Tyke-targeted indie label adds star power
Razor & Tie, the 18-year-old Gotham indie media outfit, is getting bigger by getting younger.Known for Kidz Bop, the franchise of kids singing contempo pop hits — Vol. 14 will be released July 29 — the company is expanding its relationship with kid-pop mega-draw Laurie Berkner. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then you probably don’t hang out with 4-year-olds. Along with Dan Zanes, Berkner is at the center of the burgeoning preschool music biz, routinely selling out major concert venues and appearing frequently on the “Today” show and in rhapsodic magazine reviews. The toddler category is one of the lone bright spots in the troubled music landscape thanks to a confluence of trends, including a boom in cable TV and DVD outlets, Internet distribution and grown-up artists having kids themselves. “You can succeed without a single on the radio or a product tie-in,” says Cliff Chenfeld, co-founder and co-head of Razor & Tie. “A significant number of kids and their parents buy CDs. And I continue to think there’s not enough product for that market.” At one point a few years ago, Kidz Bop, which has sold 10 million units worldwide, repped almost 50% of company revenues, and in terms of increasingly crucial live music revenue, the company still controls 100% of the Kidz Bop tour. Compilations such as the double-platinum “Monster Ballads” (Poison, Whitesnake, Europe) “were how we learned to market to specific demos,” says Craig Balsam, who partnered with Chenfeld and founded the label in Chenfeld’s apartment in 1990. A couple of years ago, Razor & Tie acquired Berkner’s back catalog and, through a decade-old distribution alliance with Sony BMG, created more retail opportunities for the singer-songwriter. They then released a Berkner DVD in 2006, “We Are … the Laurie Berkner Band” that has shipped more than 400,000 units to date thanks to being on racks not just in BestBuy but also in BuyBuy Baby or Kids R Us. “They have a sense of doing things a little bit off the beaten track in terms of sales and retail, and I really respond to that,” says Berkner, whose first album of new material in six years, “Rocketship Run,” comes out Aug. 5. Her label, Two Tomatoes, will continue to own the masters. The “Rocketship” rollout is something of a throwback to earlier times in music. The CD features a 24-page booklet with thematically linked band photos designed to extend kids’ listening experience. The main marketing initiative is direct response advertising, fundamentally similar to efforts for recent albums by Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow that appeal to older Baby Boomers “Everyone says those are so old-school, but they are a really effective way to track the reaction of people to our artists,” Chenfeld says. “You know who’s watching and who’s buying.” The direct-response ads, basically more sophisticated versions of the Chia Pet spots of yore, include a toll-free phone number and Web URL and can be strategically placed for maximum impact. “With Laurie, we know that her fans watch Nickelodeon, so we’re able to buy time on Nickelodeon,” Chenfeld says. Not surprisingly, Razor & Tie, due to its leanings lately, has become one of the heaviest buyers of time on Nickelodeon. With annual revenue approaching $100 million and 70 employees at its Gotham offices just south of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, the company has found traction by refusing to define itself narrowly. It competes with smaller indies in some ways but can handle major soundtracks such as the recent “Alvin and the Chipmunks” release. Alongside the record label, it has a media-buying unit — which books time for several major labels — and a notable presence in homevideo, selling everything from fitness videos to Nick Broomfield’s “Biggie & Tupac.” “We tried to position ourselves somewhere between an indie and a major label,” Chenfeld says. While some suitors have proposed a buyout over the years, no scenario seemed as appealing as running a company that could promote everything from Marshall Crenshaw to Ozzfest metal outfit All That Remains to waggish compilations like “Booty Time.” Individual artists, from proven acts Dar Williams to up-and-comer Ryan Shaw, have become more central to the mission. “This part of our business is becoming more prominent and we’re having more success with individual artists,” Balsam says. “People are wanting to partner with us more.”
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