AUSTIN, Texas - He once landed a major record deal at the South by Southwest Music Conference, but Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy returned to the music industry’s biggest bash last week with a new goal: To get the attention of 6-year-olds instead of the six-digit deals of old.
In an era when nearly everything in the music industry is dimming in value, kids music is seen as a rare bright spot - even at SXSW, which is still a trend-setting bastion of cool for musicians and recording industry people despite the tumultuous economy.
Kids' music is the newest rock frontier
This year, the Minneapolis rocker arrived with his first children’s music CD, recorded under the Honeydogs-mocking pseudonym Bunny Clogs. Part of a wave of grown-up musicians retooling their sound for kids, the Bunny Clogs’ album might be a more promising commercial venture than the excellent six-song collection that Levy’s old band also put out this month.
The Honeydogs landed a deal at the 23rd annual music conference in 1996 and returned on the company’s dime with a hit album in 1997.
“We had the whole deal: Labels buying us fancy meals and throwing cocktail parties for us,” Levy recalled of SXSW’s bygone era, when corporate record labels ruled the scene at South by Southwest (SXSW).
Now kids are one audience that Levy and many others are wooing.
“The way the Sex Pistols and punk-rock rejected classic-rock, today’s indie kids music is rejecting the Barneys and the Wiggles of the world,” Los Angeles-based children’s-music producer Tor Hymas declared on a discussion panel for SXSW’s industry attendees Friday titled “The Underdogs: Living Large on Kids Music.”
Hymas talked about how kids stages at the giant music festivals Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits have become big attractions. SXSW even put on a large children’s music event Saturday led by Austin’s own Biscuit Brothers, who have a hit PBS TV show.
“A generation of cool musical people like (Levy) are having children, and they want to have cool music to share with their kids,” Hymas said.
Referring to Levy’s other rock group - the infamously named one - Hymas added, “How cool is it that a guy with a band called Hookers & Blow also now has a kids CD?”
Hanging out on Austin’s hip drag South Congress Avenue before the panel, Levy said he had started toying around with kid-friendly music six years ago simply as a fun activity with his two daughters, Esther and Eva, now 10 and 8.
“It’s as much my kids’ project as mine,” said Levy, who also had his son Daniel, 18, design the artwork for the CD.
As the bottom fell out on the recording industry over the past half-decade, Levy grew to admire the success that his Chicago-based friend Ralph Covert enjoyed with his popular Ralph’s World CDs.
One other Twin Cities musician, singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, also had discussions at SXSW about producing a kids CD - and she’s not even a parent. Like Levy, she said she finds writing children’s music offers a different kind of creative satisfaction.
“It’s fun to kind of let go and write songs from the perspective of what the world was like before it was poisoned by adulthood,” Bonar said, poking fun at her plethora of downer songs.
Other well-known rock and pop musicians who have enjoyed recent success with kid’s music CDs include Peter Himmelman, Jewel, Lisa Loeb, They Might Be Giants and Del Fuegos singer Dan Zanes. Himmelman even won his first Grammy last year with one of his discs, “Green Kite.”
Not only are these acts selling a lot of CDs this way - tens of thousands, which is profitable for independent albums - they’re also enjoying success on the road, oftentimes playing afternoon kids shows along with their usual evening sets.
“The kids crowds are tough, because you have to keep them thoroughly entertained or else,” said Levy.
The indie kids-music boom was not the only optimistic topic discussed at SXSW last week. Two other panels at the Austin Convention Center drew standing-room-only crowds of musicians and music-biz workers looking for signs of hope: one called “Innovations in Digital Music,” where new sites such as Lala.com and LimeWire.com were touted as innovative new stars; and another titled “Placing Your Music in Film and TV,” which pointed to the growing allure of having songs featured on the big- and little-screen.
Lo and behold, at least one Twin Cities group at SXSW last week enjoyed the kind of attention that the Honeydogs had in the wealthier late-‘90s. However, the band in this case wasn’t sure if it wanted that attention.
“Years ago, to get label interest like this would have been like, ‘Yeah!’” said Zachary Coulter, frontman of the electronica-buoyed Minneapolis rock quintet Solid Gold, which played six gigs during the festival. “Now, it might be better to stay independent and not give away anything.”