The New Kings Of Pop

How Kidz Bop took over the music industry

It’s not Take Your Child to Work Day at Sirius XM, but at first it seems so as four adorable middle-schoolers slip into the Manhattan lobby of the world’s largest satellite radio network. Dressed in artfully tattered tees, Adidas sneakers, and bangles and cuffs, they’re followed by an entourage—mostly made up of their moms. A Sirius employee laments that the kids have just missed Lily James and Richard Madden, stars of the new live-action Cinderella movie, and that causes four sets of skinny shoulders to sink. Their spirits revive quickly, though, with the appearance of Kenny Curtis, a father of seven who hosts a four-hour “block party” on the Sirius channel Kids Place Live. Curtis is due to interview them for an upcoming show, and the kids giggle over a memory of the last time they met, when Bredia Santoro, who has cascading ringlets and an exaggerated side part, showed off her impressive belching ability. This time, Curtis suggests, she should attempt to burp the alphabet, and everyone agrees that’s a hilarious idea. “You have to know the audience,” he says.

The foursome is the current lineup of Kidz Bop, the most underrated force in American music. Along with the Curtis interview, they’re at Sirius to tape a series of “liners,” radio-speak for those snippets of audio that play between songs to convince listeners that the voices they’re hearing are actually live in the studio. For example: “Hi, I’m Bredia from the Kidz Bop kids, and I’m in New York right now! Wooooo!” The child artists are in the Sirius studios for a maximum of two hours every few months, recording for the dedicated Kidz Bop channel and taping interviews like the one with Curtis, who was totally not kidding about the burping alphabet thing.

The four carefully attired kids take seats around a U-shaped table in a small glass recording studio, and they are Santoro, 13 (both of her parents are scientists!); Matt Martinez, 11 (believes in aliens!); Ashlynn Chong, 13 (plays 10 instruments!); and Grant Knoche, 12 (loves crab legs!). Each goes publicly by first name only and fits a specific role and vocal type in the ensemble. They were chosen in 2013 after a long national search. There used to be five, but Jayna Brown left last year “to pursue other opportunities,” says Sasha Junk, senior vice president for marketing for Kidz Bop. “The others had jelled and were great as just four, so there was no need to recast a fifth kid.” Matt, Bredia, Ashlynn, and Grant each come from a different part of the country, but for roughly 10 months a year they’re together, practicing, recording, performing at concerts, and appearing at autograph signings, charity events, and on TV.

Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

Meet the Kidz

Bredia

Age: 13

Has a room of "Outstanding Dancer" awards
Her favorite subject in school is science. That might be because both of her parents are scientists!

Grant

Age: 12

Taught himself to play piano by watching YouTube videos
Loves soccer, swimming, and riding his dirt bike with his brother

Ashlynn

Age: 13

Learned to play guitar, drums, and piano at her dad's local music school
Ashlynn’s family is from all over the world. She’s Chinese, Hawaiian, and Canadian

Matt

Age: 11

Illustrates his own comic books and is perfecting his special effects makeup skills
Performed in the national "Can't Touch This" Eggo Waffle commercial

Biographical information provided by Kidz Bop

Kidz Bop was formed in 2002 and, for the first seven years and 16 records, was essentially a marketing concept—a popular series of compilation albums featuring a rotating cast of young session singers who covered pop hits. Craig Balsam and Cliff Chenfeld, the two record executives who created Kidz Bop, could easily have kept on with that successful formula, putting out albums of covers performed by anonymous kids, but they realized that the product would be even more attractive to its audience if those cheerful voices were attached to identifiable personalities. And so they shifted to a star-centric concept. Kidz Bop is now periodically replenished with personable preteens who are promoted almost as furiously as their albums, which are still covers of hit pop songs. Doing A&R for Kidz Bop has to be one of the least stressful jobs in music.

Today’s foursome is the third lineup. They appear in Kidz Bop commercials, shill for McDonald’s and Macy’s, and star on a YouTube channel with almost 18 million views in a little more than a year. In 2014, Kidz Bop got its Sirius station, and the band/brand launched its first tour, performing 45 concerts across the U.S. This year, after a decade of putting out two records annually, Kidz Bop will release four, plus the occasional seasonal specials.

