The Kidz Bop formula: Sasha Junk & Harry Johnson on the inner workings of the enduring brand

The Kidz Bop formula: Sasha Junk & Harry Johnson on the inner workings of the enduring brand

Following decades of success, Kidz Bop’s formula seems deceptively simple. Initially taking the most successful songs of the year on the US charts – then later including international favourites as the audience has grown globally – since 2001 the brand has covered the hits with teams of child singers, banishing any lyrics that might engender a parental advisory warning in the process. 

It has been effective, wracking up global sales of over 23.5 million albums – the Kidz Bop hits feature on bi-annual and annual compilations – and generating more than nine billion streams across the globe. International Kidz Bop groups, including a UK line-up, are now an established part of the brand.

Acquired by Concord in 2018, the Kidz Bop formula remains a winning one. Not only have several generations of child singers been recruited as their predecessors age out, but a series of high-end videos, brand partnerships and a growing live presence all underpin Kidz Bop’s position as the kids' choice. 

Following on from North American dates and a series of London shows, the first ever nationwide Kidz Bop UK tour launches in April (shows had originally been scheduled during the pandemic), while a partnership with Sky means the brand will be on TV in time for Christmas. 

Reflecting on the fact that Kidz Bop is now in its twenties while discussing its UK aspirations, Music Week speaks to president Sasha Junk and senior director of marketing Harry Johnson to find out why the Kidz are alright…

You’ve been going since 2001, which means Kidz Bop’s original listeners are now adults…

Sasha Junk: “It’s amazing. We've finally entered into the era where kids who grew up with us are becoming parents and are starting to share Kidz Bop with their kids, which is a really interesting inflection point for the brand.”

It’s also been six years since you were acquired by Concord, what has that relationship brought to Kidz Bop?

SJ: “It’s been fantastic, it sort of coincided with our international expansion. Historically we had been a predominantly North American brand but we thought that the UK was the ideal market to expand into. Obviously, it’s a great market for pop music itself, which is the core to what we do. Our music has really taken off in the UK over the past six years and we’re really excited about the growth of streaming, the popularity of the Kidz Bop Kids themselves, and we've got some really exciting initiatives coming.”

The foundation of all this remains taking current pop hits and making them child-friendly?

SJ: “Yeah, our adorable, highly talented Kidz Bop Kids cover the big pop songs. Right now we’re currently recording in five languages.” 

Harry Johnson: “Five languages and then we have music videos in American Sign Language and British Language as well.”

How have you tailored your choice of songs to international audiences?

SJ: “Obviously, there are the huge global juggernaut pop hits, but then in each territory there are chart-toppers that we cover as well. For instance, in the UK, there's usually a handful of songs a year that are huge which don't necessarily chart as high in the US, but we definitely want to make sure that we cover those so the UK children can enjoy them. Generally, our criteria is we follow the charts and the big pop hits in that market.”

Have you ever had any feedback from the artists you cover?

HJ: “It’s been fantastic really. When we first launched in the UK, you know, Radio 1 had jumped on it. Scott Mills and Chris Stark heard it at a kid's birthday party and went, ‘Hang on, this doesn’t quite sound like the original’, so they got the artists on their show and played them our versions. Sabrina Carpenter recently tweeted ‘I’ve made it, Kidz Bop covered my song’, which we’re running next year, so it’s almost become a tick of approval. Once Kidz Bop covers you, you’ve got a hit!”

Has Kidz Bop reached a phase where it has been an influence on some of today’s artists?

SJ: “Especially in the US, some of these younger pop stars grew up with the brand. For example, the singer Gayle tried out to be a Kidz Bop Kid at one point and now we’ve covered her song. So a Kidz Bop cover is now almost a rite of passage.”

In terms of rewriting a track to make it child-friendly, how does that process work? You’ve covered some tracks that had swearing in the originals.

SJ: “To be honest, it’s fairly straightforward because most pop songs have a radio edit. So we start from that or change a word or two, it’s pretty simple.”

HJ: “Small tweaks make all the difference.”

We wondered what might fall outside of making it as a Kidz Bop song, but you do have a version of Outkast’s Hey Ya…

SJ: Every song is a case-by-case basis of whether or not we think that it's a good candidate for a Kidz Bop song.”

So any hit artists out there who have not been done yet still have a chance?

SJ: “It’s so funny because we've actually started to get other labels and publishers starting to reach out to us proactively, saying ‘Will you cover this artist’s track?’ Or, ‘There’s this new album coming, can you keep it on your radar?’ So it’s a fun place to be.”

Have you ever considered delving into a catalogue for Kidz Bop? Kate Bush was covered but that was due to her chart success in 2022 with Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).

SJ: “We’ve discussed it and it’s not off the table but our sweet spot really is new pop songs. However, because we’ve been around for 23 years and covered thousands of songs, there is a giant catalogue from those years already there.”

What we're doing is fostering that love of pop music, turning kids into pop music fans

Sasha Junk

Do you get any sense that a Kidz Bop cover will lead younger fans to the original artist?  

SJ: “I have always thought that happens. What we're doing is fostering that love of pop music, turning kids into pop music fans. They'll stay with us for a couple of years and then move on to the original artist. We're definitely encouraging our fans, when they graduate from Kidz Bop, to listen to the original.”

HJ: “We aim to be a brand of firsts. We want to be the first pop song you listen to, the first concert you go to, but it’s also an introduction to pop music more widely.”

