Market for hipsters-in-training
CASEY BONHAM LETO, age 5 months, wasn’t to blame. Neither were his parents. Right down to his rock ’n’ roll middle name — a tribute to Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham — everything had been done to bestow him with rock-kid credibility at the earliest possible age: On the floor of the puff-cheeked baby’s living room in Jersey City were toy guitars and a set of Metallica nesting dolls. On his powder-blue onesie pajamas, in gothic script, were the words “My crib rocks.”
Yet when his father recently unwrapped a new CD of ’80s British alternative rock reimagined expressly for babies, Casey was indifferent. As “Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of the Cure” played on the stereo, he kicked fitfully in his bouncy seat. He appeared not to recognize the wordless glockenspiel-and-vibraphone rendition of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.” Within seconds he spit up.
His parents, though, liked what they heard.
“This is hilarious,” said his mother, Pam Leto, a music publicist who works with bands like My Morning Jacket and Eagles of Death Metal.
“It’s actually really soothing,” said her husband, Dave Leto, the tattooed drummer for the indie rock band Rye Coalition.
It was the kind of reaction — hook the parents, never mind the kid — that Lisa Roth was looking for when she founded Baby Rock, the Los Angeles label behind the kiddie Cure album and lullaby tributes to Metallica, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, Tool and Coldplay released this year.
Almost the reaction, anyway.
“I’d love for the parents to say, ‘Wow, this is really funny,’ and for the baby to fall asleep,” said Ms. Roth, 48. “It would also be great if it was like Rock 101 between parent and baby. A steppingstone.”
To be a parent in 2006 — especially a coastal, well-heeled, contemporary-minded one — is to be blasted by possibilities for nurturing impeccable musical taste in one’s offspring. The commercial successes, like Disney’s “Baby Einstein” series of albums, have been widely noted on the Billboard charts and in Wal-Mart shopping carts. But they overshadow a hipper niche of kid music that is encouraging a curious form of parental connoisseurship, where “High Fidelity” meets high chairs.
That this ballooning genre is meant as much for the parents as the children, and probably more, is readily acknowledged by some of those producing and buying it.
“Parents are looking at music as a gift you give your children, as something you discover with them,” said Kevin Salem, a rock record producer in Woodstock, N.Y. “Sharing it is a way of making sure music stays in good hands.”
With his wife, Kate Hyman, Mr. Salem formed Little Monster Records in part to guarantee that their 4-year-old daughter, Emily, is exposed to what her parents consider to be good music, like the label’s “All Together Now,” a Beatles tribute featuring Steve Conte of the New York Dolls, the Bangles and others that is being sold exclusively through Barnes & Noble. Its placement in time for the holidays is so far paying off: “All Together Now” landed at No. 84 on Barnes & Noble’s list of top sellers the day of its release.
“Sesame Street” can probably be credited with (or blamed for) helping to create the modern idea of kids’ music as a socially loaded part of a parent’s developmental tool kit. Pop science too. “Baby Einstein,” begun in 1997, prompted new parents to engage infants musically in the name of healthy brain building; based largely on word of mouth, sales figures reached the multimillions by 2001, when Disney bought the company. Fueling the trend are mass-media tie-ins like this year’s “Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film ‘Curious George’ ” (Brushfire/Universal), the Jack Johnson project that made its debut at the top of the Billboard album chart.
According to executives with a rash of new indie labels and children’s music blogs like the Lovely Mrs. Davis (lovelydavis.blogspot.com), this kind of music really took off in 2002, when Dan Zanes, formerly of the roots-rock band the Del Fuegos, reimagined what worthwhile children’s music could sound like. His CD “Rocket Ship Beach” (Festival Five), recorded in his Brooklyn basement with friends like Suzanne Vega, sneaked up on parents with likable, sharable songs and a homespun sensibility. Mr. Zanes clearly struck the right chord, and has created a kiddie-entertainment empire that includes videos, concerts and even a partnership with Starbucks for this year’s “Catch That Train!” (Festival Five).
Mr. Zanes has a lot of company these days. Ralph Covert, of the grown-up band Bad Examples and the family-friendly Ralph’s World, has built a cottage industry to rival that of Mr. Zanes. Other artists who have dipped into kiddie rock include the country-punk singer Jason Ringenberg, the all-girl band Luscious Jackson and members of the Mekons, who tried on alter egos in the band Wee Hairy Beasties, whose album “Animal Crackers” (Bloodshot Records) came out in October.
It is doubtful that they will all equal the success of Mr. Zanes, whose grass-roots Internet marketing and local parental support have helped “Catch That Train!” sell 125,000 copies. But their market sense isn’t unfounded.
Christopher Noxon, author of “Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up” (Crown), identifies an emerging demographic of 30-plus, forever-young-minded Lucky Charms eaters aiming to reset the boundaries of adulthood. He says it’s little wonder their children are being turned into rock fans, at least in their parents’ eyes.
