In between episodes of “Spongebob Squarepants,” “Rocket Power” and “Invader Zim,” Nickelodeon began airing a commercial for the first “Kidz Bop” compilation album in 2001. Popular songs like Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” Blink-182’s “All the Small Things” and *N SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” soundtracked the commercial — except the original versions had been stripped of their adult vocals and arrangements, with chirping children and sound-alike backing tracks swapped in. Meanwhile, the ad itself featured kids doing what it is they do best: having fun.
The original “Kidz Bop” compilation debuted at No. 76 on the Billboard 200 chart in October 2001. Over twelve years after that humble beginning, however, the “Kidz Bop” franchise has logged a staggering 18 Top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, most recently with “Kidz Bop 25,” which debuted at No. 3 on the tally last month. “Kidz Bop” is a behemoth in children’s music: in 2013, the franchise’s albums accounted for 18.8% of all childrens music sales — 1.05 million copies out of 5.58 million total units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And that’s more than just the 25 regular “Kidz Bop” releases, with themed collections like “Kidz Bop Christmas,” “Kidz Bop Sings the Beatles” and “Kidz Bop Halloween Hits!” pushing the number of charted “Kidz Bop” albums to 39.
How did “Kidz Bop” go from a Nickelodeon infomercial to one of the biggest names in children’s music? Marketing, says Victor Zaraya, the COO of “Kidz Bop” label Razor & Tie. Zaraya has overseen “Kidz Bop” since its inception, and has watched promotion for the series expand from TV commercial spots to partnerships with Spotify, Disney, McDonald’s and Macy’s.
“We’re still TV-driven, but we have really supplemented and added a variety of types of media,” Zaraya says.
Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, who co-founded Razor & Tie in 1990, had issued several other compilation albums through the label before the debut “Kidz Bop” release, including 1998’s “Monsters of Rock” and 1999’s “Monster Ballads” (Razor & Tie, along with its children’s content, is home to a number of heavy rock artists like Hatebreed and HIM). The label’s positive experiences with issuing compilations — along with the desire to create unique content for kids — led to Chenfeld and Balsam creating “Kidz Bop,” says Zaraya.
“If we hadn’t already been in the [compilation albums business], I don’t know if we would’ve created ‘Kidz Bop,'” Zaraya says. “In 2000, there was only Barney and Britney [Spears] — nothing in between. So we used our expertise to create [‘Kidz Bop’], and it worked.”
Crafting a “Kidz Bop” album has always begun, and ended, with settling on a track list. Song selection is a collaborative process, with most of the songs chosen from Top 40 radio, and “Kidz Bop” staff responsible for working with music publishers to secure song rights. More covers than needed are recorded for each release, and each song’s impact on the Pop Songs chart determines if it can make it onto the album or not. Sometimes a song will be rushed onto an album days before manufacturing, as was the case with the quick-moving viral hit “The Fox” by Ylvis on “Kidz Bop 25.”
Although Zaraya could not disclose which artists have supported and opposed their music being used on “Kidz Bop” albums, he says that, on average, artists are more lenient than one might assume.
“It’s favorable to have your song being sung,” he says. “Maybe a kid heard the ‘Kidz Bop’ cover of an artist’s song before they heard the actual version. Will they remember it as a ‘Kidz Bop’ song? Maybe. Will they remember it with the original artist? Maybe. But it’s only furthering that artist’s song.”
Unlike the majority of general album sales, the bulk of “Kidz Bop” albums sold are CDs, rather than digital albums. The “Kidz Bop 24” collection has sold 306,000 copies since its release last July, according to Nielsen SoundScan, with 78% of that sum sold as physical CDs. “Kidz Bop 23” has moved 392,000, and of that, 74% were CDs. That’s a much higher percentage of physical purchases than for general albums; in 2013, 57% of all album sales were CDs.
Zaraya says that physical releases are often packaged with incentives such as magnets and stickers, which is one of the reasons why sales are still high. “There’s a tangibility,” he says. “Parents want to be able to put something in their kid’s hands.”
Only two “Kidz Bop” albums in the 25-strong standard series are released each calendar year — one near the beginning of the year, and the other in the middle of summer. Special album releases, such as the Halloween and Christmas “Kidz Bop” albums, often checker the end of the year when they arrive. Overall, 27 “Kidz Bop” releases, including “Kidz Bop 25,” have reached No. 1 on the Kid Albums chart.
The past half-decade has seen the “Kidz Bop” brand expanding beyond album releases as well. In 2010, “Kidz Bop” partnered with Macy’s for an advertising campaign in which the pint-sized performers showcased the hottest retail trends in TV spots. The following year, “Kidz Bop” worked with educational toy company LeapFrog to deliver music content to two of the company’s platforms, the LeapPad Explorer and Leapster Explorer, to purchase recent “Kidz Bop” releases through the LeapFrog App Center. And in 2012, “Kidz Bop” united with Spotify to launch Kidz Bop Boombox, the first-ever Spotify app created for kids and families. The app, which features preschool songs, holiday staples and music from “Kidz Bop” releases, is divided into three age groups: “Preschool” (2-4), “Kidz” (5-9) and “The Boom” (10 and up).
“There are a lot of people out in the universe that want to dislike ‘Kidz Bop,’ but it’s not for them — it’s for little kids and parents,” Zaraya says. “I wasn’t a parent when I started at ‘Kidz Bop,’ but I’m a parent now, and while I understood what it was for before, now I really get it.”
Song recordings occur in New York, with all lyrical naughtiness from the original songs morphing into kid-friendly edits in the cover versions (the “Kidz Bop” take on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” for instance, transforms “Probably should’ve washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets” into “Probably should’ve washed this, smells like my baseball cleats”). And while previous “Kidz Bop” releases featured a collection of unnamed young singers, recent albums have been performed by the Kidz Bop Kids — the brand’s ensemble of teenage performers that also tours the U.S. together. Today, the growth of the Kidz Bop Kids as a touring unit is the main focus for the company. The current roster, which includes singers like Matt Martinez, Grant Knoche, Bredia Santaro and Ashlynn Chong, was created through a national talent search held on the “Kidz Bop” website. Auditions were held throughout various parts of the country, with candidates being selected not only for their individual talents, but for their chemistry with each other, too.
“These kids are going to be on the road together,” says Zaraya, “so we want chemistry among the kids, the families — all of us.”
When it’s time for a change in the Kidz Bop Kids roster, Zaraya adds, the company maintains its relationships with those performers leaving. Some of the previous Kidz Bop Kids members have become models, or members of boy bands or girl groups, because of their past contributions to “Kidz Bop.”
The Kidz Bop Kids will be touring throughout the spring and summer of this year, with dates to be announced soon. The “Kidz Bop” partnership with Macy’s previously led to the Kidz Bop Kids performing at select retail stores across the country. In 2012, the troupe performed at the Life Is Good Festival in Canton, Mass. alongside artists like Sara Bareilles and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Last year, the Kidz Bop Kids the played venues with capacities of well over 1,000 people, like the House of Blues in Anaheim, Calif. and the Victoria Fine Arts Center in Victoria, Tex.
“With this current group, we’ll definitely be attempting to develop them more,” says Zaraya. “We want to let kids know that [the Kidz Bop Kids] are real — they sing, dance and perform. They can be brand ambassadors for us. They have personalities. They are stars.”