More music is aimed at young audiences

November 16, 1992|By Newsday

On a warm Sunday morning earlier this month, an eager crowd gathered at an outdoor fair along the Hudson River in New York to hear some foot-stomping songs and release a little energy.

With the water sparkling nearby, four skinny musicians took the stage and launched into their set. As the guitarist urged everyone to dance and churned out a power chord, the audience went wild, racing the stage and spinning in circles.

"Wowwooooooh!" shouted a girl in tight shorts.

It wasn't a Guns N' Roses concert. It was Over The Moon, 3/8 3/8 TC garage-rock band performing for a few dozen toddlers and parents in the hopes of building a dedicated following.

The show, which featured such bouncy tunes as the "Tiny Tinosaurus Hop" and "Mommy's Got the Mealtime Blues," was a hit. For 45 minutes, the children danced themselves silly, giving some parents a much-needed break.

The act also symbolized the surprising diversity and growth of the children's music market today, a business that now sells tens of millions of dollars worth of discs and tapes annually and has recently spawned dozens of ventures.

Once considered a musical backwater populated by folk singers and small labels, children's music encompasses nearly every form of popular music, and, in the process, has become a big business that insiders are betting will get bigger as the baby boom generation continues to have offspring.

Such industry giants as Sony, BMG and Warner Bros. are muscling their way in, and new divisions have opened to create or buy small labels. Established artists are releasing music just for children. Struggling musicians are re-directing their careers. Shelf space is opening up at record chains. Concert promoters are emerging. And a radio network is forming to give the music more exposure.

"The market is jumping off the deep end," said Laurie Sale, author of "Growing Up With Music," a new parent's guide to the thousands of recordings on the market. "There are records put out by everyone's aunt and uncle. It's a huge groundswell."

And getting bigger. Nearly $24 million in discs and tapes were sold last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group. That's up from $20 million two years ago. While that number may seem small (less than 1 percent of industry sales), it doesn't include any sales made by toy, book or clothing stores, where many of these recordings are sold. The RIAA doesn't track those sales.

Looked at another way, the number of new releases stocked by Silo Inc., a Vermont distributor believed to be the largest wholesaler of children's music, climbed to 1,700 this year compared with 500 in 1989. Silo's catalog features releases from 180 independent labels; only 75 labels made the 1988 catalog.

What's more, the music has diversified. Not only is there Ramones-like rock and roll, but reggae, country, jazz, blues and Cajun children's recordings have been released. There's also a wide variety of ethnic and religious music that has simultaneously become available.

And the music is no longer sung by artists whose names are known only to parents of children under 10. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Roseanne Cash have all contributed to star-studded releases to raise money for charities. Next month, Little Richard will release a children's disc.

"You just can't believe all the stuff that's out there," said Leslie Bixby, a buyer at Eeyore's, a popular children's book store on Manhattan's Upper West Side that stocks South African Zulu music and native American chants alongside Bach and Hanukkah melodies. "There's something for everyone."

It's a much different scene than it was less than a decade ago. In the mid-1980s, the children's market was dominated, and largely defined, by a bearded Canadian folk singer named Raffi, who single-handedly mesmerized children and parents and stunned the music business.

Raffi's success roused the record industry, which had largely ignored children's music because radio time was lacking and shelf space was restricted in most record stores.

"The business was exploitative -- aimed at a quick in and a quick out for Christmas, unless it was something really special," said Bob Hinkle, who heads Zoom Express, a new joint venture with BMG. "The industry was always trying to drive product through the market by price and familiar titles without trying to build anybody's career."

Many artists say that only when record-industry profits were squeezed by declining sales among older, established acts, did children's music get its due. "For a long time, no one took this seriously," said Joanie Bartels, a popular singer.

But with Raffi acting as a precedent, other musicians began recording children's songs, often releasing the music themselves, or signing with tiny new labels. The trend gathered even more steam when Raffi went on a sabbatical in 1988, only to return last year with a release aimed at adults.

But the market was developing for another reason beyond the race to find the next Raffi: a rising birth rate. The number of births recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau hovered around 3.6 million a year during the early 1980s, but shot up to 4.1 million by last year. The trend spells demand.

Numbers, however, don't tell the full story. As it turns out, timing was everything. "As the generation that grew up in the '60s and '70s, these parents realized that they wanted music to play a role in their children's lives as it has in their own," said Merk Jaffe, a vice president at Walt Disney Records, the biggest-selling label in children's music.

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