Screen Time (Kids Music and TV Shows)

I have had in my list of potential posts for the site an item I called "kids music TV shows" for at least a couple years.  I'd probably been thinking about the idea for long before that.  The general idea was to survey the landscape of kids music and broadly cover the wide variety of kids musicians who were making television of some sort in the consumer guide fashion to which, for better and worse, I default.

But in between the time the idea first took hold in my mind and now, something has shifted, and we're in a far more uncertain time for the creation of visual entertainment.

Think back, if you will, to a decade or so ago, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  No, that's not right.  What I meant to say, back when Jack's Big Music Show and Imagination Movers aired on Noggin/Nick Jr and Disney Junior/Playhouse Disney.  While their premieres didn't literally overlap (Jack's last show premiered in April 2008, while the Movers' first show didn't air until September that year), in my mind they are lumped together in the golden age of kids music on television.

While Laurie Berkner had already released four albums by the time Jack's Big Music Show premiered in 2005 and had achieved some level of popularity, there's no doubt that her appearance on every episode catapulted her into kids music superstardom.  (It was the release of a Laurie Berkner DVD in 2006 that was one of the precipitating events leading to my first NPR piece.)  And the show gave guest spots to about a dozen other kids' musicians as well.  While I don't think the bump for individual artists besides Berkner was meaningful, I think the idea that there was a modern take on kids music broadly was.

The Imagination Movers' show was very different stylistically from Jack's, but it, too, had a dramatic impact on the Movers' career.  While they had achieved a fair amount of success, especially in their New Orleans hometown region, the Disney show significantly increased their reach.  I went to their Phoenix-area concert in 2009, and at least a thousand people showed up, outdrawing Dan Zanes.  They were a big deal.  (They're still popular, but I'm guessing they would be even more so were the show still on the air.)

Certainly the success of those two shows could have led to more shows that drafted kids musicians into leading roles.  And my memory going back to the 2010-ish era was that a lot of musicians wanted to be drafted.  But almost at the same time that Berkner and the Movers were having success, a couple of other shows laid down an alternative path that I think proved to be the downfall of kids music on TV: Yo Gabba Gabba and The Fresh Beat Band.

YGG debuted in 2007, even before the Movers' show, and Fresh Beat Band debuted in 2009.  In each of their own ways, their approaches likely diminished the allure of kids music to both television executives and audiences.  With Gabba, the guest musical artists didn't come from kids music -- they came from the world of music for adults.  The first season guest stars were very indie -- The Shins were probably the biggest "get" -- and lent the show a certain sheen of "cool" that kids musicians are unlikely to ever provide, certainly not on a kids' show.  And as the show became more popular, the guest stars did, too.  (When The Roots, The Flaming Lips, Solange, and Weezer are willing to do your show, there's no need to check out Zooglobble for the hot new kids music star.)

The Fresh Beat Band took a different approach, but one that also excluded kids' musicians.  By recruiting singers and actors for the band, the producers of the show essentially created the Monkees for preschoolers.  (Not a slam.)  It was an approach that also proved popular (the show toured live, as did YGG), but one that didn't require any current kids' musicians.  And even if you think, hey, a band of kids' musicians created out of whole cloth, that's better than nothing, well, the show was eventually sunsetted, with Fresh Beat Band of Spies, an animated show, taking its place in a way starting in 2015.

In the wake of Jack's and the Imagination Movers shows, and while YGG and Fresh Beat Band were on the air, there was a lot of interest by kids' musicians about getting their own series off the ground.  A TV series was held up as the holy grail, the brass ring folks sought.  I don't want to suggest that it was the only thing people cared about, or that they were obsessed by it, but... there was no small amount of interest.

It's not like there was no success -- Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band got their live-action series Lishy Lou and Lucky Too on the air on several Indiana PBS stations starting in around 2013.  Billy Kelly put together four interstitials called I'm Thinking of an Animal for Rochester, New York PBS station WXXI in 2012.  But the successes for Lucky and Alisha and Billy were more regional in nature.  And Laurie Berkner's return to kids' TV in Sprout's animated interstitial series Sing It, Laurie! never really achieved the visibility of her first show.

