Pop musicians nurture a growing kiddie market RHYME OR REASON

May 07, 1994|By Kelly A. J. Powers | Kelly A. J. Powers,Special to The Sun

When Donna Burns went to the record store recently to get the new Kenny Loggins CD, "Return to Pooh Corner," she paid $15 then handed it over to her 3-year-old daughter, Caroline.

It's not your parent's music any more. And perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the burgeoning field of children's music, where former adult AOR hit-makers are now appearing in the Top 10 list of kid's music.

A variety of adult pop stars are now crooning to kids. Peter, Paul and Mary, for example, are selling more records than ever as Peter, Paul and Mommy. Both Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen sang lullabies for their children on their latest albums, and Jerry Garcia winds up "Teddy Bear Picnic" on his album for kids. Even Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz and X's John Doe have their own kids' album, "Primary Colors," which has an ecology theme.

In the last five years, kids music has grown up. And the diversity is extraordinary: there are albums with influences from country, reggae, classical, pop and, of course, folk.

"Children's music used to be just folk or nursery rhymes. Now it's everything; there are children's albums in everything except heavy metal," says Moira McCormick, who tracks children's music for Billboard magazine.

Why the overpopulation of pop stars in kids' music? After all, there's not much money to be made, at least in comparison to selling a pop album. According to Billboard, last year's receipts for kids' music totaled less than 1 percent of what pop records make. A measly $30 million.

However, Ms. McCormick notes that that $30 million represents only those kids' CDs sold in record stores. "The vast majority -- 60 percent to 70 percent -- are sold outside record stores. They are sold through bookstores, concerts, toy stores. I think $30 million is way underestimated."

Underestimated or not, children's music is not that lucrative a line of work. Those who do it -- and there are many, besides pop stars, who specialize in the field -- need to have their heart in it.

"A lot of people, especially maybe from the pop side, are mistaken that you can do this on the side for lots of money," says Ms. McCormick. "But they're wrong. Remember, a double platinum Barney album only comes along every millennium."

Which is why Kenny Loggins was discouraged from releasing his entry into kids' music. "I got a warning that doing 'Return to Pooh Corner' would ruin my image," says Mr. Loggins. "My own label, CBS/Warner, didn't want it."

Mr. Loggins wanted to do this album when his first son was born almost 13 years ago. Four kids later, he did it, releasing the album of lullabies under Sony Music's new Family Artists label.

Little guys hurting

Sony's new label was created as a way of marketing children's music almost exclusively to parents instead of kids. "The goofy, stereotypical, 'like the hokey-pokey' is not this new label," says Alan Winnikaff, Sony spokesman. "This is music that everybody can enjoy together."

Sony, Warner, BMG and other labels know the money is not big in kids' music. Yet. The hope is that it will be bigger. "Children's music as a market is really growing rapidly," says Ms. McCormick.

Now that this niche has the attention of big labels and big stars, is it for the better?

Some veteran children's performers are not impressed, noting that many of these newcomers are not exactly breaking any new ground -- preferring to fill their albums with nursery rhymes and tunes from "The Wizard of Oz."

"People in the big music industry don't want to take the risk, because they have no idea what kids want," says Val Leonhart Smalkin. As half of the Val & Pam Kindersingers duo in Baltimore, Ms. Smalkin hopes these pop stars are signing up because "they have kids, not because it's an easy way to make money."

"That's my objection with these big acts," says children performer Barry Louis Polisar. "They push off the shelf these quality, innovative acts from smaller labels. You see the Olsen Twins from 'Full House' ["I Am the Cute One"] everywhere. It's in every bookstore, every record store, everywhere!"

If there is a tinge of jealousy in Mr. Polisar's voice, it is because he feels for the legions of performers trying to make it in this field. A children's performer's life is exhausting. Most play gigs at nights and on weekends, hawking their tapes before, during or after shows; they can't afford to quit their day job.

"There's only a handful of people who do this full-time," says Mr. Polisar, who lives in Silver Spring. "There's me, Raffi, Tom Chapin and not many others." Mr. Polisar has sold a couple hundred thousand of his recordings and travels across the country performing most of the year.

The common factors among successful children's performers is a simplicity of sound and good songwriting. Raffi is credited with bringing respectability to children's music a decade ago.

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