singing and interacting with the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. “Kids are persistent and persuasive,” explained Dodge’s senior manager for brand communications. “And they love the new dual DVD player in the Caravan.”
It appears the Kidz Bop World Tour didn’t achieve the commercial success that the recorded music had. “Kidz Bop isn’t a visual project or affiliated with a TV show,” Chenfeld explained. “We’re forcued on national TV ad buys for a lot of the education about the concerts. But I have to say, establishing a new tour with a brand is quite a lot of work.” Vee founder and president/CEO Vince Egan was more sanguine. “Some markets were great, some so-so. But that was like Sesame Street 28 years ago when I started the company. It’s building on the brand and it’s true with any show that’s put on today.”
Simultaneous with the world tour but unaffiliated with the Vee Corporation, a smaller version of the Kidz Bop concert hit the road at fairs, festivals and smaller venues under the guise of Kidz Bop Live. My research has turned up no mention of Kidz Bop concerts since 2008, which doesn’t necessarily prove that the brand has withdrawn from live performances. Touring may simply have fallen under the radar of the kinds of industry publications I looked at.
What has continued since the world tour is the Kidz Bop talent contest. No doubt the brand has had some form of talent search since the first Kidz Bop Kids ensemble approached puberty. But in the last six years, Razor & Tie has expanded and institutionalized this activity as a way to sustain audience engagement and tap the popular excitement surrounding reality TV shows like “American Idol” (which premiered in 2001) and “So You Think You Can Dance” (debuting in 2005). In some respects, the talent contest is the most vibrant aspect of the Kidz Bop brand today, although it’s no longer primarily about joining the Kidz Bop Kids. Furthermore, the form it presently takes isn’t exactly “live,” strictly speaking—it’s online.
I couldn’t find out when Razor & Tie initially set up the KidzBop.com website. My guess is that the early site was a typical example of “Web 1.0”, i.e., a top-down controlled platform for directing fans to Kidz Bop videos, CD information, fan club materials pertaining to the Kidz Bop Kids, official contests and games, and of course links to MusicSpace.com where CDs could be purchased. Wikipedia reports that in 2008, Razor & Tie redesigned the website as a Web 2.0 social medium, with bulletin boards, fan pages, and video uploading. The popularity of this last feature seems to have taken Razor & Tie by surprise, as users quickly began setting up their own informal talent contests among fans who uploaded their own performances of Kidz Bop songs. By October 2009, KidzBop.com formalized this user activity, setting up a new section with official contests where users could voted on fan performances (Billboard 2009a).
By 2010, this activity became coordinated with a new promotion, Kidz Bop Star USA. Here, finalists (ages 15 and younger) from the website’s talent show competed in a live talent show before celebrity judges and an audience for a Kidz Bop recording contract, a role in a Kidz Bop commercial or music video, and “the chance” to sing on a Kidz Bop album. Filmed in a setting familiar to viewers of “American Idol,” mini-episodes of the talent search were then broadcast on the KidzBop.com website, providing original content to complement the innumerable videos that users upload. A big hit, Kidz Bop Star USA continues to be a main attraction of the website. Indeed, a visitor to the KidzBop.com today might have a little difficulty recognizing the original Web 1.0-type content associated with the Kids Bob Kids, so popular have the talent search and other forms of fan interactivity become on the site.
KIDZ BOP AND THE FATE OF THE CD
I confess I haven’t clicked on any of these talent search videos or fan pages in my research. For better or worse, it was the recorded music that led me to my current fascination with Kidz Bop, and I haven’t yet let my own children loose on the web to see if they care about this sort of thing. Before I turn to the subject of the Kidz Bop music itself — the topic of discussion for Part 2 of this series of essays — it’s worth coming up to date on the commercial fate of the Kidz Bop brand and musical output.
By the end of the 00s, the music industry no longer seemed so certain that the tweeners would be immune to the seduction of digital music. The expansion of legal music file commerce has too much momentum, it seems, to expect children not to learn its practice. Maybe just as importantly, the parents who co-consume with their children (i.e., pay for and obtain) Kidz Bop and other music in this genre are increasingly likely to think about downloading digital music. This has been my experience at least — in part a consequence of learning the hard way that you’re nuts if you don’t burn your kids’ favorite CDs to your computers before they get their grubby little hands on them.
