Hannah Randle kept one eye on the stage and the other on her 3-year-old son.
Buddy was dancing with abandon as a series of Grammy-nominated kids performers entertained at the annual Children’s Recording Arts Alliance benefit. There was hip-hop, electro-pop, bluegrass and roots rock. One act after another. Bam-boom-wow.
“They’re taking genres not traditionally associated with children and making them so approachable and undaunting,” said Randle, of Santa Monica, Calif., who spent seven years working at a major record label.
Indeed, 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.
This new breed comes with colorful monikers — from Seattle’s Recess Monkey to North Carolina’s Secret Agent 23 Skidoo to the Twin Cities’ own Okee Dokee Brothers and Koo Koo Kanga Roo. And they come with fresh attitudes and sounds.
“Kindie rock” — indie music aimed at kids under 10 — is not the bubble-gum pop of Radio Disney or “Wheels on the Bus” on acoustic guitar.
“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. And these [artists] are not necessarily writing from a parenting perspective.”
On Kids Place Live, Jack Forman takes telephone requests from kids around the country for three hours every weekday. On weekends, the former schoolteacher plays bass in Recess Monkey. He knows the music and its audience.
“If you take the lyrics away, it’s indistinguishable from any popular music,” said Forman, who is in his late 30s and quit indie rock a decade ago. “I never considered that [kids music] could be nonfolk music. It can be the same creative process as making indie rock. In fact, this is the most creative I’ve ever felt.”
The music matters
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 or brushing your teeth.
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.
That’s not to diminish the message. But today’s kindie rock is often about real life, whether unemployment or cross-dressing.
“Kids don’t shrink from reality; grown-ups do,” O’Connell said.
Take “Costume Party” by the Pop Ups, a Grammy-nominated synth-pop duo from Brooklyn. The song is about dressing in any kind of clothes — whether to be silly or to express your inner self.
“It’s a dress-up song,” said Thomas, pointing out that it was a big hit on Kids Place Live. “But it says it’s OK to be what you want to be. It’s OK to have a conversation with your kids. And this song is a good place to start.”
One of the song’s creators, the Pop Ups’ Jacob Stein, knows he’s making music for kids, but “it’s allowed to have emotional and conceptual depth,” he said.
The son of a children’s music performer, Stein, 36, swore he wouldn’t end up doing what his dad did. But Jacob was a visual arts teacher, and mixing his love of music with his affinity for kids seemed natural.
Not a fallback anymore
A decade or two ago, children’s music went through a shake-up as pop stars such as They Might Be Giants, Lisa Loeb and Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos 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 or second choice — it is a logical progression.
Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing of the Okee Dokee Brothers had worked as camp counselors. The latter taught at a day-care center as well. 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 are a small operation. Mailander handles management responsibilities, and Lansing’s significant other sells merchandise at many of the duo’s 130 performances each year.
“We’re the crew, man,” Mailander said with a chuckle. “We load in, bring in the merchandise, load out.”
It adds up to an unlavish living but still pays three times better than their barroom gigs did, he figures.
Just like indie rock
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.”
And small venues such as classrooms, libraries and bookstores, along with the occasional festival.
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 to teens and twenty-somethings.)
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 coloring books or CDs.
For kindie acts, videos are crucial to build a following — and revenue via DVD sales. The Pop Ups, who use puppets, props and other aspects of performance art, will launch their own YouTube channel on April 15. They also play up to 50 shows a year — from community centers to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
But the Pop Ups might be hard-pressed to match the visual flash of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, a wizardly vision in a purple suit and top hat who threw down some kid-friendly hip-hop at the Grammy nominees concert in Hollywood in February.
One mom and her son got hooked on 23 Skidoo’s music and message.
“I loved the interactivity,” Randle recalled. “We got home and Buddy was singing: ‘What you gotta be? I gotta be me.’ ”