Our panel of kid-friendly performing and recording artists weighs in on the rewards.
Children’s music may have changed since the early days of pioneers like Ella Jenkins and the breakthrough success of Raffi in the 1980s, but the essentials remain the same. Musicians attuned to kids continue to make a significant impact on children's’ lives, and often enjoy a viable career doing it.
We asked our panelists to share their reasons for getting into the field and why it can be a smart and artistically satisfying choice for performers.
“Kindie rock” ups the coolness quotient
With the development of kids indie rock, or “kindie rock,” just about any musical genre has become fair game, so long as it maintains a kid-friendly sensibility. That’s one of the biggest changes over the last decade according to Laurie Berkner, who’s been dubbed “the queen of children’s music” by People. Her credits are impressive: nine best-selling albums and two off-Broadway children’s musicals, Wanda’s Monster and The Amazing Adventures of Harvey and the Princess. With a changed retail music environment, she urges would-be children’s musicians to focus on differentiating themselves from the burgeoning competition.
Like many aspects of the music business, it has changed enormously in the last twenty years. There was a very small pool of music and musicians to choose from in the '90s, which was when I started writing kids’ music. Then, in the last ten years, as "kindie rock" evolved, more musicians decided they wanted to make music that both kids and adults would like.
As a result, given the fact that so few stores actually carry CDs and DVDs now, it can be very hard to compete for shelf space now—or even digital space. I think that makes it even more important than ever to be clear about what your own style and goals are, and what you have to say as a musician that might be different from many of the others that are also making kids' music.
Careers thrive on passion, performance and savvy
Making kids’ music because you have something unique to offer is the best way to build a successful career, Berkner says. She adds a little social-media savvy can’t hurt.
If you love what you are doing and you find that other people are giving you positive feedback—then follow it! To me, that's much more likely to bring you success, both career-wise and personally, than if you try to figure out what you think people want from you.
I think it can be very helpful to have a website because it helps to establish your credibility. That said, if you have one, it's very important to keep it updated. Otherwise it's just as bad as not having one at all. I also think that if you have a very active Facebook fan page, you can spend more of your energy interacting there and just use your website to provide information and links to purchasing.
Infectious recordings and exciting live shows are also crucial career components according to Pat Hanlin who does double duty as drummer-producer in Josh & the Jamtones.
Great records and captivating, interactive live shows should be big priorities. There are opportunities for placement on digital radio, which unlike terrestrial radio actually pays artists. So good songs can pay off!
For live shows—you’re talking about crowds of young ones with limited attention spans, so making your show captivating and engaging is super important, just in order to keep everybody's attention! For my band, our show's turned into one big interactive piece.
Many roads lead to kids’ music
Most children’s musicians, it seems, found their way to writing and performing for kids in a roundabout fashion, though that’s not true of Bill Harley. The two-time Grammy winner has been recording music for kids since the early ‘80s and he’s still at it, reaping recognition such as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and an Honorary Degree from Hamilton College.
I’ve always worked with children, in addition to performing for adults. I feel comfortable with them and feel like I have something to say. It‘s also a better living at a grassroots level. There’s work in schools, the hours are a little more livable, and it has a cultural aspect I really like. You’re offering culture—music and stories—to people while they’re open to it.
By contrast, Frances England, who began her career as a folksinger and now has four family-friendly recordings to her credit (including the 2006 Oppenheim Platinum Award for her debut Fascinating Creatures), never gave much thought to music for non-grownups.
I fell into the children’s music scene by accident. I made a fundraiser CD, called Fascinating Creatures, for my son’s preschool and honestly never expected anyone other than friends and family to hear it. It was completely homespun. We recorded it at home and I was printing the CDs and covers myself. But within a few months, it got the attention of some great bloggers and it took off in a way I never imagined it would.
Others found that playing for kids suited them when unexpected situations created an opportunity. Lunch Money singer/songwriter Molly Ledford, for example, had an aha! moment a decade ago while hiring other bands to perform for children.
I started a band for kids after working at a library where one of my responsibilities was booking acts for youth programs. I was in a gloomy band for adults at the time. I thought it would be fun and saw there was opportunity there.
Similarly, the Grammy- and three-time Parents’ Choice Award-winning Okee Dokee Brothers (singer-songwriters Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing) discovered an affinity for family-friendly music during a time their performance focus was elsewhere.
We had been thrown into a couple of situations where we were playing for kids and families in a band that played at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes, childcare centers etc. They were some of the most rewarding shows because the audience members hung on every word, and danced so fervently.
Also, having grown up together, we thought it really made sense to share our friendship since childhood with children. It continues to be a great example of what friends can be.