Looking at the Kidz Bop Kids themselves, you’ve gone through different teams of singers. Who is performing now?

SJ: “We have multiple groups of Kidz Bop Kids. We've got kids in the US, the UK, Spanish-speaking Kidz Bop Kids, French kids, German kids. And we're constantly casting and looking for kids that can sing, dance and perform as they cycle in and out of the brand.”

How has the experience been for the Kidz Bop alumni?

SJ: “People like Zendaya and Olivia Holt did Kidz Bop and we've got some kids who are on Broadway right now. Others have gone on to Disney and Nickelodeon. I like to think it’s been a positive experience for everyone involved. About half the kids go on and try to pursue professional careers in entertainment and then the other half sort of resume a normal life. I've written many university reference letters. It looks good on your CV, whatever you do.”

Kidz Bop's existence coincides pretty much with the rise of streaming. Having started with compilation CDs, where is your priority now?

SJ: “We are predominantly a streaming brand now. We still do some physical product, but it's modest. So we have leaned into streaming. That's what we focus most of our time on, making sure we continue to develop across all the major DSPs globally. We have great partnerships with them, working not only on a global scale but also market by market. And though the music is obviously the anchor, over the past five to 10 years we've really expanded our touring division which we’re bringing to the UK for the first time ever. We're also launching consumer products, the Kidz Bop Kids in various iterations across the globe have turned into mini influencers themselves and Harry and the brand team have done a fantastic job of finding incredible partnerships.”

HJ: “We have these Kidz Bop Kids who represent the brand in various countries, which is fantastic, they've become mini pop stars. So we work with brand partners. We're obviously working with Sky a lot and our tours have sponsorships. So it really is everything you'd expect from a pop star, it’s just for kids. In terms of going from the physical to streaming, I think this pandemic really solidified that change for us.”

Having done London shows this year, you’re finally bringing the tour to the UK in April 2024. How did that come about?

SJ: “It’s taken a while. We launched a touring division about eight years ago and started small. But there’s been slow, steady growth year after year. Live Nation has been a fantastic partner to us in the US. Obviously, everything came to a crashing halt during Covid – we’d planned the first UK tour for 2020 – but we came back last year bigger and better. This year is our biggest tour ever. We played 65 dates at massive venues, iconic US venues like the Hollywood Bowl, and we're selling 17,000 tickets. We’re doing venues major artists play in the US and we're selling them out. Harry has been anxiously waiting for us to sort of relaunch in the UK, but we wanted to get the touring engine back up and running in the US first. Now we're going to bring a full tour to the UK for the first time ever and we're super excited about what we're going to be doing with Kilimanjaro.”

HJ: “We did some London shows in October that were filmed and will appear on Sky this December, and then we have the full tour around the Easter holidays in 2024.”

What kind of age ranges do you expect at these dates?

SJ: “Our wider demographic is four to 12, though the sweet spot really is that five to nine-year-old range. But it is a family event, so older and younger children do come along. We also do a Daddy Dance Off onstage where we get a bunch of dads up onstage. The kids go crazy. They love to see adults getting up on stage, making fun of themselves. It’s fun to see parents at the shows because they get into it as much as the kids.”

And if April goes well, can we expect more Kidz Bop in the UK?

HJ: “Absolutely. It's a yearly tour for us in the US and the plan is very much to get that to that point here in the UK. There's a lot we can do. We're working with Kilimanjaro and they've been fantastic. So we're really excited about the tour and prospects for us here in the UK and Europe. We’ve also got the one-hour special coming out on Sky Showcase and Sky Kids, which is everything you’d expect from a concert.”

SJ: “It’s definitely in the plan to do more things like that too. We'll be making some announcements about those shortly that we're excited about.”

Looking more widely, and with streaming which in theory allows children to access music and content more easily than buying a record, do you feel the children’s music sector is growing?

SJ: “With streaming markets maturing in the US, UK and Europe, there's no barrier to entry for a kid. They can queue up their own playlist, particularly if you’ve got a home device like an Alexa. I feel it’s easier for the parents too, they can engage with kids' music without having to go to a store. So I definitely think it's bigger. But I would say it's increasingly harder to reach kids with the proliferation of all of the different media platforms. The marketplace is really fractured. So, it's harder than ever to reach kids and families.”

Presumably, you are limited by how much you can use social media which other streaming artists can utilise?

SJ: “That is challenging. The bulk of our messages on socials are to the parents, to let them know that new music is available for their families. That's why touring is so important. It's an opportunity to get in front of the kids in real life. We're partnering with other big children’s brands, we've partnered with Legoland in the past, we've worked with Kidzania in the US, so we have to find those places where kids are.”

What would you say is the most surprising Kidz Bop success you’ve had with a track?  

HJ: “It’s got to be [Tones And I’s] Dance Monkey. It's huge, it's our biggest YouTube video. We filmed it in Miami, just before the pandemic, which was amazing. It has become a juggernaut. It's in our live shows and our version even went viral on TikTok last year.”

SJ: “It’s a super song, but did I imagine three years on it would be one of our most streamed songs? Probably not! But looking at it, I understand its success. It's got an amazing hook, it’s anthemic but a little sort of silly and kids respond to that.”

Finally, can either of you now listen to music without imagining the Kidz Bop version?

HJ: “No! [laughs] I’m always thinking ‘Could that be a Kidz Bop song?'”

SJ: “You should see all the text message chains we have amongst the group going ‘This album is dropping, this is the track!’ It’s hilarious.”   

Interview by Paul Stokes


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