In biz's harsh reality, only the kids survive

From a distance, the members of the band Drive A look like your typical rockers, bounding around the stage with their shaggy hair, black leather jackets and skinny jeans.

For anyone listening, all the elements are there — the bass guitar riffs, the pounding drums, the belted lyrics. Yet for anyone watching closely, there’s nothing typical about the band. Not when its lead singer is 15.

And that’s just fine with Hollywood’s music agents and record labels.

With album sales on a downward spiral, one of the few reliable sellers of tunes these days is the young artist.

In fact, the youth movement is driving the music biz across all media, with younger acts dominating the charts, TV ratings and selling out concert arenas and even multiplexes.

Fifteen-year-old Miley Cyrus’ Disney Channel persona last year earned Disney more than $1 billion.

And the torch has been passed to the Jonas Brothers, whose Disney Channel movie “Camp Rock,” bested the first “High School Musical” in viewers last week, instantly greenlighting a sequel. A concert tour sold out in two minutes in several cities.

Elsewhere, 17-year-old “American Idol” runner-up David Archuleta charmed auds, landed a record deal and will release his first album later this year; 18-year-old country crooner Taylor Swift is readying a sophomore album after her first sold more than 3 million copies.

The teens may be talented, but as some agents say, being cute doesn’t hurt.

Music execs may be thrilled, but the flip side is that older artists — make that anyone over 20 — find it tough to be discovered, let alone land a meeting with talent managers.

“It’s hard, because truthfully no one’s selling records anymore other than Disney and Hollywood Records,” says Julie Colbert, a music agent at William Morris.

That’s because the Mouse has become a promotional powerhouse, churning out young acts, signing them through Hollywood Records, then launching their singles on Radio Disney and Websites, and pairing them with Disney Channel to promote them to teens and tweens through TV shows or movies.

Success stories include the Cheetah Girls, the cast of “High School Musical” and Aly and AJ.

Rival channel Nickelodeon similarly launched the careers of Drake Bell, 22, and the 12- and 9-year-old leads of the Naked Brothers Band by using its lineup of TV shows and distribution platforms.

But some new acts aren’t looking to partner with the Mouse or Nick.

Drive A is one of them. The Malibu-based band doesn’t see either’s demo as a good fit for its harder-edged songs. They’re also not looking to star in a TV show soon.

“It’s really cool, but if you’re going for longetivity, maybe it’s not the best way to go,” says Drive A’s 16-year-old bass player Ashton Moio. “You end up getting overexposed before you have a solid fan base. People start to associate the band with a TV show and when the show is gone, you kind of forget about the band, too.”

Lead singer and guitarist Bruno Mascolo agrees: “In a year we’d all be like, I wish we hadn’t done that.”

Make that “a couple of years,” adds Moio, because “in a year we’d all have Lamborghinis and stuff. Maybe in 10 years I’d regret it.”

Turning down that kind of exposure may be surprising for an up-and-coming band. But talent managers applaud the move.

As long as it’s about the music, the added exposure that comes from TV is a bonus, says Colbert, who cautions, “The minute you start acting, you’re making a career choice.”

Newcomers have been burned in the past by promoting themselves on TV before actually selling themselves as musicians first.

A starring role on the WB’s “Summerland” may have helped Jesse McCartney’s burgeoning singing career at the time, but Tyler Hilton is still trying to shake off the label of being “that guy” from the network’s “One Tree Hill.”

There are other ways to promote new acts, including sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, as well as videogames, which feature soundtracks that appeal to young males, as opposed to the more female auds that flock to TV.

Crooked X, a heavy metal band made up of 14-year-olds and signed by William Morris last year, have a song featured on the soundtrack for MTV’s popular “Rock Band” vidgame. Because of that deal, MTV is now developing a reality show around the band.

The music in games “are imprinted on everyone’s brain,” says Drive A’s 17-year-old Jason Nott, who sings and plays rhythm guitar. “If you’re hearing it all the time, you’re curious who it is. It also doesn’t seem like it’s selling out.”

There is a downside to growing up as a band.

The age factor may limit its shelf-life — agents and labels give younger acts two to five years, because the attention spans of fans age 6-14 shift quickly.

That’s why there’s the rush by promoters to ink every deal possible, from merchandise to launching new tours that pack thousands of kids and their parents into arenas.

“For us, it’s more about how many of the pieces of the puzzle we can put together to have success,” says David Levine, a music agent at William Morris. “It’s in everyone’s interest to tour Miley Cyrus in arenas and make dolls and sell magazines as much as you can. On the other hand, it’s not in Miley Cyrus’ interest if she wants a long-term career to do that.”

Whether Drive A winds up on TV or not, its focus on music is paying off.

Even without a major label, the band has drawn huge crowds playing everything from middle schools and teen centers to the Knitting Factory and Key Club in L.A. It’s opened for Camp Freddy, Paramore and Sugarcult, played Edgefest in Dallas, a Blender mag event at SXSW in Austin, Rock on the Range in Ohio, and currently the Vans Warped Tour in several cities. An album and tour are in the works.

“Just because we’re teenagers doesn’t mean we’re not serious,” Mascolo says.

“We want to get fans and get better as a band and keep doing it.”

That’s while juggling their regular lives as, well, kids.

Mascolo, who isn’t old enough to drive yet, and Nott are home schooled. Moio’s been teased for having to miss practice because he had to make up a physics test. Songs reflect on what happened in their lives like breaking bones while snowboarding. None of Drive A’s bandmembers are old enough to buy alcohol.

And none of them would want to trade in the work needed to launch their burgeoning music careers.

“It’s fun hard work,” Moio says. “It’s better than most kids my age who are working at Jamba Juice. I just play bass all the time.”

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