Children’s entertainers Splash ’N Boots (Nick Adams and Taes Leavitt), whose TV show is seen in 8.3-million homes daily on Canada’s number one pre-school network, came to much the same conclusion while performing for kids as a class project at Queen’s University in Ontario.
We were hired to do children's theatre for a job in university and realized how much we love it. We both love kids and music and performing so it's a perfect match.
Unfettered creativity is key
Regardless of the way they settled on music for kids, these musicians feel they have chosen well. And creativity plays a large part in their satisfaction, including, as Laurie Berkner says, the opportunity to share music with her audience in a variety of new ways.
I feel like I have had a chance to continually be on the cutting edge of new technologies and new ways that people consume music. When I started, believe it or not, the internet was very young. This allowed me to take control of my own sales by starting my own record label with a way to share music and sell directly to fans.
Then when cable TV started to show preschool channels, I had a chance to get my music on them. And now we're exploring the possibilities of using YouTube to share my music. I think it's all extremely creative and very exciting!
With the new anything-goes aesthetic of kindie rock, Josh & the Jamtones’ Pat Hanlin feels kids music offers unlimited possibilities when it comes to songwriting and production.
I love, love, love producing kids records. Kids do imagination way better than us, and that gives you the ability to get kinda crazy with the cheese whiz in terms of songwriting, arrangement, instrumentation, etc. You don't have to stick to one genre. My band experiments with ska, reggae, pop, folk, punk, New Orleans-style street music, country and Americana and good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. What other band would allow me to play that wide a spread of music and get away with it?
Unexpected advantages abound
Perks in children’s music can be practical and purely personal. The Okee Dokee Brothers like the hours, among other things.
It was surprising to us how much a career in music for kids made sense. Our gigs are often at 10 a.m. rather than 10 p.m, our fan base grows very quickly by word of mouth, and financially it's a possibility to support the two of us. And the ideas seem to keep coming because the niche we're in helps us to direct our creativity.
Lunch Money’s Molly Ledford said she was also happy to discover the practical benefits of the field in addition to its effect on her artistry.
The community that promotes this genre is very enthusiastic and supportive, so we often get approached by venues, blogs, radio shows.
Another thing I did not see coming is that I find that through writing "for children" that I have broken out of former songwriting ruts. I now find song ideas constantly in unexpected places and there is plenty of room for a wide range of emotions and observations. After all, childhood is a universal human condition.
And Frances England found that performing in front of children offered another form of liberation—the ability to perform terror-free.
Up until children’s music, I was always terrified of performing in front of people—I had crazy stage fright. So when I released Fascinating Creatures and schools and libraries started asking me to come sing to big groups of people, my first reaction was, “Sorry, I can’t!” But playing for kids and families helped me reframe it all.
I started with little preschool sing-alongs and soon began to realize what an incredible gift it is to be a part of bringing families together to sing and dance and unplug. My nerves have settled down and I’ve had great opportunities to play at Austin City Limits Festival, Lollapalooza, SF MOMA, and lots of other fun spots.
The fun was somewhat unexpected for Brady Rymer, who formed The Little Band That Could while touring with the now-defunct jam band From Good Homes. Rymer began playing kids’ music as an occasional expression of his experiences raising his own family. But it’s turned into a career transition that has resulted in seven CDs and two Grammy nominations.
I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it! The writing, the performing, interacting with the kids and families—it was very satisfying, creative and it just felt right. I sure didn’t see it coming that I would be doing it almost 20 years later! My kids are graduating high school, going to college and I’m still making music for younger kids and families. Keeps me young, I guess…
Satisfactions run deep
These artists consider kids’ music a potentially deeply satisfying career choice for any musician. Especially, as Rymer said, when it comes to relating to your audience.
For me, making music is so much about the connection to an audience, and the relationships that you can make with kids and families are pretty deep and meaningful. Kids have so much love and enthusiasm, and they aren’t afraid to show it. For me, the reward is right there. It can be a truly soul-satisfying experience, rockin’ out with families!
Kids’ music veteran Bill Harley agrees and takes Rymer’s sentiments a step further—from family to community.
There’s a very strong sense that you’re contributing something to the social fabric. Building community and bringing laughter and joy are pretty big pluses in a vocation. Sometimes, I’ll be complaining to myself on the way to a gig, but in the middle of it, with a couple hundred kids or families singing or laughing or applauding, I think to myself, ‘Well, what’s wrong with this?’ Not much.
Children’s music isn’t for everyone, but if you feel its pull, the rewards can be far larger than the height of the average audience member.