It's Not About the Water Bottle: 2014 XOXO Conference

I was making my way to my seat near the back of the plane, when I had this flash of recognition followed shortly by a sinking feeling:

I'd lost my water bottle.

AAAAAHHHHH!  I ever-so-briefly wondered: could I -- should I -- get off the plane to retrieve it?  Wander through the waiting area in the Portland airport?  And then I realized going back to get a water bottle was all kinds of wrong and I'd never see that lovely water bottle ever again.

What sort of water bottle, you might ask, would put thoughts of exiting a plane into my mind?  They still serve water and drinks on planes (for now).  Why the angst?

Well, it was a sweet little stainless steel water bottle featuring a logo from the conference and festival I'd just attended, XOXO. And besides how forgetting it made me feel like a dork -- what am I, an absent-minded preschooler? -- it was a tangible reminder of the very real community I'd just spent 3 days joining.  Who wants to lose a feeling of belonging?

The Redd, a former factory converted into temporary tech conference hotel ballroom in Portland.

The Redd, a former factory converted into temporary tech conference hotel ballroom in Portland.

I'll choose to blame the Andys, I guess.  That would be Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, the founders and organizers of the festival.  It seems unfair, I know, to blame the people responsible for creating and giving me the water bottle for my loss of it, but it makes sense in some perverse way, right?  If they hadn't created this festival and all the experiences within it, then I wouldn't be sad about losing this totem that could have been a daily reminder of those experiences.

The conference -- this year's edition was its third iteration -- is described as "an experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology."  What does that mean, though?

If you wanted to describe the conference as a tech conference, you could do so without drawing any snickers.  There were many people from technology firms large and small in attendance. I talked to programmers (lots of programmers), data visualizers, designers.  I'm sure that if I were part of that community in my daily life I could have -- and would have -- had more conversations that discussed APIs, whatever those are.

(I kid. I know what APIs are. Sort of.)

But I am not part of that community.  My dad was many years ago -- maybe if I'd told my story about attending SIGGRAPH as a teenager with him more than 25 years ago I'd could've earned some IT cred -- but me? No.  I have a middle-class job I enjoy very much but that is emphatically not in the art and/or technology fields.  I was at XOXO because I:

a) won a lottery (well, multiple lotteries, more on that later),

b) write and talk about kids music for fun and, occasionally, (comparatively little) money, and

c) knew enough about the Andys and their previous conferences.

I thought it'd be a fun time and that I might learn something.

So for me, XOXO was not a tech conference. It wasn't even a creatives conference.

It was, above all, a conference modeling possible ways to negotiate life.

My game of Marrying Mr. Darcy -- so, so fun.

My game of Marrying Mr. Darcy -- so, so fun.

We joke in my day job that if you learn something new -- on your own, not from someone else in the office -- you get to take the rest of the day off.  Doesn't matter how job-related the fact is or isn't -- in fact, the less related to the job, the better the joke when somebody tells us some incredible fact they just learned and then says, "OK, I'm outta here, see you tomorrow."  Although we joke about it (no, we don't actually leave the office), there's something serious underlying that conceit.  It's the idea that curiosity is a valuable trait, sometimes for its usefulness to the job at hand and sometimes for its (current) uselessness to the job at hand.

I suspect many XOXO attendees would subscribe to that notion.  I met puppeteers, house concert organizers, people who develop apps and websites or played in bands on the side.  I met very few people with narrow interests.  Collectively and individually, there was a pronounced tendency towards interest in, if not outright enthusiasm for, new things.  In this regard, I was amongst my people.  I met lots of people, too -- it was a very outgoing crowd, or at least one in which wandering up to a conversation in progress or talking with someone waiting for lunch from the food carts parked outside the conference building was expected.

I'm a believer that conferences are remembered not by the ostensible purpose of the conference -- the talks, the workshops -- but rather the entertainment and conversations surrounding the conference.  XOXO scored very highly in that regard, attracting a group of interested (and interesting) people and then giving them spaces in which to interact when the talks were over.  I was most acutely drawn to those events which allowed the highest degree of interaction -- Music (singing along and dancing with others is fun!) and especially the Tabletop event.  I highly recommend Marrying Mr. Darcy, which I purchased on the spot after playing, and can also recommend the forthcoming Monikers.  I danced and sang along to Pomplamoose with fellow XOXO attendee Lori Henriques one night, and John Roderick and Sean Nelson the next (Roderick playing a gig with a broken finger on his strumming hand for goodness' sakes).  I played video games -- I almost never play video games.

Hey, it's Pomplamoose!  (Live at Holocene, Friday night)  Do not miss them, people!

Hey, it's Pomplamoose!  (Live at Holocene, Friday night)  Do not miss them, people!

I watched as the XOXO CEOs -- that is, Chief Enthusiasm Officers -- Andy and Andy sang and danced along with the rest of us.  Yes, they had to deal with the major and minor annoyances involved in putting together such a large undertaking, but they also had figured out a way to structure their life for the weekend such that they could also take time to sing along, to indulge their joy in the carnival they'd brought to life.