Kidz Bop has moved assuredly into all the major digital music venues like iTunes and Amazon MP3. In November 2009, Razor & Tie ran a 5-week promotion with Microsoft’s Zune Network, the digital marketplace for content on its Zune media player, retitling the kids genre section “Kidz Bop.” This promotion seems emblematic for two reasons. First, it suggests that Razor & Tie is no longer the sure-footed company it once seemed; in this case, Microsoft no longer makes the Zune media player, and it’s an increasingly marginal player in the digital music industry. Second, the promotion reveals the industry’s anxiety to get in front of the generational juggernaut that digital music represents. As Billboard reported in 2009, “Kidz Bop GM Liz Enalon says she hopes the partnership [with Zune] will help teach kids ages 5-12 about downloading music ‘since the kids’ business tends to be more physical than digital.'”
[Incidentally, in my research I found no other references to a Kidz Bop general manager named Liz Enalon. Her title suggests she’s formally related to the KidzCo LLC that Razor & Tie has a controlling share of. However, virtually all of the sources I consulted portray Razor & Tie’s Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam as the official Kidz Bop executives and spokespeople for all intents and purposes.]
Meanwhile, MusicSpace.com remains a CD-selling website, the place to buy limited-edition 2-CD Kidz Bop volumes as well as Razor & Tie’s many other music compilations. The current promotion for the latest Kidz Bop 23 offers two copies of this CD for the price of one… Razor & Tie’s response to the hard lesson parents like me have learned about managing their children’s CDs? Notwithstanding some minor ventures into music programming — a cable on-demand channel on Comcast, a Sirius XM time slot — selling Kidz Bop albums seems to be Razor & Tie’s primary goal with the brand. The website seems popular and lively, but no TV shows have materialized, and no famous careers to speak of have been launched for former Kidz Bop Kids or past Kidz Bop Star USA winners.
Is Razor & Tie making the wrong move by investing so much in selling albums for kids? Aren’t CDs marked for extinction as fewer people buy music, brick and mortar music retailers fall by the wayside, and online CD vendors like Amazon put increasing importance on MP3 product? And aren’t kids generationally predisposed to be unaware of or unimpressed by the traditional “album” format? Don’t they consume music in dematerialized bits now — an MP3 single here, a promotional music video wedged between shows on the Disney Channel there?
To an important degree, Razor & Tie can punt on these looming questions thanks to the many small yet smart decisions it has made. The label continues to diversify its recorded music product and expand its roster of original recording acts; among other things, it’s currently a scrappy upstart in the heavy metal/hard rock genre. Also, it has expanded its range of activities, most notably moving into video releases and music publishing.
Maybe most importantly, the strength of Razor & Tie’s media-buying division and its experience in direct-response marketing give the firm confidence in the future of Kidz Bop and the CD in general. Consequently, even as the era of Kidz Bop albums going gold seems to have passed, Razor & Tie is able to boast about setting new records in fields that observers might not appreciate, but maybe should. Volumes 19-21 all debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, albeit with increasingly smaller sales numbers to show for it (70K, 69K and 59K units sold, respectively). Furthermore, the label appears to sell proportionately more physical CDs via its direct-response TV ads with each release, even as the absolute numbers decrease. This doesn’t just mean that TV remains a potent and overlooked medium to reach demographics left out of the usual discussion about “consumer disinterest in CDs.” It also means that Razor & Tie generates greater numbers of data points about its narrow consumer demographic with each album sold. All of this, to let Razor & Tie’s Cliff Chenfeld have the last word, suggests the CD maybe shouldn’t be counted out just yet.
People are closing out the CD thing way too soon. Some don’t want to be perceived as living in the past. They feel they have to show that they are living in the future so they will be received better by investors and media… I don’t want to sound like I am the champion of the horse and buggy when the trains are coming into town. But after seeing how Susan Boyle, Justin Bieber and even Kidz Bop sales are, the idea that the CD is almost over sounds nut to me. You can embrace the future without having to say the CD is over.
In sum, Kidz Bop mobilizes a variety of media, new and old, to get your kids to consume CDs and digital albums. Maybe their taste for albums won’t last past the point that they get to choose their own radio stations (still the main place that pop-music listeners discover music) and discover the dark sides of online interactivity (e.g., illegal file-sharing). But in turn Kidz Bop reinforces the convergence of other commercial media and the compulsion of the brands in kids’ lives. Music as commodity, at the service of other commodities.
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