How to Crack the Kids' Music Market

Disney's Newest Kids' Music Powerhouse

Zombies Milo Manheim
Milo Manheim as Zed in Zombies (2018). John Medland/Disney Channel

How the 'Zombies' TV-movie franchise drew inspiration from ’90s hip-hop and power from streaming

While it’s debatable among zombie experts how long the undead can actually live, data from Billboard’s Kid Albums chart suggests they can stick around a very long time.

Zombies and Zombies 2, the soundtracks to the Disney Channel’s latest original musicals, have spent a combined 56 weeks on the chart as they devour the brains of children across the United States, with Zombies logging 10 weeks at No. 1 and Zombies 2 peaking at No. 2. The soundtracks have garnered a combined 192.8 million on-demand audio streams and earned 277,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. For 2018, Buena Vista/Disney’s Zombies soundtrack ranked No. 4 on Billboard’s list of top-selling children’s music titles, one of Disney’s 13 entries. Razor & Tie’s Kidz Bop 37 topped the chart, while Buena Vista’s Moana original soundtrack was No. 2 and the company’s Coco soundtrack was No. 3.

Zombies —which debuted in February 2018 — brings The Walking Dead into the world of High School Musical, telling the story of a star-crossed, song- and dance-filled romance between a charismatic zombie and an aspiring high school cheerleader, 50 years after a zombie apocalypse. The sequel that premiered this Feb. 14 added a bit of Twilight to the mix: teenage werewolves arrive at the local high school, threatening to disrupt the hard-won acceptance and community achieved by the end of the first film.

Juggernauts such as the High School Musical and Descendants franchises have proved the long-standing expertise of the Disney Channel and Disney Music Group (DMG) in holding the attention of the 6- to 12-year-old demographic. To develop and market Zombies, Disney also used new data it has gathered as it extends its reach on streaming providers like YouTube and the recently launched Spotify Kids.

Though Steven Vincent, Disney Channel’s vp music and soundtracks, stresses that each musical franchise has its own voice, he’s found the songs need to resonate with current trends. Hence, the deliberate homage to Hamilton’s “Cabinet Battle #1” on Zombies 2’s “I’m Winning.” Of course, the words need to be age-appropriate. When a breakup happens, “It’s not a younger version of ‘Before He Cheats.’ It’s ‘Wow, that hurts,’” he says.

For Zombies, ’90s hip-hop was a particular inspiration. “It had a lot of fun to it and it wasn’t too overly serious,” says Vincent. “If this had Will Smith as a zombie and Ariana Grande as [the cheerleader], what would it sound like?” He turned to a stable of writers he’s relied on for years — including the Rock Mafia duo of Antonina Armato and Tim James (who’ve worked with Selena Gomez and Eminem, among others), as well as Mitch Allan and Paula Winger — but is always recruiting new songwriters to keep the sound fresh.

Vincent brings in DMG executives early in the process, when tracks are still in the demo stage, to begin picking singles and plotting release strategy. While no songs came out in advance of Zombies — fans weren’t yet familiar with the franchise — for Zombies 2, videos for “We Got This” and “New Kid in Town” began building anticipation in the weeks leading up to the TV movie.

Once fans begin streaming their favorites, new priority tracks emerge. For Zombies, that song was the duet ballad “Somebody,” which has tallied 123.4 million on-demand U.S. streams. For Zombies 2, the all-cast singalong “Flesh & Bone” drew the greatest reaction after the movie aired and has totaled 20.3 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. An audio and video mashup of the two songs came out April 24. “You really don’t know what’s going to hit until the audience grabs hold of it,” says Stacy Satz, DMG director of marketing. “We work with our streaming and download partners to get the songs playlisted everywhere we can.”

DMG utilizes all the streaming services, but a primary outlet is YouTube’s Disney Music Vevo channel, which has 18 million subscribers and has garnered over 12 billion views since its 2010 launch, according to Satz. Disney Music Vevo views for Zombies content have surpassed 500 million, while Zombies 2 is over 200 million, she says.

DMG also creates special playlists for Disney Music Vevo. “We repurposed the Zombies playlist for Zombies 2, changing the name to Zombies Complete so fans didn’t have to sign up for something else,” says Satz.

A Disney Channel Hits playlist on Spotify has also proved a big draw with over 100,000 subscribers. With the March 31 launch of Spotify Kids in the United States, Disney created playlists that highlighted Zombies material. “We think that’s a great lane for us,” says Satz. In late March, as coronavirus quarantines took effect, DMG held a virtual Spotify listening party with the Zombies 2 cast chatting with fans and playing the soundtrack.

Smart speakers have also been integrated into the marketing plan. “For Alexa, one of the top utterances after the Zombies 2 premiere was ‘Play Zombies music,’” says Satz. Disney hadn’t tried to prompt kids to ask for the music on Alexa, but once it saw how many were doing so, Disney asked the cast to tape themselves saying “Hey, Alexa, play Zombies music” and other phrases to place on their socials as well as Disney’s.

The idea, says Vincent, is that the music is available any way that kids consume music — when they’re in the car, in their bedroom watching YouTube or in the family room watching TV.

The Zombies franchise allowed the Disney Channel to stretch its creative muscle, and the success of the films and soundtracks have been extremely gratifying, says Vincent. “We’ve done Halloween stuff, but to do something different with an edge and a wink was great,” he says. “The zombies aren’t going to eat anyone’s brains for real, but they still had to be super cool. The hip-hop and rap was able to do a lot of the lifting.”

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