Hank Green is a funny, funny man.  Right!

Hank Green is a funny, funny man.  Right!

Most of the talks during the daytime conference were good, with my attention only drifting through a couple of them.  They will eventually be posted online, and I encourage you to check them out, particularly those from Erin McKean, Hank Green, Joseph Fink, Rachel Binx, Darius Kazemi, and Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin.

The talks themselves (16 in all) blur together a bit -- but you can search the #xoxofest tag on Twitter and find lots of pithy quotations from the presentation, half of them probably from Wordnik (now Reverb) founder Erin McKean.  She talked about creativity, coining the phrase "an enthusiasm of Andys," and about how being creative in a separate field with no stakes (in her case, her affinity for sewing clothes for herself) offers her freedom.

She also talked about difficult times, how "The only way out is through."  This is a slight reworking of Robert Frost's famous line from his 1914 poem "A Servant to Servants" -- "The best way out is always through," but the meaning is the same -- you can't escape difficult times, you just have to work through them.

I would offer a corollary piece of advice appropriate for XOXO that the only way in is, well, in.  To start.  That's probably an easy statement to make in the midst of hundreds of people who start and make stuff, but harder to hold onto a month later when you're at home with far fewer of those people around you.  We are all interdependent, as several speakers reminded us, and so gratefulness is always a good approach, but those interdependencies and webs of support can be hidden too.

Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame gave a talk notable for its movement (was he pacing? It sure felt like he was pacing) and for not taking much credit for his success.  He essentially found it random (as did Joseph Fink, co-creator of the out-of-nowhere podcast-now-live-show phenomenom Welcome to Night Vale).  And if success at some level is essentially random, then you need to think repeatedly about why you're doing something so you can adjust course if necessary. "Better to think about why you want something than what you want," Green said, and depending on the path your life takes, "you might not want what you thought you wanted."  In other words (mine, to be clear): do something for how it makes you feel or because it's the right thing to do, not for the end result. Because you can't guarantee that end result.

I think that's Oregon peaches with toasted walnuts on top, some sort of chocolate with a hint of sea salt on the bottom.

I think that's Oregon peaches with toasted walnuts on top, some sort of chocolate with a hint of sea salt on the bottom.

I'm a straight, white male, reasonably fit and healthy, and with a middle to perhaps upper-middle class upbringing here in the United States.  That means I've already been luckier than 95% -- 98%? -- of anyone who's ever lived in terms of the ease of my life.

It is the equivalent of having someone hand you two scoops of ice cream served in a waffle cone from Salt & Straw for no reason whatsoever. (I took one of my dinner breaks to walk there from the conference and eat ice cream. For dinner. It was worth it.)

It is the equivalent of winning the lottery.  Maybe not the million-dollar jackpot -- though I suspect that over a lifetime those personal characteristics may very well have given me a million dollars worth of advantages -- but certainly a big deal.

And being at XOXO was like winning the lottery again.  I literally won a lottery to attend -- that was how the Andys chose to divy out most of their passes to the event to people who applied online, and my name was randomly selected.  It wasn't cheap, either -- $500 for the conference and festival pass, plus travel expenses.  That middle-class day job I have?  That allows me, with diligent budgeting, to sometimes do something like this.

So I spent a lot of time listening and thinking about privilege.  For me, some of the most useful presentations and conversations of the weekend were the ones like that from Rachel Binx, who has founded a couple different companies, but who was brutally honest in recounting the times when running those business has been difficult financially.  I talked with art dealer Jen Bekman about a presentation she found frustrating in a way I might not otherwise have understood.  I got to see one of the iOS apps that the App Camp For Girls developed this past summer and talk about the need for more such environments with founder Jean MacDonald.  I'd like to think I understood those concepts intellectually in my younger dats, but as a parent of a STEAM-obsessed Miss Mary Mack who's now thinking about high schools and math and programming, it's become more real for me.  (All this, plus a talk about misogyny in gaming by Anita Sarkeesian, whose presentation was far more calm and rational than I would be if I'd had death threats lodged against me and my mere presence to give a talk required the presence of a bodyguard.)

The most subversive talk of the conference was from Darius Kazemi. I don't want to ruin his talk too much, but suffice it to say it was funny and served as a commentary on many talks at tech conferences and, to be honest, lots of conferences generally.  Kazemi points out that a lot of people's success is based on luck -- he pinned the percentage of stuff that succeeds with the public at maybe 10%.  This is similar to what musician Jonathan Mann said in a separate talk, and also echoed the comments of Hank Green and Joseph Fink.  Both success and failure can be inexplicable.

Not that successful people don't work hard -- many of them do. Heck, I've won those lotteries I've mentioned above, and I still work hard. But to interpret your own success as based solely on work is to deny the power of randomness. Lots of people work hard and never achieve stunning success. Better, then, to focus on the process than the result and try as many things as you have time to.  (David Lowery would agree.)

