Several years ago, Vic Zaraya, the president of the music brand Kidz Bop, was having lunch with a senior music industry executive. At the time, Zaraya was also the president of Razor & Tie, the independent label that released Kidz Bop albums until 2018.
“Kidz Bop is our Adele,” Zaraya told his lunch companion. The executive laughed at him.
If anything, Zaraya was underselling Kidz Bop’s standing. The series began in 2001 as a lark: an album of current pop hits sung by tweens with sanitized, safe-for-all-ages lyrics. Two lawyers with a passion for music, Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, had formed Razor & Tie in 1990, initially selling compilations like “Monster Ballads” and “Those Fabulous ’70s” via direct-to-consumer television commercials that were themselves kitschy delights. They applied the strategy to Kidz Bop, and the lark became a startlingly successful, still-running series of albums.
Kidz Bop has scored big with versions of songs like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Since 2001, more than 20 million Kidz Bop albums have been sold, and during a remarkable run between 2005 and 2015, the rotating crew of Kidz Bop Kids earned 22 Billboard Top 10 albums. In fact, only three artists — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand — have more Top 10 albums than the Kidz Bop Kids. Adele has three.
But while Kidz Bop has become a name familiar enough to be referenced on “Saturday Night Live” and minted a few breakout A-listers — the future Disney (and “Euphoria”) star Zendaya got an early boost performing the Kidz Bop version of Katy Perry’s “Hot n Cold” in 2009 — the series’s exceptional chart success has evaporated in recent years. None of Kidz Bop’s last seven albums has reached Billboard’s Top 10, and three of the last four haven’t even cracked the Top 40.
“One of the problems is the idea of a compilation is somewhat obsolete,” said Vickie Nauman, the founder of CrossBorderWorks, a music industry consulting group. “Compilations filled a need because they were portable, curated and a way to sample different artists without buying 10 albums. But playlists are the new compilations.”
While Zaraya doesn’t see Kidz Bop as a compilation, the series’s chart struggles coincide with an overall sea change in how people consume music. Between 2015 and 2018, streaming grew from 35 percent to 75 percent of the music market in the United States. Can Kidz Bop surge again, or pivot — or is it going to become a fading relic of the CD era?
The Kidz Bop concept grew from Chenfeld’s and Balsam’s experiences ferrying their own elementary-school-age children to birthday parties. (Both left Kidz Bop last year, after Razor & Tie was absorbed by Concord Music.) The music played at these events tended toward either groan-inducing jingles aimed at younger children — think Barney or the Wiggles — or hits by the likes of Britney Spears or Eminem that frequently contained language and themes inappropriate for 8-year-olds.
Kidz Bop steers clear of risqué songs, and rewrites potentially offending lyrics. A recent cover of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” swaps “My life is a movie/Bull ridin’ and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty,” for “My life is a movie/Bull ridin’ and bougie/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler like on TV.” Kidz Bop albums became something parents and kids could agree on, ideal for the minivan’s CD player while the children sat in back, juice boxes in hand.
“Kidz Bop identified this need and super-served a particular audience, which is kids and parents willing to let their kids play these CDs on repeat,” said Nauman.
With CD players disappearing from those minivans, Kidz Bop debuted its own Sirius XM channel in 2014. That’s where Geoff Boothroyd and his daughters, Claire, 9, and Caitlyn, 7, first discovered the series.
“I was actually dismissive of the station, but the girls were like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this song before! Daddy, don’t change it!’” said Boothroyd. “It works well because I know that it’s age-appropriate and not going to end up with curse words and such.” Now his daughters also listen through Apple Music playlists, but it’s almost always under the supervision of Boothroyd or his wife. “We monitor them pretty closely, given their age.”
Zaraya contends that Kidz Bop’s recent Billboard dip doesn’t signal an accompanying dip in popularity. “The charts don’t reflect overall consumption for our brand properly. We’re not first-week-focused, first-month-focused or even album-focused,” he said. “When we release ‘Kidz Bop 39,’ people go to Spotify and don’t necessarily listen to ‘Kidz Bop 39.’ They listen to the Kidz Bop catalog.”
Although Kidz Bop continues to release albums to streaming services and retail outlets, the pace has slowed. The next one, the second of 2019, is due in November, but in 2020, for the first time since 2002, the company may only release one album. The focus instead is on a constant flow of singles.
“It has changed drastically,” said Michael Anderson, Kidz Bop’s senior vice president of music, who has overseen the recording process since the series’ inception. “It used to be that I’d record songs, collect them, then had time to figure out the sequence and release it.” Now, he said, “Every other day, I’m submitting a new song to record, then our video team is coming up with scenes for a new video and getting it shot quickly.”
While the rise of streaming over the past five years has been well-documented, the changing listening habits among elementary-school-age kids is less clear. Back when choosing music involved a monetary transaction, whether at Walmart, iTunes or a record store, parents were likely supervising these choices. Now, it’s shifting. The sight of 9-year-olds with their own smartphones, while maybe not standard, is no longer shocking, and young people are iPad and laptop natives. That means the 5- to 10-year-olds who make up Kidz Bop’s target demographic are making more of their own music choices than they were a decade ago.
“What’s been really transformative for us has been smart speakers,” said Zaraya. “Children can ask for what they want directly to the speaker.”
But streaming services aren’t built with children in mind, as Greg Cham, a former consultant for Kidz Bop who has worked on projects including Disney’s multiplatinum Cheetah Girls and “High School Musical,” pointed out. “They’re designed specifically for adults,” he said. “The problem is that parents don’t have the understanding or the ability to curtail the activity of children at this point, primarily because technology has gotten away from the parent.” (Cham is also, not coincidentally, the founder of a new music streaming app for kids called Fruit Punch.)
