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Kidz Bop’s American Dream: Sanitizing Top 40, One Hit At A Time

American Idol meets Disney Channel for talented youngsters? That's the goal.
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By Matthew Ismael Ruiz

No one grows up with the Kidz Bop Kids — theirs is not music you return to with nostalgic fondness. But for more than a decade, Razor & Tie Records has sold millions of copies of Kidz Bop — their compilation series of sanitized Top 40 covers — to pre-adolescents and their culturally concerned parents. Busy parents that don’t want their kids to listen to Britney with progeny that don’t want to listen to Barney. In an age when Rihanna dominates the airwaves with praise for the tenets of sado-masochism, Kidz Bop satisfies a need for strict parents and their kids. But theirs is by nature an ephemeral audience; at some point, every kid that was ever into Kidz Bop comes to the harsh realization that it is just not very cool.

“At the time that I did it, I was at the age where Kidz Bop was not cool,” says Amanda LaMotte, a New York-based actress and Kidz Bop veteran. “I didn’t want my friends to know, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. There were infomercials all the time for the DVDs, and my friends would be over and we’d be watching something on TV and I’d be like, ‘We gotta change the channel.’”

Cool or not, Kidz Bop sells. Kidz Bop 23, released in January, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It was the fifth Kidz Bop release to do so. There’s nothing to suggest that Kidz Bop 24, set to drop on July 19 with covers of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” will be much less successful, regardless of what the cool kids say. So how did an indie label started by two lawyer dads with no hipster cred manage to get generation after generation of preteens to propel them towards the top of the charts? How do co-founders Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld continue to sell CDs to kids when few still can?

The answer can be found somewhere amongst Dallas Wayde’s thousands of Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. Wayde, the 15-year-old winner of Razor & Tie’s 2012 Kidz Star USA talent search, is now an RCA recording artist, thanks to his victory in the KidzBop.com online talent search. Through his various social media accounts, RCA & Razor & Tie can use mountains of data about Wayde’s fans to help determine how to best sell them his music. A boilerplate marketing strategy in 2013, for sure, but not so much in the late 90s, when Razor & Tie was busy taking a hair metal compilation (Monster Ballads) double platinum with television ads and a 1-800 number. Market research is their stock and trade, and in the music industry, no one does it better.

But the story of Kidz Bop is a story of children trying to connect with pop music. Whether they’re trying to become the next child star like Wayde, or just want to hear fellow kids singing songs they love, the Kidz Bop dream has always been about connecting kids to pop as much as quelling parents’ fears. But it’s also a tale of big data and big profits. And regardless of what anyone thinks of the music, it’s a business success story.

Humble Beginnings

Balsam and Chenfeld founded Razor & Tie records in Chenfeld’s apartment in 1990 — just a couple of law-school buddies who wanted to never have to shave or wear a tie to work anymore, looking to get into the music business.

They did well enough churning out greatest-hits compilations like the ‘70s Preservation Society series and the aforementioned Monster Ballads, and by the turn of the century, they were both successful fathers of young children on the birthday party circuit. It was there, amongst the cake and presents and pre-pubescence, that they recognized the untapped market of parents that found much of the Top 40 inappropriate for their kids.

“No one was happy about the music that was being played,” says Chenfeld of those early gatherings. “Or the presents that were being given.”

So in 2001, they decided to try their hand at making their own birthday party soundtrack, digesting the day’s pop music and regurgitating sparsely produced covers they deemed appropriate for kids aged 5-12. The first volume, Kidz Bop, was released on October 9, 2001, and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Kids Albums chart. They released compilations every six months, keeping pace with the pop music of the day, and ensuring that as soon as their listeners aged out, there would be new ones to take their place. The first ten releases were certified Gold by the RIAA (at least 500,000 copies shipped).

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The very first Kidz Bop compilation.

Leonard Nevarez, a professor at Vassar College who teaches a course called Musical Urbanism, attributes their early success to their ability to find and target their audience with laser focus. While the music industry scoffed at the low-rent TV ads that sent LaMotte scrambling for her remote, Razor & Tie was busy squirreling away invaluable data about their customers with each sale.

