The Kindie Music Scene: Performing Music For Kids
Recently, I spoke with Debbie Cavalier, who is a children’s entertainer and vocalist for Debbie and Friends, a kindie music group. She's also Dean of Continuing Education and Chief Academic Officer at Berklee College of Music. Joining Cavalier in this interview is Beth Blenz-Clucas. She's the founder of Sugarmountain PR, a firm that specializes in raising awareness children's and family-friendly music.
Several months back, I wrote about kindie music and Cavalier was kind enough to get in touch with me. To me, kindie music is an opportunity that emerging artists might be interested in. In this interview, Cavalier and Beth Blenz-Clucas share their perspectives on the kindie music scene and provide insight into how the genre, due its young fans, operates a bit differently from the commercial field.
During this period of economic regression, kids music has been rejuvenated with new life and has almost arisen as a counterforce to the state of popular music.
Why do you think kindie music has seen such expansion? What's the challenge in informing parents that they have these new options?
Debbie Cavalier: I think high-quality kids/family music recordings have always been in existence. Those of us making music today are standing on the strong shoulders of pioneers like Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, Shari Lewis, Bob McGrath, Raffi, and many others. There are current pillars in the industry that have been holding the bar up high for quality kids/family music for 25+ years including Bill Harley, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.
And artists who have been providing quality programming for the past 10 years such as SteveSongs, Dan Zanes, Ralph’s World, Laurie Berkner, Elizabeth Mitchell, Ben Rudnick, and so on. The list truly goes on and on.
Kids/family music is thriving with quality music and production values that are off the charts. And, there are producers like Tor Hyams who are identifying and producing incredible new talent in this genre like 23 Skidoo, Okee Dokee Brothers, Lunch Money, Mr. Stinky Feet and more. (There really are so many more and I apologize to the many kids/family artists not listed here.)
It’s also nice to see so many mainstream artists such as Bare Naked Ladies, They Might Be Giants, and many others who have crossed over to serve this important audience.
Beth Blenz-Clucas: It’s true that there are hundreds of new bands creating great music for kids. Because indie kids’ music is exploding, the challenge now is just cutting through all of the noise that’s out there and finding the best ways to set yourself apart, and connect with new fans. Really, every two years, you have to reach out to a new fan base as kids grow out of the genre.
Parents are actually luckier than ever because of the digital ecology of music culture online. The flowering of the family music genre is a direct result of this brave new world of web-based marketing and social networking. Artists who previously could not find an audience outside of their hometowns are now reaching out and connecting with people all over the world. Debbie’s connection with her animator in Wales is another example of how technology has actually helped her move her career forward.
Hypebot: At best, the state of popular music is quite perplexing—catchy maybe—but it is so limited in its reach, subject matter, and demographic appeal.
Whether you're tuning into Ke$ha or Taio Cruz, the lyrical emphasis pertains to such small part of the human experience. Songs subjects range from partying, sex, drugs, break-ups, and love, among other difficulties. Unless fans listen to indie music, they'd be hard-pressed to find songs that are about much else.
What makes the artistic constraints of family music so different from the mainstream? How have the subjects that performers tackle even strayed away from those that "kid's music" normally deals with?
Debbie Caviler: I don’t think there are constraints aside from age-appropriate vocabulary, melodic ranges and intervals that are comfortable for young growing voices, and subject matter that is relevant to a child’s world.
The sky is the limit related to style, instrumentation, tempo, form, etc. I think the folks at the Children’s Television Workshop have shown us for 40+ years that it’s important to address challenging issues, to validate a child’s experience and to help them to cope. Joe Raposa’s classic song “Being Green” addressed cultural diversity issues for kids dating back to the early 70s. Justin Roberts has a song that deals with the reality of divorce for kids and families. I recently wrote a goodbye song called “Until Next Time” and recorded it as a duet with Bob McGrath from Sesame Street. The song is being used by families to say goodbye to loved ones, pets who have passed, or friends who are moving away.
I’ve also written songs like “Willy Won’t Smile for the Camera” that deal with truly vexing issues in a fun and effective way. It’s enjoyable for the kids and even helps to relieve a little parental stress along the way.
Hypebot: As physical albums have withered and become displaced by digital singles, many artists have been catapulted into the road indefinitely, in hopes of capturing better, more sustainable incomes though touring.
Yet, with this abundance of artists on the road and the difficulties that others are having in gaining traction in overly saturated genres, the path to success in the record and music industries is being redefined.
Emerging artists are now in search of new opportunities and any means through which they can make money and remain creators of art.
Do you foresee kindie music as an enormous opportunity for artists in this climate? What do you think are some of the greatest barriers that prevent new artists from wanting to perform music for children?
Debbie Cavalier: There are no barriers that prevent kids/family artists from “wanting” to perform music for children. Personally, it’s one of my most favorite things to do and I know many of my colleagues in this space feel the same way. Performing for/with a kids/family audience is incredibly fun and rewarding. The kids are active participants in our Debbie and Friends concerts from start to finish! And, CD sales are very strong at shows as well. I think physical CDs will be relevant in kids/family music for many years to come.
It’s a tangible “present” that a parent, grandparent or caregiver can give to a child. I don’t think that will change any time soon. My experience has been that the “iPod” rip happens after the CD purchase. Currently, downloads make up about 10% of our overall music sales for Debbie and Friends. I believe that is true for many kids/family artists. The only barrier to performing live is related to economic challenges for families. Ticketed theater shows can be financially prohibitive for families.
Beth Blenz-Clucas: I agree that the children’s genre is going to continue to be a good one for physical CD sales, at least for the next few years. Kids like to have something to look at and feel – and they make a fun, lasting gift. There are some artists who do see themselves as primarily studio artists.
They don’t perform for kids much (and with a few of them, you wonder if they like children at all!), but the best ones get out there and learn first-hand what works and doesn’t work with their target audience. Interactivity such as what you do in your shows is KEY for this audience. Children learn best experientially, and we know they just have to MOVE.
It’s true that venues are having a hard time right now finding sponsors that will help defray the costs of tickets. Libraries and schools remain the most reliable way for many artists to earn an income.
Hypebot: A major point of discussion in music and record industry circles has been the DIY artist and debate that they can't do everything themselves.
It's said that management and music labels will still play a major role in the future of recorded music and live performers. Bundled in with these conversations is the notion that we are moving away from a top-down, winner-takes-all market to one with an increasing number of musicians that exist somewhere in the middle class, making a steady, humble income, but not getting a jet anytime soon.
Based on your involvement with kindie music, do you think many of the artists are DIY? Have any middle class musicians emerged yet?
Debbie Cavalier: I’m not sure of the moniker “Middle Class,” but I do know many kids/family artists that are earning a full-time living in music and always have. I don’t think the demise of the record labels has had a negative impact on kids/family CD sales. Aside from a few household name artists, I don’t think the majors ever truly embraced the kids/family genre whole-heartedly.
I think kids/family artists have been in DIY mode for many, many years; long before the elegant tools of technology became available. Technology has certainly armed musicians with the ability to expand their reach and be more targeted with marketing messages and direct-to-fan campaigns, but in the end I believe it’s still about relationships and connecting with the fan families at shows.
Beth Blenz-Clucas: The artists who get out on the road and perform do indeed manage to earn a livable income. There’s no doubt this genre demands hard work and dedication. You can’t just release a CD and expect sales to come sailing in. You need to pull all the pieces together – a great concept and “brand,” fantastic music that speaks to kids and parents, then it’s all about how you market what you’ve got, via distribution, publicity, promotions, social networking, and live performances.