21st Century Kids Music and Record Companies

I've been thinking for some time about whether kids music can co-exist peacefully -- or even prosper -- with record companies. David Bryne's presentation "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?" (first presented in Montreal last fall, which really started my thinking about this, and at SXSW Thursday) is a fairly stinging indictment of the current record company model.

So allow me to be snark-free for a little bit -- how relevant are his arguments to this particular segment of the music industry?

Let me start out by outlining how the current record company model fails even more spectacularly with the artists we cover here.
To begin with, some of the most prominent kids' musicians are persons who have had varying degrees of success in other segments of the music industry. Some, like Dan Zanes and Brady Rymer, had some moderate levels of (commercial) success in bands on major labels. Others, like Justin Roberts and Laurie Berkner, never made it to a major label. Ralph Covert had some success... but on his own label. And They Might Be Giants? Well, they've had success on every type of label you can think of.

What I'm suggesting here is that many of the musicians now making music for kids and families have already gone through the major label wringer -- or never even it made that far -- and are a result probably less willing to go through that hassle again. They have no desire to put up with major label demands, onerous contracts, or silliness in general. They're just not going to mess with it.

Why wouldn't they? Thousands or artists shoot for that brass ring every year -- why not this group? I would surmise that a major reason for many -- though certainly not all -- artists is the very reason they got into the genre in the first place: kids, especially their own. If you have a child and enjoy spending time with your kid(s) so much that you want to make music for them (or others their age), I'm guessing you have a low tolerance for the high risk/high reward payoff that a major label contract entails. You no longer need the mansions on the hill -- your perspective at 35 is much different from that at 21. And you're probably pretty sensitive to obligations that would take you away from your kids for long periods of time. Even if you don't have kids, those extra years of maturity may help you recognize what you do and do not want from a music career.

In addition to these artist-specific reasons, consider the overriding fact that the amount of money any artist on a major label can receive per album sale is miniscule. David Bryne puts it at about 10% of a $16 CD. If you sell 10 million copies, OK that works out well. If you sell 10,000 copies, well, then, that's not so hot.

What has happened is that the function of the label as "bank" has become much less relevant as the costs of recording an album has diminished. And in kids' music, which tends to be recorded on an even smaller shoelace, that function is just that much less important. Nobody needs a $50,000 advance to record a CD, let alone a $500,000 advance to film a couple videos to go along with it.

You can get 1,000 CDs printed for a couple grand and sell them easy-as-pie through CDBaby or Amazon. That's a capital start-up cost that you don't need EMI for -- it can pretty much be financed by Aunt Emily. Since most kids' artists probably make the bulk of their money through touring and playing in schools, the CDs aren't even that important, distributionally -- it's a return to the early days of rock'n'roll, when albums were produced to gin up interest in the tours, where the real money lies.

And all that doesn't even address what might the biggest concern for music in general -- the public seems to be moving toward a more singles-based, electronic product. Albums don't seem to be very relevant any more.

All of which begs the question, why even bother with record companies? This is where I'd like to suggest three ways in which record labels can remain relevant for the kids' music industry.

The first is in album design. I often harp on album design here, and the reason is that it matters. People still like to give CDs as gifts, especially to new parents, and a bad album cover or packaging can be the single biggest factor in driving someone to another album for gift-giving purposes. Nifty packaging suggests that somebody has taken some thoughtful time to put together an album, that it's not just another slapped-together product. Nifty packaging can even give the gift-giver this feeling of, "I'm about to give you something very special, not just another random item off your baby registry." And labels can provide that guidance and expertise in creating packaging that will give the purchaser enough confidence to give it as a gift (or take a chance on it for themselves).

The second way is in distribution. I think most kids musicians would tell you that distribution is the hardest nut to crack. You've got a great CD, but unless you can find a distributor from your product, you're pretty much going to be limited to CDBaby, Amazon, maybe a few niche e-stores like The Pokey Pup and Land of Nod, and your local stores (if you're lucky). Maybe in some Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores. What you don't have generally is placement in other physical locations -- in Targets and Best Buys, for example. It would be very interesting to see exactly where Dan Zanes sold his 100,000+ copies of Catch That Train! -- I bet quite a few of them were sold in Starbucks stores. The trick, friends, is to get the CDs where the parents are, and at the moment, too few of the albums are in those physical locations. Labels would help in getting placement with distributors. I'm not suggesting there'd be a "Zooglobble"-approved aisle at your local Target, but the only albums currently there are Disney albums, with maybe a few Rounder or Razor and Tie CDs thrown in the mix.

The third way is more nebulous, but also important, and that's as an indicator of taste. Disney has served this function for many, many years. You may love or you may hate Disney-produced music, but there's no doubt that you know you'll get something of a certain style and with a reasonable degree of production quality. But aside from Disney there's not much else out there. Rounder's got a sizeable artist roster, but not much familiarity. Razor and Tie doesn't really have any familiarity outside of its KidzBop series. Little Monster Records could be there in a few years, but it's just starting out. What I'm suggesting is that there is definitely room for a label to become the Matador or Merge or SubPop of the kids' music scene -- not necessarily in terms of style of music, but just as the label which is always bringing new and interesting music to people's attention.

I definitely think album design, distribution, and indicators of taste are valuable and while they won't turn your current 1,000-copy run into a 3-million best-seller, they are probably things that can turn good albums from 1,000-copy runs to 5,000 or 10,000-copy runs. And that seems to me to be a worthwhile risk for some artists to take.

Now I don't think we'll ever see a return to the days where the label owns the music and the artist just gets a cut. Labels will have to be satisfied with taking, say, a 15% or 20% of album sales if they help the artist from start to finish. And, frankly, they will probably have to become more like artist management like Nettwerk, where they provide the artist with as much (or as little) help as they want, for a sliding fee. Maybe they offer design consultation for a set fee or for a percentage of album sales. Distribution could be purchased separately, or production, or whatever. It's music production dim sum.

Obviously labels would have to carefully consider which artists they choose to "sign up" and release or risk diminishing their value as an arbiter of taste. And there's no way that someone could choose to get into this field and hope to make millions of dollars. If you were able to put together 10 artists that could sell 5,000 copies of an album each year, you'd be talking maybe $750,000 in revenues, of which you'd be lucky to take home more than $100,000. That's not even worth mentioning to major labels. But to a person who's really interested in kids music and who maybe has a connection or two in the industry, it might be worth the effort.

I've got more thoughts along these lines, but I'll stop for now right here. Have I forgotten something? Artists, have I gotten something completely wrong? Let me know...