According to the user agreements for most streaming services, including Spotify and YouTube, users must be at least 13. Although many kids (and parents) ignore this rule, left to their own devices, will more third graders stream the Kidz Bop version of “Me!” or the Taylor Swift version? And maybe more important, do parents really want their third graders browsing Spotify or YouTube alone?
“One reason Kidz Bop CDs have always done well is because it’s a safe environment,” said Nauman. For parents today, controlling their children’s access to music can be an all-or-nothing proposition. Parental controls on Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music are often unwieldy and unreliable, a broadsword solution to a problem that needs a scalpel.
This helps explain why Kidz Bop has managed to continue selling CDs long after the rest of the industry wrote them off as viable products. While Kidz Bop’s total album sales — the number of CDs plus digital downloads sold, according to data from Nielsen — have dipped from 818,000 in 2016 to 410,000 in 2018, that drop-off is comparatively modest. Drake sold 1.9 million albums in 2016, but only 436,000 last year. And more than 330,000 of Kidz Bop’s 2018 sales were physical CDs — nearly three times as many as Drake.
Nonetheless, Kidz Bop’s album sales have continued to fall this year. Its streaming numbers, though, are moving in the opposite direction — from a little more than 300 million total streams in 2016 to 833 million last year — and they’re on pace to top a billion for the first time this year. But those stats don’t put the brand in the same echelon it once inhabited. According to Nielsen’s music consumption data, the Kidz Bop Kids ranked 120th among all artists in 2018.
“The transition from albums to where we are now was challenging,” said Zaraya. “As we watched the CD business decline and the streaming business was slow to grow, we had to start spending and thinking really creatively about how we reach new consumers.”
Kidz Bop launched its YouTube channel in 2014, which now has more than 1.3 million subscribers. New music videos, as well as instructional dance and behind-the-scenes videos, are uploaded weekly. “We have our own in-house production team,” said Sasha Junk, Kidz Bop’s senior vice president of marketing. “We’re producing 150 music videos annually.”
When Junk joined the company 10 years ago, one of her core ideas was to transform the Kidz Bop Kids, which had previously been a collection of studio performers, into a troupe of 10- to 14-year-olds who starred in music videos, made public appearances and did live performances.
“Now, they’re the faces of the brand,” she said. Some of those faces went on to bigger things — in addition to Zendaya, Olivia Holt, Becky G and Ross Lynch were all once Kidz Bop Kids — which has given the group a hint of the star-factory cachet of Disney’s early 1990s Mickey Mouse Club, which featured Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling.
Performers age out of the group — conveniently before they become seasoned divas with real problems and demands — but in the era of “The Voice,” “American Idol” and social media, the pool of eager potential replacements is seemingly endless. In fact, every young fan is invited to imagine themselves onstage. “It’s aspirational, but attainable,” said Junk.
That’s certainly the case for David Schwartz’s 9-year-old son, Dylan. David bought a Kidz Bop CD at Target when his son was only 2, but now Dylan listens through the family’s Apple Music subscription. “It’s more than just the music,” Schwartz said. “He’s also on YouTube, watching the videos, picking up the dance moves.” Dylan recently attended a full-day Kidz Bop workshop in Dallas, taught by the company’s choreographers and vocal coaches. “They taught him auditioning skills, the skills he’d need to be a performer,” said Schwartz. “He runs around telling people he’s going to be a Kidz Bop Kid one day.”
Full Kidz Bop Kids tours began in earnest in 2014, but initially were mostly a loss leader, playing venues with a capacity of 500 to 1,500. “The tour was something on the side that would push our music and brand,” said Anderson. “Now it’s its own beast.” The shows are tightly choreographed affairs, complete with video screens, confetti, pyrotechnics and four Kidz Bop Kids occasionally playing live instruments while running through 60 to 90 minutes of songs. Over the past three years, the tours have sold half a million tickets, and this summer’s 50-city trek is hitting outdoor amphitheaters and arenas.
Beginning in 2017, additional Kidz Bop Kids troupes were introduced in Britain, then Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, debuted the Kidz Bop Experience, a sort of Kidz Bop fantasy camp, where kids can learn dance moves, write songs, design album covers and star in their own videos. This year, a second Kidz Bop Experience opened at a Hard Rock in Mexico.
Zaraya sees Kidz Bop evolving into a burgeoning empire: “We’re at an interesting inflection point, analogous to where Disney was in the early ’80s when they had theme parks and some movies but only a glimpse of what they were to become,” he said.
The brand faces some unique challenges, though. For starters, their fans inevitably grow out of their fandom. “You have new kids being born every day, so our core audience is constantly repopulating itself,” said Junk. “They learn about it from older brothers and sisters, and everything we’re doing on YouTube, so we constantly have a refreshed audience.”
Becky Montaz’s 8-year-old, Katie, decided to go see the Kidz Bop Kids at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles last summer because her 12-year-old sister had been a fan. “She loved them,” said Montaz. But when Katie chooses the music she wants the family’s Alexa to play now, it’s not usually Kidz Bop. “She’s into whatever the 12-year-old is into. So she’ll say, ‘Play Billie Eilish.’ Or, ‘Play Selena Gomez.’”
Although Kidz Bop was the first brand to successfully mine this underserved market of elementary schoolers, their success hasn’t gone unnoticed, and that market is now coveted. As streaming services roll out more curated “Kids and Family” playlists and radio stations, and apps like Cham’s Fruit Punch try to create their own safe space for children to discover music, Kidz Bop is hoping the connection it has forged with consumers is a renewable resource.
“We’ve been around so long that parents who were kids for the first few volumes now have kids of their own who are Kidz Bop age,” said Anderson. Album sales and streams may fluctuate as technology continues to remake the industry. “But pop culturally,” he said, “we’ve achieved another plateau.”
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