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Deep Dive

Meet Jam Jr. — Columbia’s Big Bid For The Kids’ Music Market

With its new brand Jam Jr., Columbia Records is signing young artist-influencers it's betting can dominate the burgeoning kids' music market.

About two years ago, Ryan Ruden — father of two and head of touring and events at Columbia Records — had a realization: His young children, now ages 4 and 7, didn’t yet know how to read, but they did know how to request their favorite music (including Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”) on voice-activation devices like Amazon’s Alexa. Soon after, he met with Sony’s global business development team and asked it to pull the numbers on voice activation’s top requests.

The data strongly supported his hunch that kids are increasingly using these devices — on Alexa, the Moana and Frozen soundtracks, and of course the force that is “Baby Shark,” helped make kids’ music one of the most requested genres — and gave him an idea: He could harness the power of these Alexa-adept kids to create a music brand that both they and their parents could get into. “When I was growing up, you really listened to music in the car,” recalls Ruden. Now, “as kids move from the car to the kitchen” — and become increasingly tech-savvy — “if I listen to a cover song and I like it and my kids like it, it’s a win.”

At the time, Ruden had recently expanded his role to include senior vp experiential marketing and business development, and he’d started seeking out investment opportunities for Columbia (and Sony at large) in kids’ music, along with gaming/esports, social good and voice activation. By the end of 2018, he’d pitched a new kid-focused brand, and in May 2019 Columbia Records officially launched Jam Jr.

A Roster Of Influencers

“I looked at the market and I felt that we could do better,” says Ruden. Jam Jr. currently consists of eight active artists between the ages of 11 and 19, all of whom are social media influencers (with Instagram accounts mostly managed by their parents due to the platform’s 13-plus age policy) signed to Columbia as exclusive recording artists. Its newest, signed in early April, is Gavin Magnus, a 13-year-old with 1.3 million Instagram followers. There’s also Hayley LeBlanc (3.5 million Instagram followers), who previously had a contract with Disney’s Maker Studios; Gem Sisters, YouTubers and real-life sisters Giselle, Evangeline and Mercedes Lomelino; and Jessalyn Grace, who has her own collaborative collection with girls’ fashion retailer Justice. Signees record covers — for now, mostly top 40 hits — that are then released and marketed under the Jam Jr. umbrella.

Jam Jr Gavin Magnus Coco Quinn Sam Hurley
From left: Karissa Keller, manager touring & events; Ryan Ruden, SVP experiential marketing & business development; artists Gavin Magnus and Coco Quinn; Stephen Russo, EVP & CFO; artist Sam Hurley; Rachel Andrade, administrative assistant touring & events; and Brett Marks, manager touring & events, at Sony Square in New York on November 14, 2019. Courtesy of Sony Music

This isn’t an entirely new concept: Kidz Bop, which is distributed by Concord, formed nearly two decades ago and has released 40 compilations of little-known tween singers recording clean versions of massive pop hits, while the Warner-acquired also promoted influencer-artists before TikTok took over the space. But Jam Jr. marks the first time a major label has created its own kids’ music brand from within, and Ruden sees three key factors he hopes will set it apart: its influencer-artists, with their built-in followings and potential for peer-to-peer marketing; its access to Columbia’s front-line artists (who could promote Jam Jr. content and also benefit from the extended promotion it gives them) and to Sony/ATV’s catalog; and the educational component released with each cover, in which a Jam Jr. artist explains everything from what a ukulele is (paired with an “Old Town Road” cover) to the 1900s New Orleans origins of a backbeat (paired with a cover of Lennon Stella’s “La Di Da”). Plus, Sony owns 100% of Jam Jr. content.

It’s Sony Music Group’s global infrastructure and reach, though, that give Jam Jr. its biggest competitive edge in a rapidly growing market, especially at a time when, due to the coronavirus pandemic, kids are home 24/7 — and clamoring for entertainment. In the week ending March 19, childrens’ music was the only genre to see a spike in overall consumption units compared to the week prior, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, and its streams increased 6.3% from the prior week. (That percentage was initially reported as 9.8%, but on April 9, MRC Data/Nielsen Music revised 2020 stream counts retroactively due to a change in methodology). “Anytime an initiative can leverage the power of the broader Sony company, it makes for more potential for success,” says Columbia executive vp/CFO Steve Russo. “The extent to which we can take competitive advantage of that — that’s important.” As Ruden puts it: “It’s not just me and my two friends just cold DM’ing people on Instagram.”