If you want to think of the cup as half-full, though, let's not forget Steve Roslonek, AKA SteveSongs, who as "Mr. Steve" served as a co-host and musician on PBS Kids' preschool morning block.  And perhaps the biggest success was that of Tim Kubart, who after years playing with the Jimmies and creating Tim and the Space Cadets, made it onto Sprout through co-hosting the Sunny Side Up show.  And just this week the Sunny Side Up show became Sprout House, a new morning show on which Kubart -- and other kindie artists -- will now play music.  This seems like a positive turn of events, though the expected bump for any artist besides Kubart in terms of visibility should probably be small.  As with Jack's Big Music Show, the important part is in the overall visibility, though Sprout's viewership, compared to that of Disney Channel and Nick Jr. of the pre-2010 years, is likely small.  Big, in the world of kids music, but small(er) culturally speaking.

Of course, kids haven't stopped watching video, they've just moved to other places -- Amazon and Netflix, and YouTube, for example.  But that switch hasn't meant kids music getting featured there.  Sure, Amazon includes full-length episodes from Lisa Loeb and Amy Lee, but those are just one-off on-demand productions.  (Also note that those aren't kindie-first artists.)   Other networks like Ameba and BatteryPOP will offer kids music channels (generally compilations featuring a single artist), but there's less of a sense of kids music as a genre.  It's great that that avenue exists for artists, but if you're a parent, you're unlikely to stumble across kids music serendipitously -- you have to seek it out, and most likely, seek out an artist you're already familiar with.  And unfortunately for musicians, the amount that YouTube pays per stream is waaaaaay less than even places like Spotify, which many artists already feel pays too little.  (If the numbers in the linked article are accurate, a YouTube creator would have to get 150,000 views on a video just to earn $300.)

So after all this hand-wringing, I am going to end with a list of TV shows/channels on the internet that feature kids musicians.  If you are one of those dedicated parents looking for serialized shows, or at least a channel that isn't merely videos, this list is for you.  Note that I'm deliberately excluding YouTube artist channels such as those from Laurie Berkner, Caspar Babypants, and Patty Shukla that are very popular (Shukla has 385 million views), but aren't featuring shows.

If you're a kids musician whose show has been left off this list, drop me a line!

Ralph's World - Time Machine Guitar [YouTube]

A couple notes: 1) This show is well done -- it features Ralph and a group of puppets learning about music and (eventually) time travel adventures.  It is in many ways reminiscent of Jack's Big Music Show.  Ralph's been working on the show for a loooong time (his daughter Fiona is now also working on it), so I'm glad to see it finally reach public eyes and ears.  2) Ralph, update the playlist for episode #2!

Miss NinaMiss Nina's Weekly Video Show [YouTube]

This is a simple show -- every Tuesday morning, Miss Nina posts a simple live-action singalong song.  But it's probably that simplicity that's helped her attract more than 14,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, which makes her a star among YouTube kindie musicians.

Lloyd H. Miller - Ursa Major / Ursa Minor [Vimeo]

This is a serialized spy show for kids written and directed by Miller himself.  It's low-tech, and there wasn't too much music in the episodes I saw, but fans of Miller (solo or in the Deedle Deedle Dees) may want to check it out.

Dan Zanes - Dan Zanes and Friends [YouTube]

A short-lived series from 2014 featuring, well, a day (a week? a month?) in the life of Dan Zanes, musician.

How Do We Sing? [YouTube]

Finally, How Do We Sing? is a wordless meditation on weighty topics -- dreams, motherhood, death -- as told through the eyes of three puppet characters.  One of the co-creators (and puppeteer) is Chicago's Erin Flynn, thought of fondly 'round here for her Dreamer of Dreams album more than a decade ago and who also performed on the most recent Ella Jenkins album.  How Do We Sing? is definitely not a bright, shiny, poppy piece -- it's meditative and doesn't feature "kids music" at all -- but may strike some viewers as beautiful.  (If you're one such viewer, pitch in on their Kickstarter to make a full-length movie!)