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    Wed, 13 Jun 2007 16:22:19

    The Kids Are All Right - Why tween pop is providing the new blueprint
for chart success

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    If breaking a new artist takes Herculean effort, then launching a new pop act now requires nothing less than a miracle. Teen tastes are shifting ever-earlier away from synthetic sounds, while pretty boys equipped with guyliner and guitars are filling the void once stocked with million-unit boyband debuts. But a new genre is bucking the trend—eschewing conventional industry wisdom to sell millions of units to a rabid fanbase. Tweenpop is in full bloom, and it may just offer the blueprint to reverse the doom-laden decline in music industry revenue.

    When it comes to making an impact with a new artist, conventional industry wisdom is clear. Myspace and YouTube may give an unexpected boost, but what matters for sales are reviews in newspapers and magazines, national coverage and airplay, airplay, airplay. When the system works, it can work big. Akon made his debut in 2004, and thanks to crossover hits and a string of collaborations, he's now inescapable: you could seal yourself in a hermetic, media-free bubble to escape his distinctive croon, but if you walk into a store, scan through the radio frequency or turn on some kind of music programming, he'll soon appear. Tween country-pop girl Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, won't—she may have surpassed Akon's 2.3 million album sales since her debut with the Hannah Montana soundtrack in 2006, but when it comes to mainstream airplay, Cyrus doesn't even register. Neither do Aly & AJ (700,000 albums sold), Ashley Tisdale (300,000+) or Corbin Bleu (a Number One iTunes digital download).

    Such anonymity is standard in the world of tweenpop: a strange and wonderful place where artists can produce gold- and platinum-selling discs, move millions of DVDs and whip national crowds into a frenzy, but exist in such a blind-spot for those outside the 8-14 year-old age bracket that they don't merit so much as a metacritic rating. Unless you have a younger sibling, you won't have heard of them, but these shiny-toothed youngsters are following a new rulebook for chart success that ignores mainstream crossover exposure in favor of hyper-selective niche marketing and multi-platform branding.

    When High School Musical bopped its tumble-dried stars to the top of the charts last year, newspaper commentators united in shock and awe at the power of the tween dollar—and then promptly moved on. But now that the glitter confetti has long since settled, it's clear that HSM was only the beginning: from Hannah Montana (the TV show in which 15-year-old Cyrus has a secret pop-star alter ego) to Jump In (a 2007 Disney Channel jump-rope epic), a program of cute, catchy acts has been carefully launched off the back of tween TV shows and movies to huge success.

    HSM gave birth not just to the original soundtrack (now pushing the four million sales mark), but live concert CDs and individual albums from the stars Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Corbin Bleu. Corbin also starred in Jump In, whose soundtrack has already been certified gold since its January release and spawned Corbin's bouncy hip-hop-lite hit "Push It to the Limit." Meanwhile, sisters Aly and AJ Michalka feature in straight-to-DVD films Cowbelles and forthcoming My Super Sweet 16 (with Aly also starring in Disney's Phil of the Future TV show) in addition to releasing their Christian confessional-rock albums Acoustic Hearts of Winter and Into the Rush.

    While you may not love their squeaky clean pop hits, the tween-poppers are more than just a kids' craze. Labels are unanimous about the gloomy outlook for record sales, yet these acts have shifted a vast amount of product without the traditional model of mainstream, blanket exposure and marketing.The tweenpop acts demonstrate a different blueprint, leveraging the assets of shiny, bouncing performers across many platforms to maximize exposure and generate multiple revenue streams.

    With their track record in marketing to kids, it's little surprise that Disney is at the forefront of this strategy—using the same stars to create programming for its TV channels and music content for Walt Disney Records and Hollywood Records (home to all of the tween acts thus far mentioned). Additionally, they have the means to promote these acts to a niche audience on Radio Disney, which now has a loyal audience of over 3.2 million kids.

    This synergistic strategy has been in development for several years; Hilary Duff proved the archetype back in 2003. Breaking out on the kooky-cute Disney series Lizzie McGuire, Duff's pop career was launched through her big-screen outing The Lizzie McGuire Movie, whose plot conveniently included her being mistaken for a European pop star and taking to the stage. After the Walt Disney Records original soundtrack came Duff's own Disney Radio airplay-ed albums, tours and merchandising—but all along, her activities for one Disney arm (as McGuire or herself) only helped sell products for the other.

    Other genres might be well-advised take note, not simply of the niche marketing and cross-platform promotion, but the way in which tween-pop formats have elevated the "product" beyond simply being a disposable song. Instead, the labels have created an interactive listening experience around the shows and performers that commands fierce audience devotion—and substantive revenue streams. Fans have sought to recreate their HSM experience with karaoke DVDs, the live tour and even a forthcoming ice show, in addition to carrying their brand loyalty to all the stars' solo projects.

    This emotional connection to the music formed by context, not content alone, is being utilized by other industry players: soundtracks, in particular, offering not only exposure to artists, but a way to imprint emotional associations on the audience. The OC and Grey's Anatomy have led the field, with music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas bringing acts like Tegan and Sara, Metric and The Dears to some 20 million viewers a week and giving a forum to The Fray and Anna Nalick's atmospheric background songs.

    Nonetheless, while soundtrack exposure can help an act pick up airplay and other media coverage, no other genre has developed a sales strategy as self-contained and independent from external media as the Disney model. But as labels wake up to the revenue potential this blueprint provides, we could see indie acts start to chase the multi-platform synergy dream. Patsavas recently founded Chop Shop Records as an imprint of Atlantic, repositioning herself to sign acts that she could then place on TV soundtracks to promote—perhaps even on a corporate sibling network. The tween-pop legacy may prove more than just a collection of dance-pop hits: it could change the way labels approach marketing altogether.

    —Abby McDonald
    06.14.07



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