Interview: Rick Dobbis (myKaZoo)

Richard and Rick 3_low.jpgRick Dobbis' resume is a lengthy one, with many stops in the music and record business, including a stint as president of Sony Music International. His latest effort targets a younger audience than one he's spent much of his career focusing on -- preschoolers and elementary school-aged kids.

Along with business partner Richard Ellis (that's him on the right, Dobbis on the left), myKaZootv and myKaZoo Music are attempting to bring a wide variety of music videos in one centralized (and curated) place as well as seeing if the idea of a kids' record label can be saved. Their label's first release, Farmer Jason's Nature Jams, comes out February 7, and the myKaZoo website will be up and running this month. They've got ambitious plans in a field that has seen many ambitious plans -- and seen many of those fail.

Dobbins chatted with me this week about his introduction to kids music, why he thinks myKaZoo is good for the genre and not just his artists, and one inspiration for the site's name.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Rick Dobbis: I grew up with a sister six years older than me. She was a huge, huge rock 'n' roll fan. This was the early '50s, so folks like Elvis Presley, Connie Francis. My sister was a huge Connie Francis fan -- my father once brought her an autographed picture of Francis and she just about died.

My father... the name "myKaZoo" isn't specifically named for my father, but he was an amateur kazoo player. He opened for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at an annual show three years in a row.

My first kids record was the theme from Davy Crockett. My first album was "A Taste of Honey" by Jimmy Rodgers.

How did you get into kids music?
Well, Rick Chertoff, who's a distinguished producer, he and his wife and others formed Dream Jam Productions to do stuff related to music and movement. It'd primarily been focused on books. We were sitting talking one day, and we asked, "why don't we create our own music -- good music that shares the values we're trying to convey?" That struck a chord with me, so I worked with them and that's when the Dream Jam Band came into being.

I worked with every genre over my career, and internationally at a particularly good point, a great time to open my mind. It was new, and new is healthy. There's some wonderfully creative content in the genre. It's also under-resourced and underrepresented in the marketplace.
MyKaZoo-logo.jpgSo where or when did you come up with the specific idea for myKaZoo?
We -- meaning I and Richard Ellis, who's spent a lot of time in this space with his 12to20 company -- had a sense of frustration. It became clear that there was a lovely kindie scene being highlighted in places like your site or Kids Place Live. But it was also clear that Viacom and Disney weren't in the space, the Sirius/XM merger was reducing the number of national channels, and there wasn't much local commercial radio. So we thought, to use the cliche, "If you build it, they will come."

There are lots of great characters (both performers and in the songs) and a lack of resources. myKaZoo is based on two ideas:
1) Create a platform for exposure of the genre, and
2) Given our experience in distribution, strong marketing, and partnering with Universal Music, sell music.

If you add a bunch of creative people pulling in the same direction, hopefully this will be good for kids music. If we're successful, then whether or not they're myKaZoo artists, it's good for the genre -- it's a virtuous circle.

So, don't take this the wrong way, but there have been lots of labels and folks -- Rhino Kids, Rounder Kids, for example -- who've tried to do what you're doing and haven't been able to make a go of it. What makes you think you can succeed where others have failed?
As the music business has evolved in the past ten years, the business has caught up to the genre. Those dynamics have caught up. You have to start with a realistic knowledge of what's going on. If they spent $100,000 to produce an album, then more money on mainstream ads, they quickly ran out of money. If you can have an instant response, then large dollar amounts is an OK way to go. Our first release is on February 7, it's from Farmer Jason, and he hits the road immediately afterward. If I don't support him next fall, next year, I have failed. The big splash in pop music is not the way to go here.

FJ_NJ_Cover_Final web_low.jpgWhat advantages do you offer to artists? What are you looking for?
Besides Farmer Jason we've signed three other artists, close to a fourth. Our philosophy isn't original or unusual -- we're looking for fresh, challenging work, music that has complexity and doesn't speak down to the audience. There's not a big jump from the basics to the Beatles, there's sophisticated stuff that kids can enjoy.

Lots of artists (Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, or Sukey Molloy, for example) are doing really great work for younger listeners -- "beginners" -- but our music will focus on sophisticated stuff.

Characters are at the heart of this music -- both in song and singers, and whether you have a loud big personality or a quiet big personality, that's the thread we're looking for. But we also need to make sure that within the roster the artists stand out from each other.

We want to make sure that there's stuff that's not just music-related, but more, such as stories, both for the site and elsewhere. On our channel, too.

When I was general manager at RCA, we chased a particular artist, but the artist ended up signing with another label. The artist was later quoted in Rolling Stone saying that the other label was just "smarter." We don't think we're "smarter" than anyone else. But our partner Universal Music is in a lot areas, and they take the long view. They've got the right attitude, right support. Our success will make it easier for other artists to get interest from TV bookers and concert bookers.

And how about parents?
We're creating a "walled garden" that will offer them value and range. We want to offer an environment that's age-appropriate, parent-appropriate, and positive. Now, everyone I've met in this genre aims to do that, but there aren't a lot of places that are a strong environment (for example, compare to YouTube). We're carefully curated -- if they "don't KaZoo," we want to know why.

We're going to be platform agnostic -- we'll be on Kabillion TV on Demand and we're working with Roku, for example. We want to put ourselves in millions of homes by June. We want to be a safe place to have a good time.