“They were really smart in not just reaching consumers, but then making those sales and those data points,” says Nevarez, whose essay “Musical Suburbanism, pt. 1: Kidz Bop and The Commodification of Kids’ Listening” is likely the most comprehensive academic analysis of Kidz Bop to date. “Their sales generated more data points and they just seem to learn more with every release, with how to reach this populace.”

So instead of participating in a music press industrial complex that never took Kidz Bop seriously anyway, the label used their formidable market research data to sell directly to the consumer. They still do; their marketing prowess is impressive. And in 2013, there’s no better way to directly connect with consumers than the Internet.

This Year’s Model

From the beginning, Kidz Bop encouraged kids to sing and dance along to music. Even in the early days, when Kidz Bop recordings featured predominantly adult vocalists, a kid chorus would round out the hook. The songs were engineered for inclusion—to encourage the kids listening to participate. When R&T experimented with a Kidz Bop movie in 2003, the DVD, shot at Universal Studios (and featuring LaMotte), was titled Everyone’s A Star.

The modern face of the brand, KidzBop.com, is no different. A bona fide social network in its own right, the site is a portal for their young fans to upload photos and videos of themselves, play games and host contests. And when it hosts the Kidz Star USA contest, Kidz Bop’s reality TV-style Internet talent contest, the site serves as both talent pool and focus group — streamlining the casting process while showing Razor & Tie what’s popular with their audience via Likes and shares. The approach seems to be working; the relative Internet success of Kiana Brown, winner of the inaugural 2011 contest, led partner RCA records to re-up for a second go-around.

Gavin DeGraw & RCA's Lindsey Cook at the Kidz Star competition. (photo courtesy of Kidz Bop)

RCA’s Lindsey Cook and Gavin DeGraw. (courtesy of Kidz Bop)

“I usually feel like you do have a broader reach online,” says Lindsey Cook, the RCA Records A&R Manager who co-judged the 2012 contest with Gavin DeGraw, and ultimately signed winner Wayde to a record contract. “Not only is it more accessible, it’s also more easily shared. It’s a lot quicker and a lot easier for these things to spread.”

It didn’t hurt that throughout the VEVO-hosted talent search, each of the eight finalists cultivated their own followings online. By the time Wayde was crowned the winner, he already had a built-in fanbase — a now-necessary advantage in today’s music industry.

“Dallas seemed like he was ready to make an album tomorrow,” Cook says. “You could tell that the people would react to him. He already has fans, and he’s been building it on his own. That’s what I look for. Now everyone can reach people through Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, so if you’re not already amounting fans, I don’t know that there’s that much that we can do to help you.”

Copying the formula of a top-tier talent show like American Idol is a logical move; the Top 40 successes of the show’s winners (and runners up) prove the viability of the business model. And it was no surprise that Razor & Tie took notice — the clues were right there under its nose.

Survival of the Fittest

With 11 songs covered over 23 volumes, Kelly Clarkson is the most-covered artist in Kidz Bop history. Add in Jordin Sparks, Adam Lambert, Daughtry and Clay Aiken, and you’ve got an entire CD’s worth of Kidz Bop-covered songs from American Idol veterans. Part of the reason Idol veterans dominate Kidz Bop tracklists is because they dominate the Top 40. Nevarez believes that at this point, American Idol is not just a platform, “it’s a genre” — and one that is well-suited to the Kidz Bop audience.

“It’s a kind of music that kids want to hear,” Chenfeld says. “It’s obviously not a style of music, but a way of listening to music that they actually have long been familiar with. When you think about who sells records today, the American Idol model, the Disney star model, it makes sense.”

So if the talent-show survivor archetype worked for the songs that Kidz Bop covered, could it work for the Kidz Bop Kids? The old Kidz Bop model was shrouded in anonymity; the kids in the commercials weren’t the ones performing on tour, and kids who aged out were quickly shuffled off the stage as new kids were quietly ushered in. But Chenfeld notes a shift has since been made in the way they utilize talent.