My XOXO was one of a billion possible XOXOs I could have had.  Most of them would probably have been equally strange and wonderful.  A handful might have unalterably changed my life (presumably for the good, but one never knows).  But it's the XOXO I did have, and I'm grateful for it.  (Thanks, Andy and Andy.  You guys rock.)  Being humble in the face of good fortune you know you're at best only partially responsible for is a good approach for life generally.

I won once more at XOXO, which I can barely believe.  (Actually, I won at least once more beyond that, earning a free game for a score on a Shrek pinball game at a party Friday afternoon, something that I don't think I'd ever earned on any arcade game, pinball or electronic, but never mind that.)

I was one of six people picked to receive a NeoLucida, a small "camera lucida" drawing tool which refracts light so that the viewer can essentially trace an object sitting in front of him or her.  The two men, Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin, who co-founded the company also gave a presentation, and their talk was notable for their pointing out that even in this high-tech society, the manufacture of things still requires people.  The NeoLucida is put together by hand in China by people making far less per day than I make (see again, lottery).

I wanted the NeoLucida because I've never been comfortable with my drawing skills.  That's another way of saying I'm really bad at it.  But by serving as a drawing aid, the NeoLucida offers the opportunity to practice, while producing something that looks, sort of, like real life.  (In particular, I'm looking forward to drawing members of my family.)  I don't need for it to be perfect, I don't even need it to be good.  I just want another way to express creativity, another process to learn, another way in.

In the end, that's what I'm choosing to take from XOXO instead of the water bottle.  The water bottle is a physical reminder of something I did. The NeoLucida and the attitude of XOXO's attendees are reminders of something I'm doing now and what I should do in the future. As long as I walk through life with curiosity, humility, gratefulness, and awareness of others, I can be proud of the life I'm living.

Emily White: NPR Intern. Future Parent.

There was a big kerfuffle last year when an NPR intern by the name of Emily White noted she had paid very little money for the music in her collection.

Commence Internet apoplexy.

The response that got the most attention was a long response from David Lowery, best known for his work in Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, who is probably one of the smartest guys in rock music, not to mention very knowledgeable about the economics of the recording industry. (His presentation at the EMP Pop Conference a couple years back was thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.) It is multiple thousands of words, Lowery’s response, but let me sum it up: Emily was wrong.

At the most basic of levels, I agree with Lowery, though my notions of why Emily was wrong had more to do with ethical considerations than econo-ethical reasons. Meaning, an illegal download is something done without the content creator’s consent. Lowery also suggested that the low rate of return of services such as Spotify and Pandora treat musicians unfairly, a topic he returned to in a slightly overhyped manner a year later.

My purpose here is not to address the idea of whether there is such a thing as "fair trade music." Instead, I want to look forward 10 years to when Emily becomes a parent.

OK, I don't know anything about Emily and her personal life. But even if she doesn't have kids, plenty of her friends will. And the question I want to address here is, what does that mean for kids music?

I think that most kids musicians would feel pretty lucky in that their fans (or, rather, their parents) actually buy CDs. Or iTunes downloads.

They are not looking on illegal downloading sites.


But things are changing quickly.  With services like Spotify and Pandora allowing streaming of music for free (with varying types of controls), even law-abiding folks have ever-increasing opportunities to listen to their favorite music -- or their kids' favorite music -- without having to pay a cent.  That's not to mention services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud which make it easy for musicians to share their music for free.

Not that all of them want.  Justin Roberts has led the charge, kindie-wise, against Spotify.  In an article in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks back, Roberts notes he gets about a half-cent per song -- that'd be 6 cents if Roberts put his latest album Recess on Spotify (it's not -- just the title track).  He notes that "It's frustrating to see something that I spend a year of my life working on and a large amount of money to make be almost completely worthless when it comes out."  And from that perspective, who could blame him?  There are probably only a handful of albums I've ever listened to 150 times or more, which would generate the same net revenue that buying the album for $12 on Amazon would probably provide.

It should be clear that Spotify is not a revenue generator.  It is, at best -- if at all, and it's not clear that it is -- a promotional tool that might generate enough money in a year for Roberts to have dinner out, maybe with his wife, but if so, then not at a very fancy place. 

So he's taking a stand for purchasing albums.  In an interview this summer with Kids Can Groove, Roberts said:

"I think streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are great for music discovery, however, they are quickly becoming a substitute for people actually purchasing recorded music and I find that troubling. As an independent artist with a small but devoted fan base, I rely on people purchasing recordings to pay back the expensive costs of making a professional sounding record. Beyond that, sales of recorded music has been one of my main sources of income as an independent musician.”

The problem as I see it, is Emily White.

Well, not Emily specifically -- I've never met her.   But even if she's the exception now -- and I'm not sure she is -- she won't be the exception ten or even five or even fewer years from now.

