Thursday, June 15, 2006

More and Less

After years of listening to, carting around, losing, and, if need be, "misplacing" children's music albums, I have a few suggestions for those of you out there producing music for kids and families. No matter if you're doing theatrical productions, indie rock, or glossy children's pop, here are four things we can use more of, four things we can use less of.

More real instruments, fewer kids: I know little about the economics of the children's music business, but I know that recording a large band of musicians is more expensive than recording a small band or solo artist. You have to pay more musicians and it probably takes more time in the recording studio (if you have your own studio, I guess that's not so much a problem). Hootenanies might be fun, but they're not necessarily cheap. And the more instruments you use, the more you have to think about how it'll sound when you're playing live and you have a smaller band... or no band at all.

But it sounds sooooo much better when you use a broad array of real instruments. Songs that sound cramped and dinky with a programmed synthesizer sound so much fuller with a full band. You don't even need a full band -- the occasional fiddle or horn section on just one or two songs adds a tremendous amount of life to an album.

If you need to save recording studio time, you can always cut back on using kids in your songs. I generally find kids' voices more appealing as a musical spice (on the chorus, say) than as the main meal. No need to cut 'em out entirely, but just like a horn section and cayenne pepper, a little bit of a chorus of six-year-olds goes a long way.

More lyrics in the liner notes, less name-checking: I suspect part of the reason for not putting lyrics in liner notes is that it adds space and, therefore, cost to those notes. But especially with songs for kids, it's nice to have the lyrics handy, especially if the songs are traditional songs for kids intended for the parents and/or kids to sing along. Putting the lyrics on the artist's website is a nice try, but going over to the computer and finding the appropriate webpage isn't the easiest thing to do with a baby on your hip who's very interested in that mouse you're moving around with your right hand.

And speaking of lyrics, the small trend of children's music bands namechecking themselves in song has Got. To. Stop. Now. We get it, you're [-----------] and you're so much fun to listen to. There are two responses here: 1. Prove it. 2. Don't write a song about it. (Or, if you do, it had better be insanely catchy. See Point #1.)

More chords, less weird packaging: Before we pass by the concept of lyrics in the liner notes entirely, I should mention how nice it is also to have chords included in the liner notes. And I'm saying that as someone who doesn't even play the guitar and would have to plunk out chords on the piano. Chords are cool. In some sense it's aspirational -- it makes the parents think they might just one day learn how to play guitar and lead singalongs around the campfire. (And maybe it'll inspire a few parents to actually do that.)

But weird packaging is uncool. (Yes, the linkages here are increasingly tenuous.) Put your music in an oddly-shaped package and you run the risk of never having your disk played. The Sandra Boynton book/CD collections are nice, but we don't play them much because there's no convenient place to put the book (in which the CD is stored) near the stereo, let alone in the car. The CD sampler on the Laurie Berkner DVD is nice, but because it's pacakaged with the DVD, if you want to listen to it in the car, you're forced to take the DVD case with you, which is not the most elegant of solutions. (If only it were in the shape of a cup-holder. Then we'd be OK.)

And finally...

More songs, less Barney-bashing: You might be able to determine whether or not you'll like a song in 29 seconds, but I can't. I mean, it takes about 10 seconds to decide you hate a song, but a lot longer to decide that you (or your child) love it. So while I understand the costs of bandwidth, I heartily encourage artists to put full-length versions of some of their songs online. There are a number of different ways to get full versions of songs out to the public -- podcasts, Myspace, and, well, actual mp3s, to name just a few. It's better to put three full songs online than clips of all twelve. It's the best way to sell yourself to a public looking to find out more about a genre that's somewhat hidden.

But when you sell yourself by putting down someone else, you're just selling yourself short. (Did I just sound like Dr. Phil there? Urgh.) It's one thing for writers online and off- to bash Barney, the Wiggles, or Raffi (writers are trying to make distinctions), but another thing entirely for artists to do so. When you sell a recognizable fraction of the eight gazillion albums those artists have each sold, then you can say how much better you are than them. Until then, just talk about how great you are. The abuse of Raffi by some kids' musicians -- who, if he didn't invent kids' music, certainly created the idea of the kids' music genre -- is particularly mystifying to me. It's as if Fall Out Boy decided to promote themselves by trashing the Beatles.

Despite the weirdness of my segues, I think the concepts are not without merit. If you'll excuse me, I've got to continue my scientific experiments on making scratch-proof Arthur DVDs. (And you know how much of a Nobel-worthy accomplishment that would be.)


Eric Herman said...

Stefan, a big "amen" on the last part especially.

I just added a thing to my website bio this morning that says, "And he's not ashamed to admit that he likes The Wiggles, Raffi and Barney". Sure, the Wiggles are cutesy and a little dorky, but they actually have some very well-crafted and well-produced music... probably better than 90% of the music of those who so quickly trash them. I dare any children's musician to listen to the whole "Toot Toot" video a few times and say that isn't a great collection of songs, even Beatle-esque in its quality and variety. Raffi is very centered as a performer and has written some terrific songs. And he's got that great, rich voice that cuts through to the soul like few others. And even though the threshold for triteness is reached a lot sooner for me with Barney, the original songs for that show are so incredibly catchy and are very well written. Would that we could all write songs as catchy as that.

I'm surprised more kids' artists wouldn't be trying to be associated with them... The Wiggles and Raffi are almost akin to The Beatles and Dylan back in the 60's, and most of their contemporaries were certainly glad to be their contemporaries, right? So anyway, yeah, enough already with the Wiggles/Raffi/Barney bashing.

Now KidzBop... ;o)

deb in sf said...

Brilliance. Thank you.

deb in sf

pagalina said...

I totally agree with the statement about using more real instruments and fewer kids shouting. This is my main pet peeve against so much of the children's music out there. Synthesizers will always sound cheap!

S Perry said...

Very helpful advice! Thank you for this...

Scott Perry

Keith said...

I just stumbled upon this article...and it is the TRUTH! And while I can say from experience that it IS more expensive to have live musicians, it is ALWAYS better. Kudos for this piece.