“In years past we had a few Kidz Bop tours, but we just hired some people and they went out and sang Kidz Bop songs,” Chenfeld says. “Now it’s the actual kids themselves, and it’s making a huge difference in terms of how well the shows are going and the connection that the people have with the kids.”

Current Kidz Bop Kids lineup. (Photo courtesy of Kidz Bop)

Current Kidz Bop Kids lineup. (courtesy of Kidz Bop)

No longer anonymous, the current batch of Kidz Bop kids have profile pages for fans to interact with them, and a special fan page with individual photos and short Tiger Beat-style bios. This month, they take to the theme parks, visiting 10 Six Flags parks across the country to stir up enthusiasm for the 2013 contest, which kids can audition for on the spot.

It may not be the cultural behemoth that is Idol, but the road to (minor) child stardom has often started at Kidz Bop, with several of its alumni going on to star in feature films and Disney sitcoms. With so many parents now coming to him for help with making their kid the next child star, Chenfeld is reconsidering how they handle Kidz Bop talent as they age out of their initial roles. There’s so much money left on the table when a Kidz Bop Kid graduates to the Disney Channel, he’d be foolish not to consider trying to keep the talent Razor & Tie developed through Kidz Bop in-house.

Below: Kidz Bop alum Ross Lynch in Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally

“We could be an ideal place to find kids, to help promote kids, to have a relationship with them,” Chenfeld says. “Maybe we release music from them. Maybe we pitch TV shows for them, maybe we create online property for them. I see all of those kinds of things happening as we get more into this thing. The opportunities are too great.”

Selling a Star

But for those plans to come to fruition, Chenfeld first needs a star to hitch his wagon to. And if R&T can use their mines of data to craft the best-selling Top 40 compilation possible, does that mean they can use it to craft the best-selling pop star possible? RCA seems to think so — but they’re not leaving it up to chance. While the two labels pored over feedback from the audience to see which performer was resonating with the kids, at the end of the day, they picked the kid they think they can sell.

Dallas TK (Photo courtesy of Kidz Bop)

Kidz Star USA 2012 winner Dallas Wayde. (courtesy of Kidz Bop)

“Dallas has a lot of charisma,” Chenfeld explains. “We were trying to find the kids that had the most potential.” But that potential is taking Kidz Bop in new directions. Wayde is not a singer, but a rapper. Going up against kids singing radio anthems from Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce, Wayde won the contest with a performance of “UMadBro?”, an original ode to the haters that he wrote and recorded in his basement. There are plans to record a single with RCA, and Wayde will soon tour with the Kidz Bop Kids. But after that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan — that is, other than Wayde’s teenage dreams of taking over the music industry.

 

But on its mission to adapt to a constantly shifting musical climate, it’s possible that Razor & Tie’s contest finally uncovered what Kidz Bop is really about: giving kids — even ones with strict parents — a chance to connect with music. For a lot of kids, Kidz Bop is their first exposure to pop music. The best pop music is universal, and the dream of being a star is one to which many kids can relate. In 2013, this is what Kidz Bop is selling. It has already proven it can be a launching pad for young stars. But early Kidz Bop Kids were already pros, hired through a traditional casting process. When LaMotte signed on to do Everyone’s A Star, she had already spent the seventh grade on tour with Dragon Tales Live. She wasn’t a wannabe, she was just looking for work. That her appearance on the Kidz Bop DVD didn’t turn into a Disney Channel gig didn’t crush her — she’s still performing, currently as a player at the Merry Go Round Playhouse in Auburn, N.Y.

But for Kidz Star USA to succeed, it needs thousands of wannabes. A lucky few make it to Los Angeles for the finals, but for every winner there is a handful of dashed dreams. No longer hired and fired behind the scenes, they fail or succeed in front of an audience. As the contest grows, will the road to Kidz Bop’s future success be paved with the broken dreams of scores of wannabe child stars? With only two contests so far, it’s too early to tell.

Wayde, for his part, is unfazed. For the teenage rapper from Utah, failure is not an option.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” he says. “This is my time to shine.”

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