The worst-case scenario is this -- music, along with all sorts of other entertainment, becomes increasingly commoditized. There are no more personal relationships with musicians as music becomes just another thing to fill an entertainment gap. And getting music -- entertainment -- for free or via all-you-can-eat entertainment buffets becomes the default mode of consumption, which works out OK if you're Beyonce or Lady Gaga or whoever else can afford to invest a million or two in generating a blockbuster, but not so well for artists in niche fields.  (While I'd like to believe the fanciful scenario of Jennifer Egan's incredible prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad , I don't see kids music saving the record business.)
On top of that, kids' musicians face the additional challenge of recreating their fan base every 5 years or so as fans age out of their target audience.  At least Beyonce and Lady Gaga (and even, it should be noted, fellow Spotify-hater Thom Yorke of Radiohead) have years of fanbases which slowly accrete. 
Am I suggesting that every kids musician give up the ghost now?  Are they all doomed?  Well, no, but I think that the kindie world needs to re-think what they're doing.  I'm not saying that kids musicians haven't thought of these issues -- and in many cases, folks will say "Der.  Known that and been doing that for years now."   And I know that what I'm about to say is easy for someone who isn't trying to make a living making music -- believe me, I totally get that.  But here is what I think artists, even and especially kindie artists, will have to do to keep making a living.
1) You are not in the record business anymore -- you are in the music business: It may take a little longer, but eventually musicians will not make the majority of their income from selling records.  They will have to make up the difference from streams, from concert revenue, merch sales, and the kindness of strangers.
2) You are not in the music business -- you are in the relationship business: How are you going to make money? You're going to convince families that they should let you into their lives.  For a lot of artists, that's going to be through performing live.  For some others, that may be through media for which music is secondary -- books, videos, apps, puppet shows.  And for a handful, it may still be through selling records, either on CD or as bits.  But I think artists will make most of their money through the connection -- intense connections even -- they make, especially in ephemeral, not-to-be-duplicated ways.
Why are Kickstarter projects all the rage right now?    It's because people want to connect to and support the work of creators.  In fact, while I the pre-order is the most popular type of reward for music projects, I think there's room to convince fans to contribute for the sheer joy of connection.
It is possible that some artists may also make their living through performing for non-paying crowds -- in libraries, for example, or in schools.  But long-term success in the former is going to require that same connection that good artists have had for centuries.  And success in the latter will increasingly put you, the artist, in the role of teacher of a subject.  Can you tell stories that teach kids a specific subject?  Is that what you want to do?  If so, great -- if not, then you need to find a new venue.  (And, while we're on that subject -- yes, you should find the venue.)
3) You are in it for the long haul: Finally, I think that it's possible that one of kindie artists' greatest hurdles is inextricably linked to one of kindie music's keys to long-term success.  Kids musicians need to constantly find new audiences as their old ones age out.  But at some point, those audiences become parents.
They become, in short, Emily White.  All that time spent dealing with parents as the intermediators suddenly becomes less important as those 28-year-olds remember being 5 years old spinning around at a concert, laughing to a story told on CD, or watching a funny video on YouTube.   I joke about how nobody becomes a parent and says with an awed voice, "They write books for kids?" because that's the situation we're in when it comes to kids music.  What happens 5 years from now when the generation who grew up on Ralph's World's debut album, or Laurie Berkner's Whaddaya Think of That? , or Dan Zanes' Rocket Ship Beach , or Roberts' Great Big Sun  welcomes a child into the world?
If that artist is still making music, it's possible that they could recoup the benefit of those parents remembering the joy they felt dancing to Justin Roberts at the Getty Museum on a bright summer Saturday afternoon.  They could even recoup the benefit of grandparents remembering the joy they felt watching their kid dancing to Justin Roberts at the Getty Museum on a bright summer Saturday afternoon.
Those moments, moments that artists like Roberts and dozens of others excel at creating, are what will convince parents like Emily White to share their money.

Textbooks and Novels

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a kindie manifesto, my attempt to synthesize several years of thinking about the purpose and value of music for families.  In some respects, it was a starting point for a conference presentation I've not been asked to deliver, and in that way, it is the first of a three-part series.

Part two below is something I've been pondering for well over a year.  It's me trying to state more plainly (albeit wordily) my preferences as a parent, listener, and reviewer.  Part three... well, I'm pretty sure it'll surprise you when I get around to writing it.  But there's plenty to consider (and for some of you, disagree with).


I have a (well-deserved) reputation for not taking out too much after things I consider poorly done.  It's a little frustrating to me because one of the reasons I started writing kids music reviews online is that I couldn't find much in the way of reviews that provided some gradation of quality.  Everything in magazines was uniformly awesome, even though once you listened, things clearly weren't.

Add to that my firm belief that taste is subjective and my own consensus-driven nature in many ways, and the result is not much in the way of "this is bad" kind of reviews.  I have a general rule -- totally unanalyzed, but I think it's probably pretty close to the truth -- that the top 20% of kids music albums can appeal to most listeners, the worst 20% will appeal to very, very few, and the other 60% in the middle will affect different listeners differently.  So that's 80% that some person somewhere not related to the musician will likely enjoy.

In addition, the nature of music discovery these days on the internet means that the only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all.

But I do try to provide some sense of comparative narrative when I write about kids music here.  Some albums or videos are good for certain listeners, some are good for just about everybody, and some are basically unreservedly awesome.

And on rare occasions I say something like I did about the Grammys 18 months ago, I tend to couch it in very muted terms -- "hey, this is just my personal opinion."