In an industry filled with uncertainty, where a battle rages between artists and labels over the future of distribution, Kidz Bop is a rare success. The last album, Kidz Bop 27, made its debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, the 10th consecutive Kidz Bop record to appear in the top five. Only eight artists in history have had more top-10 records than Kidz Bop’s 21, and more than 15 million Kidz Bop albums have been sold since the brand’s inception. Billboard has named Kidz Bop the “#1 Kids’ Artist” for five consecutive years, and in 2013 the band accounted for 18.8 percent of all children’s music units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Kidz Bop kids start around age 10 or 11 and are groomed by a team of coaches and advisers. As they grow, the kids get more polished, but their enthusiasm remains a constant. They don’t lack pep. “Did you know we’re on our Make Some Noise Tour?” Ashlynn says into a mic at Sirius. She furrows her brow and asks to do it again, then again, moving the emphasis from one word to another. She has the polish of a young newscaster, with meticulous diction. “Ashlynn is really hard on herself,” says Theresa Parilo, the group’s full-time teacher. “She doesn’t ever want to look unprofessional.”

Parilo is just one of the adults chaperoning the proceedings. There’s also the A&R guy, Michael Anderson; Amanda Andrews, the vice president for live tour operations, who’s also the kids’ company-appointed manager; two moms; and Victor Zaraya, Kidz Bop’s chief operations officer. Zaraya says the difference between these kids today and in 2013, when they were new, “is tremendous. They’re so professional now.”

That said, they’re kids. Because one microphone is malfunctioning, Ashlynn and Grant are forced to share a mic, which puts their faces in uncomfortably close proximity. This distracts them both, especially Grant, who has messy hair and wears a sleeveless vest. He could be described as Justin Bieberesque. He requests a script change from “Yo!” to “Hey!” because “It feels more natural,” and then flubs his line repeatedly, causing Ashlynn to giggle, which of course gets Grant going, too. Next thing you know, they’re all laughing, which doesn’t amuse the grown-ups. A clock in the corner ticks away.

“Guys, take a deep breath and just chill,” Andrews says.

“Do we need to rearrange the seats?” asks a stone-faced Parilo.

Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

Kidz Bop is something of a lucrative accident. Chenfeld and Balsam, now 55 and 54, were young, bored lawyers with a mutual love for writing and playing music when they founded the independent record label Razor & Tie in 1990 out of Chenfeld’s Manhattan apartment. Their concept was to take hits from the 1970s—music they grew up on—and repackage the best songs as compilations. This was when compact discs and cable TV had yet to exert cultural dominance. “Between those two things, we came up with the idea of marketing ’70s music on TV,” Chenfeld says, sitting at a conference table in the company’s Greenwich Village headquarters. The space houses both Razor & Tie and Kidz Bop, which share finance, media buying, and sales, among other operations.

Razor & Tie’s first record was Those Fabulous ’70s. It was marketed via a kitschy 30-second television spot featuring a guy in a leisure suit billed as the “head of the ’70s Preservation Society” that’s surely familiar to anyone who watched late-night TV in the early ’90s.

The company grew quickly, exploiting bargain air space on emerging cable channels such as the Game Show Network. “We killed it on that channel,” Chenfeld says. The margins were small, but Razor & Tie had several smash hits, including Monster Ballads, which sold more than 3 million units.

“Ashlynn is really hard on herself. She doesn't ever want to look unprofessional”

Balsam and Chenfeld became experts in strategic media buying and in selling directly to consumers, back when that mostly meant mail order. The partners built a lean, vertically integrated company that knew how to tap niche audiences. They produced their own commercials and, because they were mining prerecorded music, had no career development costs to cover. They began to wonder what else they could sell that way.

By the end of the ’90s, both had young children. They spent too many weekends on the bleak frontier of the toddler birthday party scene, an endless tour of confetti-strewn rooms where the music was either too saccharine for grown-ups and boring for older kids, or entirely too grown-up and inappropriate.

“That was around the time that Eminem, Britney Spears, and a lot of music that parents thought was over-the-top and threatening to their kids was coming out,” Chenfeld says. There seemed to be a market gap waiting for someone to exploit. The partners struck on the simple solution of current pop songs recorded by kids and cleansed of all inappropriateness. “We needed to split the difference,” Balsam says, “between Barney and Britney or Elmo and Eminem.”

