Disney Masterminds Its Own Pop Universe

Jul 19th, 2007 // 15 Comments

75471321%283%29.jpgToday brought two pieces that, when taken together, illustrate the divide between “pop” and “popular” (and, by extension, the idea of whether anything in the current super-fragmented musical landscape can even be considered popular in the first place); both focus on the microgenre often referred to as “teenpop,” or “that stuff that sells boatloads and always confounds others’ chart-topping aspirations.” (See “Clarkson, Kelly” and “Romance, My Chemical.”) A piece in the AP looks at the genre’s isolation from the top-40 radio landscape, while a Wall Street Journal looks at the Jonas Brothers, a teen trio that, thanks to the Disney machine repositioning it so that it appeals to a small slice of the pop audience, may have a sales breakthrough that completely missed when it was on Columbia.

Melinda Newman of the Associated Press looks at the near-absence of Disney-groomed acts–such as Hannah Montana and the High School Musical kids–from top 40 radio, despite their popularity on the all-request Radio Disney network and the RIAA’s estimation that last year, 10- to 14-year-olds spent about $875 million on music:

“We had the No. 1 album of the year and nobody seemed to pay attention in the mainstream radio world, they didn’t care,” says Gary Marsh, Disney Channel Worldwide’s president of entertainment.

But radio might be the only entity that doesn’t.

“Disney has turned itself into something of a machine in terms of promoting these acts in a very integrated way in the marketplace,” says Brian Lucas, Best Buy spokesman. “They have TV exposure, ads, (placement) in stores. It’s almost like the lack of mainstream radio is the one area where the consumers aren’t getting touched.”

That’s because mainstream radio, which targets a coveted 18-to-34 year-old demo, doesn’t want to risk alienating its older listeners.

“Radio has a stigma about playing these acts, considering them teen and preteen in their appeal,” says Guy Zapoleon, a radio consultant and former Top 40 programmer.

But Top 40 has shown it is not averse to playing acts the same age as many of their Disney counterparts: 19-year-old Rihanna has one of the biggest hits of the summer with “Umbrella” and Sean Kingston, also 17, scored with “Beautiful Girls.”

“Their lyrical content is perceived as more adult,” says Steve Greenberg, chairman of S-Curve Records and also the music executive behind such past teen-friendly groups as Hanson and the Baha Men.

It’s probably worth noting that along with the “more adult” lyrical content, both Rihanna and Sean Kingston’s music leans more urban, which is a sound that top 40 radio favors heavily these days; and really, with radio becoming ever more reactive to trends, the question that comes to mind is: “Do any of these artists really need top 40 in order to sell?” Probably not: Later in the article, Newman looks at the current state of Hilary Duff and Aly & AJ, both of whom are attempting to graduate from tween-world with decidedly mixed results.

Aly & AJ’s latest album–which the two sisters are promoting via various MTV shows (TRL; the movie based on My Super Sweet 16, which also stars Pretty Ricky and the formerly-rowdy Roddy Piper) and not the Disney Channel–debuted at No. 15 this week, selling 39,000 copies. The first single, “Potential Breakup Song,” is still getting Radio Disney love, and it’s this week’s “Greatest Sales Gainer” on the Billboard Hot 100. Duff, who put on a pretty spunky show at a Z100-sponsored megafest I went to weeks ago, has sold about 321,000 copies of Dignity in the 15 weeks it’s been out, although it’s probably worth noting that her old song “Come Clean” is still getting mainstream radio love after Dignity‘s new-wavey first single, “With Love,” peaked on the top-40 airplay charts.

Would either of those acts have done better had they eschewed MTV for the Disney brand’s outlets? It’s tough to say, although my gut feeling is “yes,” if only because TRL‘s musical influence seems to be dwindling by the tortured teenage scream. (It’s interpsersing charting videos into ad blocks, for crying out loud.)

Which brings us to the Jonas Brothers, a trio of homeschooled brothers who put out an album on Colubmbia last year that was such a flop, it’s already out of print–despite its inclusion of “Mandy,” a three-minute sugar rush that nearly made my 2006 top 20. (Copies are going for $18 and up on eBay.) The Brothers have since re-signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records, and the label is using its multi-pronged marketing apparatus to get the kids in a froth about them:

The Jonas Brothers seem to be moving along rapidly on Disney’s assembly line. Radio Disney says that last week the brothers accounted for 9% of listener requests, mainly from kids, in the 53-station network that bases its playlist entirely on requests (Ms. Cyrus was No. 1 that week). Jill Casagrande, the senior vice president and general manager of Radio Disney, says the Jonas Brothers are a rare act that bridges the preteen gender gap. “Boys identify with them,” Ms. Casagrande says. “And girls love them because they’re cute.” …
Columbia executives signed Nick Jonas more than two years ago, when he was a child actor and an aspiring Christian-pop singer. After learning Nick’s two older brothers also sang and played guitar, keyboards and drums, Columbia’s then-president, Steve Greenberg, offered the trio a package deal and helped shape their sound into something more mainstream, encouraging them to listen to seminal punk-pop acts like the Ramones, Sham 69 and Generation X. The label suggested songs to record in their new incarnation as a secular pop-rock act.
The group’s first album, “It’s About Time,” sounded like a family-friendly version of Green Day, and before its release it garnered some airplay on MTV and Radio Disney. But then Mr. Greenberg, the group’s champion at the label, left after a corporate power struggle and Columbia cooled off on the project. After several delays, a small batch of CDs was released with little marketing or promotion; just 62,000 copies sold. Today, used copies of the band’s out-of-print debut album fetch $40 or more online.
A more fundamental issue was that Columbia — like most traditional record labels — simply didn’t have access to the same number of child-oriented media outlets as the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. Where Disney aims at young fans through tie-ins with its popular children’s TV shows, Columbia’s route was more typical of a standard rock-band promotion. For instance, it hired Ondi Timoner — director of the critically acclaimed but commercially inconsequential rock documentary “Dig” — to shoot three music videos for the band.

Dig, really? Did they get Joel Gion to do a cameo? Anyway, the band’s follow-up album comes out sometime next month, and watching its chart path may be yet another sign that commercial radio’s attempts to steer the “pop” ship are becoming even more irrelevant–and, by extension, that when major labels decide to cast their nets too widely into the pop world (whatever that means today), they may just be setting themselves up for a string of Carly Hennessy-style cutout-bin mainstays.

Hit Disney acts find no love at Top 40 [AP via Yahoo]
How Disney Is Reviving A Band Still in Its Teens [WSJ, reg. req.]
[Photo: Getty Images]

  1. dollywould

    As one who knows this tween audience well, I can assure anyone that the Jonas Brothers are huge. Like, ‘N Sync in their prime huge. They should have signed to Hollywood in the first place. Columbia didn’t know what to do with them.

    If you were curious, just turn on the Disney Channel anytime of day. Odds are their video will play during the commercial break momentarily.

    And oh my god, Sean Kingston is only 17? Jesus, I could have sworn he was waaaay older.

  2. xtianrut

    Let’s take back the word “pop.” More posts about Flop!

  3. Dickdogfood

    I hope the middle Jonas Brother is of age because I would totally go gay for him — all over again!

  4. dabug

    And also worth noting, just noticed this today, but nearly… which I think will be even bigger than “Potential Breakup” if given proper release. Wishful thinking, maybe. (It’s possible that they’re saving “Bullseye” for their Music Mailbag feature, to make it seem as if the track was “unanimously voted into rotation” by Disney callers…or maybe there were content issues but I highly highly doubt it.

  5. dabug

    Sorry if this is a double post…almost every track from A&A’s new album is eligible for voting into Disney rotation via their Top 30 countdown, except, conspicuously, for their best song, “Bullseye,” which they might be saving to introduce through their Mailbag feature (to make it look like it was “unanimously chose,” which it will be).

  6. Maura Johnston

    @dabug: Interesting points — thanks for the clarification re: the Jonas Brothers’ deal. I’m now trying to remember when I first saw the video for “Mandy,” because a channel-flip was definitely my first exposure to it. Maybe it was on Noggin?

  7. Maura Johnston

    @dabug: Also, that Hilary thing is just really weird. Do you have any suspicions as to why that might be the case? Too much time in the dirty Madden/MisShapes world? I really like the songs I’ve heard off Dignity so far.

  8. dollywould

    @maura: The Jonas Brothers debuted “Mandy” on TRL in March ’06. Was it there? I know it also got play on Noggin/The N.

    @dabug: Did something go missing from your post, or are you saying that “Bullseye” is the Aly & AJ song that will be bigger than “Potential Breakup Song?” I liked the little sassy “you already had my number” spoken part. “Like Whoa” was a fun song, too.

    Fun fact: The Aly & AJ album’s “breakup” songs are inspired by AJ’s breakup with Joe Jonas. Ah, the tangled web of Disney stars…

  9. blobby

    “Only” 62,000? Isn’t that about what LCD Soundsystem’s debut sold?

  10. Al Shipley

    Does anyone call teen pop “teenpop” (one word) besides like 8 rock critics on the internet?

