Disney Masterminds Its Own Pop Universe

noah | July 19, 2007 6:23 am

Today 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]