“Their parents encourage it,” Mr. Noxon said. “They think it’s funny and that it sets them apart. Plus, if you listen to that music now, like I do way too often, you realize it’s kids’ music: three chords dressed up with all this distortion.”
Such parents can take credit for the success of this summer’s Kidzapalooza, the two-year-old arm of the Chicago-based rock festival Lollapalooza, which lured a crowd of 160,000, up from 2,000 in 2005. The attractions included a “rock ’n’ roll petting zoo,” where children could get behind a professional drum kit while parents rocked out on guitar or bass, and a hip-hop workshop where children still in strollers burned rap CDs with professional disc jockeys. Among the performers were Patti Smith and Perry Farrell, the former frontman of Jane’s Addiction and the founder of Lollapalooza.
“People in their 30s and 40s aren’t really grown up, and they don’t want to grow up,” said David Agnew, a vice president of the Buena Vista Music Group and the force behind this year’s “Devo 2.0,” which repurposed old Devo songs for 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents. (Next year Mr. Agnew and the Disney Sound label plan to introduce the Po-Go’s, a kiddie tribute to the girl band the Go-Go’s.)
“Because parents can now listen to 30 seconds of every recording on earth at iTunes, they get turned on to more music,” he added.
That helps explain why parents — including the 3,000 who monitor the poll of children’s music at the Lovely Mrs. Davis site each week — expect something like an intergenerational custom fit from the music they buy for their offspring. Little Monster’s Ms. Hyman, a flop-haired, youngish 49-year-old, said she recognized a need “to be catered to musically” among fellow parents.
“I wouldn’t feed my daughter McDonald’s every day,” she said. “Why would I want her listening to something of that same standard?”
But taken too far, such catering can raise complicated issues. For one thing, some acts that appeal to both parents and children, like Jack Black’s Tenacious D, do so more slyly and can present a special challenge. “That’s an incredibly good record,” Mr. Noxon said, but it “spews” profanity on nearly every track.
Hip earnestness is another problem. Many new discs lack the irony-free goofiness that made classics out of the “Sesame Street” song “Rubber Duckie” and Raffi’s “Bananaphone.”
The producers of hipster baby discs seem aware that they may be a mere toddler step away from heavy-handedness. “We’re undergoing a change in what it means to be a traditional parent,” said Mr. Salem. “But I read somewhere that the fastest way to turn your kid into a Republican is to dress him up in a Sex Pistols T-shirt. That’s probably true.”
That last aphorism actually belongs to Mr. Noxon, and its message about musical backfires is probably not lost on the generation of parents who insisted in the 1980s, despite the fierce protestations of their children, that hip-hop was a fad.
Hip-hop, of course, has evolved far beyond the expectations of even the most broad-minded parents of the ’80s. And then some. This month Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé, released the CD “Kid’s Rap Radio” (Music World Entertainment), featuring 8-year-olds behind the mike rapping deraunchified hits like Busta Rhymes’s “Touch It.” “Because it’s been such an important part of their lives, parents have a need for their kids to experience hip-hop,” said Mr. Knowles, who explained that he was inspired by his 2-year-old grandson, Jewlz.
Field observations confirm that the new breed of coolness-bestowing parent takes its music seriously. At an all-ages “Baby Loves Jazz” concert at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in September, the air was thick with grown-up longing. Parents swayed, clapped and whistled, while their 2-year-olds fidgeted with the salt shakers on the tables.
“You could just see that parents are dying to get that awe back, the childlike awe you lose when you start forming opinions about what’s cool,” said John Medeski, of Medeski Martin and Wood, who played keyboards alongside the soul singer Sharon Jones at the show, and whose trio recently recorded a Little Monster disc for release in 2007.
“There’s been a void,” Mr. Medeski added, referring to parents. “The music becomes like medicine.”
If so, the market may be headed for an overdose. The sales gap between the kind of CDs many hip-minded parents consider pablum — the consistently chart-topping “Kidz Bop” series especially — and the indie releases they champion has never been wider. Unless the music gets television exposure or is associated with a brand like Disney, selling more than 20,000 copies is rare.
The wave of music that prompted Amy Davis of Bowling Green, Ohio, to create the Lovely Mrs. Davis site last year has become barely navigable. She and her two sons, ages 6 and 19 months, are drowning in it, she said.
“Next year is going to be really telling,” she said. “We’ll see whether this kind of music takes off and people other than hip urban parents or Net-savvy parents discover it, or if the tide turns and people find something else to get interested in.”
Count Tor Hyams, Kidzapalooza’s 37-year-old co-founder and the father of an infant and a 7-year-old, among the true believers.
“People want to live vicariously through their kids, to rediscover music with them,” he said. “They want to be more than a cog in the cultural wheel, and I salute them for it. If I ever stop being a kid with my kids, you can shoot me.” Autor: Tammy La Gorce