There is a new generation of kids music performers with two things in common: They don't dumb down their music or their message, and they set out to make kids music a career rather than a midlife fallback. "Kindie rock" — indie music aimed at kids under 10 — is not the bubble-gum pop of Radio Disney.
"Before, there was nothing to bridge the gap between Barney and [Justin] Bieber," said Mindy Thomas, program director and DJ for Sirius XM's Kids Place Live channel (Channel 78). "There's a lot of room for creativity. It's a demographic you're playing for, but the music is still bluegrass or hip-hop or whatever."
It used to be that the music in children's songs was secondary to the message — usually a positive one, such as learning the ABCs. That no longer holds true. "The music has to be valid for those seven-hour car rides," said Philadelphia DJ Kathy O'Connell, who has been involved with children's music for 30 years. Today's kindie rock is often about real life. "Kids don't shrink from reality; grown-ups do," O'Connell added.
A decade or two ago, children's music went through a shake-up as pop stars such as They Might Be Giants and Lisa Loeb shifted into family-oriented songs as a midcareer, I'm-a-parent-now sideline. But for the new breed, kids music is not a fallback — it is a logical progression.
Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing of Twin Cities band the Okee Dokee Brothers had worked as camp counselors. They started out playing bluegrass/folk music in bars but soon realized that "our kids shows are crazier, funnier and more interactive," said Mailander, 29. The Okees, who are gigging throughout Minnesota this month, will enter a new realm when they perform three family concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra. Despite the prestige of playing at Orchestra Hall and winning a children's music Grammy for their 2012 album "Can You Canoe?" (40,000 copies sold) and a nomination for the 2014 disc "Through the Woods," the Okees, who perform 130 gigs each year, are a small operation. "We're the crew, man," Mailander said with a chuckle. It adds up to an unlavish living but still pays three times better than their barroom gigs did, he figures.
Koo Koo Kanga Roo, a cartoonish Twin Cities duo specializing in silly hip-hop dance pop, travels the indie music and kids circuits, splitting its 200 annual performances equally between the two even though it's essentially the same show. (This year, the duo will play 42 gigs on the rock-oriented Warped Tour.) The key difference is that the kids shows are more lucrative. "When we play for kids, the parents spend money at the merch table," explained Koo Koo's Bryan Atchison, 29. At adult shows, the patrons buy beer rather than DVDs, coloring books or CDs.
Now seven years into their career, the Okees learned about the business from Justin Roberts, a 1990s Minneapolis folk musician/preschool worker who switched to kids music after moving to Chicago about 15 years ago. He has counseled them and other newer names on the kids circuit.
"It's the same as indie rock, just a different arena," Roberts said. "It's a lot of word of mouth."
The Okee Dokee Brothers
With: The Minnesota Orchestra.
When: 10 & 11:30 a.m. Wed.-next Thu.; 2 p.m. April 18.
Where: Orchestra Hall.