The current lineup, from left: Bredia, Grant, Ashlynn, and Matt

Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

They hired some adolescent session singers, recorded 20 songs, and made a commercial at a summer camp outside New York. For a name, they wanted something generic and inoffensive, a moniker that could signify almost anything to young people but which was also different enough to be trademarked (hence the “z” in Kidz). They aired their first commercial in January 2000. “It just blew up,” Chenfeld says.

The partners ramped up their ad buying, running spots for nine months before putting a single Kidz Bop album in a store, building brand recognition while doing direct sales. It worked. During that time, Kidz Bop sold more than 800,000 albums using only a 1-800 number and a crude website.

Today, Kidz Bop is still true to its origins in direct marketing via TV—its commercials play almost incessantly on all the major kids channels. But the brand has other means of transmission. Young friends introduce it to each other; even schools help spread the word. That’s how Jen Fineran, a mother of two from Nyack, N.Y., discovered Kidz Bop. One day her son, Jasper, then 4, came home from preschool singing Katy Perry’s California Gurls, whose official lyrics include references to “gin and juice” and “sun-kissed skin so hot, we’ll melt your Popsicle.” She asked his teachers the next day whether this was age-appropriate music. “They were like, ‘No, there’s this thing called Kidz Bop, and my kids loved it,’ ” Fineran says. She loved the track, too, and that’s the real magic of Kidz Bop. It’s truly music that kids love and parents can tolerate, possibly enjoy. Fineran says that as an overwhelmed new mother, she’d “lost connection” to popular culture and that Kidz Bop was “really my reentry into what young people were listening to.”

Jasper, now 9, is on the verge of aging out. “I used to really like it when I was like 4 or 5,” he says. “Now I like more of the actual songs.” But his sister, Echo, 7, is still committed to the brand. “I have a ton of CDs. It’s my favorite thing to listen to,” she says. “My favorite song is Wrecking Ball”—a Miley Cyrus cover stripped of any hint of violence or sexuality. For example, a line in the original is: “And instead of using force, I guess I should’ve let you win.” Kidz Bop: “And instead of losing more, I guess I should’ve let you win.” (A more extreme example: “We’re higher than a motherf-----,” from Nicki Minaj’s Starships, gets Kidz Bopified as, “We’re Kidz Bop, and we’re taking over.”)

“I like the music,” says Chrissy Jenkins, a mother from Dallas whose 9-year-old daughter, Madeleine, is a fan. “And I like the message: kids listening to kids singing the music they hear on the radio without any bad words.” And now that there’s a tour, the live experience presents an opportunity for parent-child bonding. Jenkins recently took Madeleine to the 2015 Make Some Noise Tour opener in their hometown.

The tour is a critical vehicle for Kidz Bop growth, furthering the evolutionary shift from “a generic CD box of cover songs,” as Chenfeld refers to the original concept, to a carefully selected ensemble who represent the brand for three years. The perky videos and commercials in prior years featured actors playing the parts of Kidz Bop kids. The video for Uptown Funk is as much about Bredia, Grant, Matt, and Ashlynn as it is about Kidz Bop, though you certainly won’t forget the band name either, because the logo makes frequent and gratuitous appearances among the splashes of color and fake spray paint, the streamers and black lights and elaborate choreography.

There’s been a notable bump in polish over the past few years, and any lingering taint of the infomercial era is gone. What consumers see now is much closer to, say, the manufactured child prodigies turned out by the Disney and Nickelodeon assembly lines, which have produced Spears, Cyrus, and Ariana Grande, among others.

The Kidz Bop kids receive a pep talk from the crew just moments before they hit the stage at the House of Blues in Dallas.

Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

One way to look at the music industry is that the sky is falling. The traditional way of making money—selling albums—has collapsed, and the thing that’s replaced it—streaming—is still in its infancy. The way the Kidz Bop co-founders see it, there’s never been more opportunity to profit, especially when selling music to children.

Entertainment has been untethered from its gatekeepers. Anyone can create content and build an audience. In prior generations, Nickelodeon and Disney used TV shows to launch the careers of pop stars and actors. Now Kidz Bop can do the same thing by going straight to the consumer with low-cost programming on its YouTube channel, which averages 1.5 million views a week. That content spreads via social media, especially Facebook, where the number of Kidz Bop “likes” increased 350 percent last year, to 217,000. Today’s flat media universe is almost perfectly aligned for Kidz Bop.