Still, even in that case, I got some pushback, and most of it sort of revolved around the idea that we (or I) should be more supportive of the kids music scene generally, that suggesting that some artists aren't as popular or central or whatever other comparative adjective you want to use as others is definitely not supportive. 

So here are a few words about what I like in kids music, offered not to denigrate what I don't like, but to explain why I think the music I do like it supportive of the genre as a whole.


My questions to artists is whether they're writing novels or textbooks. 

Textbook-writing is a noble profession.  Writing books or apps or whatever we're going to be writing in the 21st century is An Important Job.  My dad wrote and/or edited a whole series of computer science-related textbooks related to his work.  Textbook writers are trying to help people learn something, and what could be wrong with that? 

Absolutely nothing. 

Me, I'm a guy with a graduate degree earned in the 20th century.  I have read a lot of textbooks in my time.  And, I can tell you, while some of those textbooks must have been important to my learning as I grew up, I don't remember the name of a single textbook author, or textbook, for that matter.

Not a one. 

And you probably can't, either.  OK, maybe you can remember one textbook that totally changed your life, maybe even its author(s), but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

On the other hand, how many novels can you remember?  How many authors did you discover when you were 9 or 14 or 20 or 26 whose reading affected you deeply, whose work you followed, maybe for 5 years, maybe for 25?  Sure, there are a ton of books you've read and forgot about before it made it back to the library, used bookstore, or donation bin (or was swiped to delete off your e-reader), but there are probably a few books you've carried around (physically and metaphorically) through thick and thin.

The choice facing a kids' musician is whether they want to be a textbook author or a novelist. 

Do they want to write and perform music who literal raison d'etre is to teach kids about a particular subject?  Or are they trying to make art that might communicate something ineffable about life, or just bring joy?

It doesn't matter how important the subject is that a musician is trying to teach -- if that is the primary reason for the existence of the music being made, then parents (and not a few kids) will sniff that out.

Note that lots of art -- kids music included -- teaches.  I'm more concerned with music that seems to be crafted to impart a lesson rather than tell a story.  The line between teaching and preaching is not easily defined, but most folks of any age know it when they hear it.  As I summarized the concept in my manifesto, "stories not messages."  I believe kids and adults retain much more the former than the latter.  I think the Deedle Deedle Dees' songs are great because they're much more in the "stories" camp than trying to teach kids essential facts about Important Historical Figures.

And parents?  We're in the dream business.  We want our kids -- and ourselves -- to be transported.   To have somebody put into words and music things that sound prosaic coming out of our own mouths.  We want, when possible, to share those experiences with kids.

Let me be clear: if someone wants to make music whose purpose is to teach a subject, I think that's great.  (Music-education basic music is another subject entirely that doesn't quite fit in this model, but we have used that a lot in our family.)  But the music that will live on in our family is most likely going to be music which reflects kids' experiences and joy.


I wrote a lot of this while traveling to New York City for Kindiefest.  Because it's such a long haul for me to get to Brooklyn, I try to spend at least a little time being a tourist.  This time I went (back) to the Museum of Modern Art.  The place was absolutely packed.  Great crowds of people looking at art made a century ago or more. Artists followed their muses, and their names are now known forever.  The people who drew the many different maps that helped me get from Arizona to MOMA performed a valuable service to me but I have totally forgotten those maps.

I hope I've been open to recognizing music made for all purposes, but when it comes to kids music, I have a preference for novels over textbooks.  This site has been an expression of that.  Kids music in the form of "novels" takes many forms here, from silly to serious to sublime.  As my own kids slowly slide out of the kindie target age range, I think the albums they'll remember will be the ones that inspired them, not lectured them.  The songs that encouraged them to find their own path, not told them what path to walk down.  The music that encouraged more questions rather than gave them the answers.

I realize that praising novelists over textbook writers will sound ironic from someone whose site has tended toward the encyclopedic and recommendation-based.  And I realize that music and programs with specific pedagogical intent may be increasingly important as funding for music within schools is increasingly directed to specific pedagogical purposes.  I am just standing up for the idea that there is another approach to making music for families -- the "dream business" -- and that that's the approach which will, over time, have the greatest impact in keeping kids music a genre to be celebrated.

A Kindie Manifesto

I am not a person to whom the word "manifesto" comes easily.   Given my own personality -- a predilection for strong opinions loosely held and the ability if not compulsion to see multiple sides of an issue -- I tend not to shout my opinions from the rooftops or present them as the  opinion.

Having said that, I've written probably two million words on the subject of kids music on this site (not an exaggeration).  It is safe to say I have an opinion or two on the matter.


The wonderful Liz Gumbinner, co-proprietor of literally the biggest platform for kindie music on the internet, Cool Mom Picks (her audience >>> my audience), drew attention to this video on the subject of toddler music from Wired  on her personal blog, Mom-101 a couple days. As Liz notes, the video hits mostly all the right notes regarding parenting and music, but strikes such cluelessness regarding what music's being made for toddlers these days that it's hard to believe it's the same magazine whose website once published kids music reviews from GeekDad and GeekMom, and, yes, even published a review from me in the actual magazine.  (Not to mention picking targets -- if they'd published the same piece but substituted, say Yo Gabba Gabba!  for the Wiggles and Barney, people would wonder about the piece's logic.  And more kids watch YGG  today than the other two shows.)