  11. Mike Barthel

    Honestly, I think the real lesson here is the way that the Disney system serves artists better than the major-label system, given that the reason the Brothers got screwed over is because their A&R guy got fired. That’s how it works at big labels: aside from the three or four tentpole releases, each artist is a different person’s individual project, and that artist’s success is largely dependent by how much that individual can get the other departments to get behind their release. Whereas at Disney/Hollywood, a signing’s a signing. There’s no pretense to individualism like with the A&R system, just corporate strategy, and as soulless as that sounds, a committment from Disney means a hell of a lot more than a committment from any other label that employs more than 3 people. This all gets papered over by using terms like “assembly line” in place of an actual underderstanding of how the Disney system works. They focus on one particular genre (or demographic, at least), they know the hell out of their audience, and they don’t waver. Would that any label could offer as much, or at least convince their A&R guys to drop their pissing contents and their presidents to stop releasing five things a week…

  12. dabug

    @maura: My theory was that she had just enough ‘bloid exposure to sour her to Disney’s audience, but they admittedly pushed “With Love” a bit before it eventually fell out of rotation. Still, her last two singles (“Wake Up” and “Beat of My Heart”) were RD staples for well over a year. (Meaning, like, #1 for a bajillion weeks — and you think Rihanna’s been on top for a while…)

    @heidiho: Yeah my post got screwed up. I personally think that “Bullseye” could be about as big as “Potential Breakup Song,” esp. coming off Avril’s success with “Girlfriend” (though “PBS” is probably more WTF noveltyish than “Bullseye”). I imagine RD is saving “Bullseye” for a proper introduction through their Mailbag feature, presumably in the next few weeks, but they basically stick Hollywood artist songs onto their countdown without them getting voted in like everything else. (Not sure if “Umbrella” was up for voting, but it’s #10 on the countdown already and will likely rise to #1 quickly, just like “SOS.”)

    @GovernmentNames: Nope!

    And DickMalone really OTM on the backstage wheelings and dealings. This is a significant development (total emphasis on cross-promotion/package deals; very few Hollywood artists have done very well without prior Disney success, Jonas Bros. being a huge exception but not nec. a trend), because it means that Disney is now in the position to relaunch what happened more by accident back in the first teen_pop wave c. 2000 w/ Britney/Xtina et. al, except now they have the production means to guide everyone’s career individually from the NEW NEW Mickey Mouse Club to a solo career. They have no opposition from any comparable cross-platforming places (Nickelodeon has uniformly failed in launching cross-promotional music stars) and the latest “tween revolution” thinkpiece puts all the other majors’ hopes with Paula DeAnda and the Naked Bros. Band = DUD DUD DUD. But Hannah Montana won’t have much steam left in it after another OST or two (that’ll take, what, eight months?) and they have nothing currently backing it up. (PS Disney HIRE ME NOW!)

  13. Ned Raggett

    Great post, great discussion, great great great. My one measly addition is to note this fine comment at the start:

    by extension, the idea of whether anything in the current super-fragmented musical landscape can even be considered popular in the first place

    I’ve been saying off and on that ‘pop’ (conflating quite a bit for now) right now is just another subculture. Its continued preeminence is being tied in with a sales/airplay/whatever system, one totally fraying around the edges and which was compromised to start with, that elevates it to a presumed position of sociological superiority.

  14. dabug

    Interesting stuff, but I think you (or maybe the people who wrote the articles…should, uh, probably read those) missed a couple of small but important points:

    The Jonas Bros. failed on Columbia for mega-obvious reasons — the label pushed their release date back until it was eventually released, without fanfare, several months after its expected date (sometime in August). The trio was dumped a couple weeks after the album debuted and Hollywood intuitively picked them up because of the success of a couple tracks on Radio Disney. None of the major labels outside of Disney seem willing to do the niche-marketing or cross-promotional advertising needed to win Disney’s audiences — in the past, Jive and other labels were more than eager to work with Disney, but now that Disney also controls production and distribution (usually through Hollywood Recs, who doesn’t just make teenpop — Plain White T’s godawful single just scored Hollywood their first #1 on the Hot 100 charts), it’s likely harder for outside labels to cooperate with the Disney machine.

    It’s not clear that Hilary had the opportunity to “stay with Disney” –though “With Love” did OK in RD airplay, her first and more crucial “comeback” single “Play with Fire” was never eligible for rotation on RD and didn’t get a single spin there, despite the fact that she’s still with Disney-owned Hollywood Recs. Disney is weird about content control (as always) and are likely denying Hilary huge exposure to her former audience. I doubt it was in Hilary’s control to choose whether or not her first single would get airplay on Disney.

  15. dabug

    Or maybe “intuitive” is way too naive a word to use — Nick Jonas was doing Disney crossovers before they even had a deal with Columbia (or maybe right at the start), and it’s likely that the Jonas Bros. knew fairly early on to stick with the Disney labels and merely waited to be released from Columbia, who didn’t know what the hell to do with them.

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