“We can create opportunities for the Kidz Bop kids that do not require Nickelodeon to say, ‘Here’s a 30-minute TV show,’” says Chenfeld. “Or Z100 [a New York City top-40 station] to say, ‘We’ll play your kids’ song.’”

Being a Kidz Bop kid may be a constant process of grooming and voice coaching, but a performer’s time in the role is ephemeral. In a year or so, Ashlynn, Bredia, Grant, and Matt will be too old. To just let them go out into the entertainment world, possibly to blossom, is a lost opportunity. So the logical move is to offer them a next step. Kidz Bop can extend contracts with future breakout stars in exchange for exposure as a solo artist: a Sirius show, a YouTube show, or an opening slot on the summer tour. “You get two songs on the tour. You get a song on the next record. It’s a very contemporary way of talent development,” says Chenfeld. “Ultimately, this is an area that we could go much further with.”

There’s certainly more vertical integration to exploit. Razor & Tie has a songwriting division. And the next Kidz Bop album—No. 29, due in June—will include the first original song in the brand’s history. Titled Make Some Noise, it won’t be just some tossed-off bonus track; it will be the song featured in the flagship music video.

“We don’t have something on the books right now that says one of the kids by next March is going to be the next Justin Timberlake,” Chenfeld says. “But we are also no longer just looking at them as kids who are singing covers.”

“That’s, I think, what’s exciting—branding these kids who are clearly talented individually and really making it about them as individuals,” says Jim Butler, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who books the tour.

Compare the lyrics

Kidz Bop version of Uptown Funk Stop, wait a minute
Fill my cup, put some water in it
Take a sip, sign a check
Julio, get the stretch
Ride to Harlem, Hollywood
Jackson, Mississippi
If we show up, we gon' show out
Smoother than a fresh dry skippy
I'm too hot (hot yeah)
Original Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars version Stop, wait a minute
Fill my cup, put some liquor in it
Take a sip, sign a check
Julio, get the stretch
Ride to Harlem, Hollywood
Jackson, Mississippi
If we show up, we gon' show out
Smoother than a fresh dry skippy
I'm too hot (hot damn)

Like the original concept for the albums, the Kidz Bop tour is designed to occupy an unfilled niche. It’s the space between concerts that bore parents and mature kids (Barney, Sesame Street) and those that appeal to kids but play long after dark and could have uncomfortable themes (Taylor Swift, Perry). For many children, a Kidz Bop show is likely to be the first concert they attend. This year’s first two shows, the one in Dallas and one in Seattle, sold out. For now, the band’s filling modest venues—about 2,000 seats. Butler says the tour will soon mirror the success of the albums. “Just like they sell millions of records, we should be able to sell millions of tickets,” he says.

Last year, Kidz Bop’s co-founders bought back a 50 percent stake in the company that they’d sold to private equity group ABRY Partners in 2006, and they’ve been on an expansion binge ever since. They declined to disclose Kidz Bop’s revenue. The company says it pays an industry standard licensing fee of about 9¢ per song sold.

The new production schedule of four albums a year will let the company better exploit hit songs and, though each individual album will probably sell less than it would in a six-month period, the company expects to move more total albums per year. Retailers, especially big-box stores such as Target and Wal-Mart, will be happy. “They treat us like a major front-line release,” COO Zaraya says. “They’d be foolish not to. We’re selling units.”

The brand is also constantly increasing its presence in kids’ lives. Commercials starring the group air in heavy rotation on Nickelodeon, Disney, and other cable channels. Kidz Bop is one of the most consistently popular children’s artists on Spotify, which contracts with the company to curate and create playlists. Kidz Bop is prominently featured on YouTube’s new kids app, and the Sirius XM station gives the brand a 24-hour pipeline to 27 million homes and two-thirds of all American cars. There are Kidz Bop-themed events at both Six Flags and Universal Studios. “We’re everywhere kids want to be,” Chenfeld says.

There’s also an international push. Kidz Bop is already in Canada, and more English-speaking markets are under consideration. Finally, another opportunity is coming around: a new generation of young parents who are the first to have grown up with Kidz Bop. They have nostalgia for the brand, and they don’t need to see the commercials.