This ignorance (feigned or real) of a large swath of music made for families has inspired me to consolidate my views on what kindie music is into a coherent list (because stuff on the internet should always be in list format).  I've been spreading the word about the incredible amount of quality music available for families for years now, but clearly some people have missed or are ignoring the message.  Maybe I need to dumb it down a bit.


What follows is a distillation of a decade and two million words into ten points regarding what good kindie music is and how it should be integrated into families.  (Why ten?  It's a round number, time-honored for lists, and a lot easier than ninety-five.)

Some caveats (because I'm all about the caveats):

  • Most of these points aren't absolute -- I could grade music I hear on a spectrum for a lot of these, but I've found that a lot of good kids music meets or fails a lot of these criteria as a group.

  • This should not be read as saying this stuff has only occurred in the past decade or so.  There are of course artists who've been living by these rules for twenty or thirty years, and I'm glad that they helped pave the way (and are still an important part of the kindie community), but the technological and societal changes of the past fifteen to twenty years have made following this philosophy easier if not essential.

  • It's only a  manifesto, not the  manifesto, but it's born of more than a decade of listening to, considering, and writing about music made for kids and families.  If you're at least a semi-regular reader, I'm guessing that your own manifesto will have more points in common than not.

Here goes:

1.  Kids deserve their own music: In just about every other cultural arts endeavor -- literature, theatre, television, playthings, apps -- the concept that there are separate creations specifically for kids is expected and celebrated.  Nobody's saying, "I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and watch Mad Men  with my kids and it's good enough for them."  Nobody becomes a parent and is surprised to find that people write and draw books for kids.  But that's still a common attitude when it comes to music.  Why is it so hard for people to accept that kids might want music that speaks to them?

2. Kids music should reflect the full range of kids' experiences in language they understand: In an interview with me a few years ago, Peter Himmelman -- who knows a thing or two about making music for kids and adults -- said that the "child is as intelligent as his adult self, but some things are beyond his experience."  Not a small amount of music made for adults is written about experiences beyond that of a child (e.g., romantic love).  The emotion of loss and elation is universal, but how kids experience those emotions is different from how adults do.  Ironically, although kids' range of experiences may be limited, the range of experiences in kids music is much broader than music generally.

3. Music for kids should be made with every bit as much care as music made for the rest of the population: Do illustrators for kids books limit themselves to the crappier brushes from the art store?  Do producers TV cartoons for kids recruit anyone from off the street to voice the characters?  Do bloggers hate strawman arguments?  Of course not.  If you're an artist willing to use cheap electronic keyboards and drum tracks in making music for kids, then you better be willing to use those same keyboards and drum tracks if you make music for adults.  You don't need a dozen band members if that's not your style -- folks like Ella Jenkins or Randy Kaplan can captivate an audience with nothing but a harmonica or a guitar -- but you do need to treat your audience, whatever its age, with respect.  And don't get me started on album art, suffice it to say that after receiving way more than a thousand kids' CDs, probably two thousand, the quality of album art and packaging is close to being a statistically significant indicator of the music inside.

4. Stories not messages: I think kindie music is at its best when it tells stories -- character studies, funny jokes -- or shares experiences (dancing, singing along).  It should start with that as the premise.  It is difficult for music to be engaging when it starts off with an idea that it should be about  something.  Artists like Justin Roberts, Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, Laurie Berkner, They Might Be Giants -- artists, I would add, who are tremendously successful not only artistically but also commercially -- have never appeared to say, "I want to record an album about [important subject X].  I know, I know -- I could list a number of albums who violate this point, but those are the exceptions who point to the rule.  Note I said "messages," not "lessons," because there's a lesson to be learned from almost any song, but it's often just a byproduct and not the reason for existence.  Albums that teach a subject (be it a school subject or a life skill) well are valuable, but they're valuable for their educational purposes and the value musically is often mixed at best.

5. Musicians not characters: This is a bit simplified, because there a number of kindie "characters" who are totally kindie.  Gustafer Yellowgold, for example, and his whole world of animated friends, or the videos of Readeez.  What I'm getting at is that in a world where self-expression is prized, anonymity of creation is a big ol' warning sign.  Morgan Taylor and Michael Rachap are very visible creators of Gustafer and Readeez.  I would rather hear an individual and unique creation than a pre-fabricated set of interchangeable anonymized parts in a musical widget.