Thus far, Ruden has secured support from star Columbia acts like Lil Nas X and John Legend — both of whom have already promoted Jam Jr. through video content — a sign, he says, that others on the label’s roster will see the appeal of working with the brand. Jam Jr.’s Sam Hurley, a floppy-haired 16-year-old with 1 million Instagram followers, recently covered Harry Styles’ “Adore You”; around prom season, Jam Jr. will roll out a TikTok campaign to “reemerge that track and fuel interest in Harry — it’s an added benefit for the whole ecosystem,” says Ruden.

Jam Jr John Legend
Still from Jam Jr’s "Solos & Duets" video featuring John Legend, center. Courtesy of Sony Music

Fueled By Sony/ATV’s Catalog

Jam Jr.’s access to Sony/ATV’s publishing catalog may prove even more beneficial. “If nothing else, from an operational and efficiency standpoint, it streamlines the clearance process of being able to use certain compositions in our cover versions,” says Russo. So far, Sony/ATV has licensed about a dozen songs to Jam Jr., from Beyoncé’s “Halo” to holiday classics “Silver Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” both of which were covered on last year’s Jam Jr. Christmas album. Wende Crowley, senior vp creative marketing for film/TV at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, sees Jam Jr. as “introducing a new generation of fans to great music,” and hopes that in the future it will delve into Motown’s catalog as well as country classics. (Sony/ATV owns copyrights to Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and other genre legends.)

And while cover songs of top 40 hits are “a great entry point,” says Ruden, having Jam Jr. artists record originals is a goal as well — one he plans to get started on soon, with the help of Sony/ATV’s roster of songwriters. “If we start creating original music and [intellectual property] that is our own, then it really gets compelling on the business side,” he says.

Jessalyn Grace Jam Jr
Still from Jessalyn Grace’s “Halo” (Beyoncé Cover) video. Courtesy of Sony Music

Right now, though, Ruden wants to see Jam Jr. succeed on YouTube with familiar hits, explaining that “a visual component is key to learning and creating more engaging content, which will then drive larger brand awareness.” Since November 2018, Jam Jr.’s YouTube uploads — which include music videos, behind-the-scenes clips and educational components, all of which are approved by the Grammy Music Education Coalition and the National Association for Music Education — have collectively garnered 15.1 million views. Recently, U.K.-based Jam Jr. artist Sapphire’s cover of Harry Styles’ “Lights Up” became Vevo’s No. 12 music video in the United Kingdom two weeks after its release, just behind Selena Gomez’s “Boyfriend” (it later hit No. 1 on the Vevo UK New Artist Music Videos Chart). As Jam Jr. grows, Ruden wants to sign more influencers from outside the United States, citing Japan and Germany in particular.

Plans For Touring

He’s also prioritizing touring — his expertise, and, he expects, a big driver of revenue for the brand. “It would be such a cool live show to have kids singing pop songs, original songs and then also learning about music education: What is a chorus, a harmony, a chord?” says Ruden. Jam Jr. had plans to “tour aggressively” this summer and winter — mostly 1,000-capacity rooms and state fairs/festivals, where family entertainment thrives — but those are now on pause due to the coronavirus.

In its place, Ruden has “accelerated our content strategy” and encouraged artists to think creatively. On April 4, Jam Jr. released an at-home music video for Magnus’ cover of Justin Bieber’s “Changes” (a Universal recording that Sony/ATV owns a share of) — which cost just $2,500. One week later, on April 11, Magnus released another at-home video for his cover of Post Malone’s “Circles” (also a Universal recording that Sony/ATV owns a share of). “It’s something that’s very organic to these artists,” says Russo. “Making DIY visuals through Instagram and TikTok, and not these elaborate, traditional major-label video shoots.”

In a saturated space ruled by behemoths like Disney and Kidz Bop, even a new brand from a major-label group faces challenges. Ruden allows that “there’s basically one competitor in this space” (one he prefers not to name). But he’s confident that the broad web of support Jam Jr. has already built — from Sony Music Group, to partnerships with brands like the Girl Scouts and Walmart, to a forthcoming partnership with what he calls “the largest tween brand next to Disney” — has set it up for growing success. “The win for me,” he says, “is if more brands come in.” That, says Russo, “will elevate awareness of [Jam Jr.] not only among the youth, but among the parents who are spending money with those brands. That’s a significant piece of it.”

And as more opportunities arise, those benefits could well extend far beyond Jam Jr.’s own niche. “Our overall thesis is always artists first,” says Ruden — and it’s not difficult to see Jam Jr. becoming an artist development boot camp or incubator of sorts for Sony. “It’s a good feeder system,” he says. “There’s a big space between getting social right and getting signed to a major. But hopefully, if we get some of this right, one of these artists that we’re signing will break through.”