6. Kindie music as community: Musicians have always banded together, of course, even kids musicians.  But the level of interaction is at a much higher level now.  That interaction can occur on record, of course, and it does for many musicians, but even many of the musicians who are less "sharing" on record are often sharing of their time and support in other areas and at events like Kindiefest.  That idea that we're bound for better weather together, that one's success does not mean another's failure, is key.  As a result, there is no excuse -- NONE -- for uttering, writing, or even thinking the phrase, "Finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy."  It wasn't true thirty years ago (though such albums were fewer in number and harder to access) and certainly isn't true today (would I really spend 10+ years and two million words on crappy music?).  As time goes on, if you are a musician (or writer) and continue to peddle that line, I am increasingly willing to believe you are ignorant or deliberately misleading.  It is also more common than you might think that music advertised as "finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy" will, in fact, be music that nobody will enjoy.  And, more to the point of kindie music as community, it also diminishes the genre you're trying to succeed in.  Stop it.  Now.  Seriously.

6. Sing and dance along: This is not a new concept -- music was originally a participative art and it's only been in the last century or so that performing and passive listening has become a common if not default mode of interacting with music.  But kindie families should not fall into the trap of popping the CD into the CD player (or scrolling to the correct mp3 on their smartphones) and pressing "play."  Dance along.  Sing along -- sing even if there's no music playing.  Your kids will -- you should, too, and the best kids music will make it easy to do.

7. Music is better heard live: And what better place to sing and dance along than by seeing music performed live?  I mean, sure, maybe you sing better in the shower or your kids wail along in the bathtub, but I highly advise against dancing in either locale.  It can sometimes be difficult to hear kids music live with your kids -- you live in a town or city with few if any kids musicians, and the difficulty of stringing together tours for kindie musicians (since gigs can often only be managed on weekends) makes it even more difficult.  But it's worth the effort.

8. Enjoy this with your kids: You should be able to share these experiences with your kids.  We see theatre with them, take them to movies, watch TV, play sports, walk out in nature -- so, yes, there's room to listen to music with your kids.  There is a sizable body of work in kids music that I can say without any qualification is enjoyable to parents just as much as kids.  Sometimes that's because it's incredibly danceable, sometimes it's because it's a perfect pop song or an absurdly funny aside, and sometimes it's because the songwriter has tapped into an emotion that's universal and written it in a way that's accessible to listeners of many different ages and experiences.  

9. It's OK if kids listen to stuff you hate: Or, alternately, it's OK to hate your kids' music.  One cannot make their kids cool by forcing them to listen to a certain band, adult or not.  Cool comes from self-confidence, and self-confidence comes from exploring all your options and knowing that the music you're listening to (or, not to put too fine a point on it, making) most reflects your personal tastes.  I think one job of a parent is to give their kids a wide range of experiences, not so they can become cool, but because they'll understand the world a tiny bit better.  The kindie parent probably doesn't have to give their kids a "Barney" experience, they'll probably get that on their own without you having to help.  Hence, your desire to bring a little Lunch Money or Secret Agent 23 Skidoo or [insert-your-own-favorite artist] into the mix.  But, you know, if they want to listen to or watch Barney, that's OK.   Because music is a personal thing, and kids should be able to own their tastes.  And as a side note, remember that you shouldn't follow this rule slavishly - it's OK to listen to your own stuff, too (with your own parental standards, whatever they may be, applying).

10. It's OK to like what you like, just give kids their own opportunity :  OK, I'll fess up -- I had a variety of points I wanted to mention and as I consolidated and refined them, I came to #10 without anything left to write.  So this is me, emphasizing that music helps us, regardless of age, relate to the world.  Whatever music you like, listen to or perform that -- your kid seeing you enjoy music will drive home the idea that music is a good thing.  Kids will eventually find their music without your help, but with the best of today's kindie music you can provide them with many more maps to choose from.

Best Kids Music 2011: Big Ideas

Nope, we're not done yet with our look at the best in kids music from 2011. For the second year in a row, I'm going to list big ideas from the past year. Not so much albums or songs, but concepts or trends I think will continue to have big impacts. Inspector Widget: Maybe this is just the blogger/website operator in me, but the biggest trend of 2011 to me was the full flowering of web businesses designed to make it incredibly easy for artists to share their music with the world. Unlike the trainwreck that Myspace was from almost the beginning, these new entities let artists share (and sell) their music with a minimum of fuss and distraction. I'm talking about websites like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Noisetrade, and Topspin. Now, all of these entities existed prior to 2011, but there was a definite increase in the usage of these entities by the music world in general, and kids music joined right in. Rather than making listeners come to the artist, these embeddable widgets make it easier than ever to meet potential fans where they are -- on Facebook, on Twitter, or on music sites that know a good thing when they hear it. (Ahem.) Widgets Aren't The Only To Have Your Music Heard: 2011 wasn't just the year of the widget, there were lots of other innovative ways kids musicians got their music out in front of fans both current and potential. One of my favorite (and potentially most important) is from The Bazillions, who have established their own Roku channel to provide instantaneous streaming of their videos to literally millions of households. (Details here.) But iPhone apps, iPad apps, Kickstarter campaigns, and circus collaborations were other ways that kindie musicians tried to reach folks who might not have thought of kids music beyond the big box artists. Two Heads are Better Than One: Sugar Free Allstars and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. Little Miss Ann and Suzi Shelton (with an assist from Baze and His Silly Friends' Marc Bazerman). Recess Monkey and Dean Jones (collaborating on the next Recess Monkey album, In Tents. Just a handful of the individual song collaborations between artists whose collaborations might not have occurred just 5 years ago when the scene was a lot more scattered and solitary. Collaboration has always occurred, of course -- folks like Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and Bill Harley have reached to make music with others for a long time. But connections happen so much faster now that I expect that such collaboration will soon become the rule and not the exception. kinDIYsmall.pngFourteen Heads Are Better Than Two: I mentioned this concept last year in the wake of Kindiependent, the Seattle-area cooperative promoting six local bands. But other areas continue to create their own support groups. Besides AMFM in LA and Let's Play! in San Francisco, which both formed in 2010, the Windy Kindie Chicago Cooperative set up shop this year. And the most active cooperative is probably KindiePDX in Portland, Oregon, which teems with activity, advice, and, well, support. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention kinDIY, the self-organized wiki-style site (founded by Bill Childs and Susie Tennant, and which I'm an administrator of) designed to help kids' musicians navigate the complex world of kids music. Ending the Damn "Finally": Jeff Bogle at one point this year suggested a simple piece of action that he thought (and I agree) would go a long way towards increasing the visibility of kids music -- having musicians suggest to their audiences other musicians they might enjoy. In my words, it's up to musicians to end the damn "finally." You know, those "finally"s that say, "Finally, kids music the whole family can enjoy." That statement is a lie, shows ignorance on the part of the speaker, and worst of all, it conveys the idea that the kids music genre is incredibly small when just the opposite is true. Musicians need to convey to their audience the truth, which is that they are part of a long-standing tradition of making music for families that has never been as vibrant as it is today. Some artists have done that in the past, and more are doing it today, but there's room for a lot more. Even if you're not collaborating with anyone else on record or on stage, it's time to share the love more broadly.

Why Listen to Kids Music (An Open Letter to Tom Moon)

Zooglobble: What are your musical memories growing up? Stefan Shepherd: I remember being in the back seat of the car on weekend drives through northern California hillsides, listening to whatever easy listening station my parents could find. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Herb Alpert and ABBA... I remember my dad building an electronic organ with multiple keyboards and pedals, the works, when I was in elementary school, maybe first or second grade? I took lessons for maybe 8 or 9 years. I even took piano lessons for a year or two to strengthen my fingers for organ, that's how hardcore we were... We went through Babies R Us when my wife was pregnant with Miss Mary Mack. I was excited to look through their CD section. I recall it being pretty small. We found a CD -- I can't even remember the title and I doubt we have it anymore -- and I remember being very disappointed when I actually listened to the thing -- the nameless (literally, there were no credits on the thing) people responsible for the music couldn't have been bad musicians, but they produced something so schlocky that we had to find something else to listen to. **** IMG_6387.jpgLast week Jeff Bogle from the fine kids music website Out with the Kids participated in a "debate" with the music critic and musician Tom Moon. Heard on WHYY's Radio Times, the hour-long program featured a discussion of whether kids should listen to kids' music or adult music. You can probably guess which side Jeff took, and therefore can also deduce Mr. Moon's position on the question at hand. I say "debate" in quotation marks, because, as someone quipped on Facebook near the end of the hour, it was like hearing a fundamentalist debate a Unitarian Universalist. Jeff would cede some eminently reasonable point made by Tom ("You're not going to catch me arguing against the Beatles"), while Moon would entirely refuse to grant even a single point Mr. Bogle made worth considering. Let's put it this way -- it started out by Tom criticizing Lunch Money's gently amusing fable "It Only Takes One Night To Make a Balloon Your Friend" (listen here). As the 20- or 30-second excerpt ended, Moon railed against it as a song teaching kids to make friends with balloons (it's, um, not) and by the end of the show seemed to imply that Mozart would never have composed his many masterpieces had he listened to music like that. For someone so interested in musical discovery he wrote an entire book about it (1,000 Records To Hear Before You Die -- download the list here) to be so utterly dismissive of an entire subset of music (in response to hearing the Dan Zanes/Sharon Jones cover of "In the Basement," he said that it was nice, but he was pretty sure he'd enjoy anything on her records with the Dap-Kings than on that album -- sound unheard) was a little dispiriting. At first I chalked it up to the way that debates end up polarizing the argument so that people are more concerned with making points rather than finding some common understanding. But maybe I misunderstood Tom Moon -- maybe he completely believes that, that there is no point to kids' music. **** This past year I've thought some about how to spread the word about great kids' music to the world at large. So I presented at the EMP Pop Conference on adult artists creating second careers in kids music, for example. And I've tossed around some other ideas. But what if there are lots of people who ask: "So what? Who. Cares." It's not an unreasonable question. We in the kids music world spend so much time talking about what we think to be good kids' music -- mostly to others in the kids' music world -- that we don't take a step back and say why it's important in the first place. My goal here, then, is to lay out my theory of why kids' music is not only valid but important. I've borrowed a few pieces of information here and there (and I'll note those borrowings accordingly), but the theory (and its faults) are entirely my own.