“Be at least bearable”: in the big business of children’s music, parents are the last frontier | Music
IIt’s 8:27 a.m. and I’m getting a toddler and a schoolboy into the car, a baby strapped to my chest just to keep things interesting. From the driver’s seat of our sultana-strewn Kia Carnival, I flip from my “Breakfast Chill” Spotify playlist to “School Drop Pump Up” and We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Disney’s Encanto Soundtrack Breakout .
Everything about the morning routine – from the oats I pre-soaked the night before, to the toothbrushes that are kept by the back door to refresh our hygiene memories – has been organized to facilitate a loose command to the inevitable chaos that is a house full of children under six. Playlists are no less vital to our morning success than remembering to wash my eldest’s gym uniform in time.
For a generation of parents who have spent the past two years with more contact hours with their children than we ever imagined, children’s music has become ubiquitous.
“I think the biggest difference in how parents and kids consume music these days, even compared to a decade ago, is its portability, personalization and accessibility,” says Paul Field, a giant in the music industry.
That difference informed his new offering, early childhood music brand Peachy Keen. Released via Apple Music’s independent music platform Platoon, the ambitious project kicked off this month with debut album Animal Songs.
Recorded with some of the country’s finest musicians and composed by his brother John (who wrote over 300 Wiggles hits – their other brother, Anthony, is none other than the Blue Wiggle himself), Field says he wanted to offer a diverse range of sounds and focus on production quality (“when you hear strings on a track, it’s a real string quartet”) rather than focusing on a specific style or genre.
“We start first with the music [as opposed to creating a band], because in this way we can use a carousel of different musicians, singers and styles. I think it brings a lot of variety to the sound.
When it comes to industry pedigree, Field has good reason to bet on himself. In his 24 years of management, the Wiggles have dominated Weekly Business Review list of Australia’s highest-earning artists for four consecutive years, has sold millions of albums and appeared on television screens in over 100 countries.
Even without taking into account The Wiggles’ stratospheric success on the world stage, Australian children’s entertainment exports are overrepresented overseas.
“Right now, we actually have more listeners in the United States than we do here,” says musician and comedian Matt Okine, one half of kids’ entertainment duo Diver City; his partner is musician and producer Kristy Lee Peters. He attributes this international success to the very important peer recommendation algorithms on streaming platforms.
Music has, historically, been divided into blocks dictated by age; there is music for children and then there is music for adults, each separated from the other. It is this tension, says Peters, that forms the origin story of Diver City.
“When you have kids, you listen to music over and over and over and over and over and over again,” she laughs. “Coincidentally, Matt and I had kids five days apart. We went on a family vacation and started talking about it, and the idea came up to find something that could bridge the gap between music for children and music that adults would like or at least be bearable.
For every “bearable” piece of children’s music, there’s a notoriously unbearable alternative. Korean entertainment company PinkFong’s repetitive techno juggernaut, Baby Shark, which has become the most-watched YouTube video of all time, is heavily embedded in the amygdala of parents everywhere.
And while boring parents with the musical equivalent of a mosquito can be lucrative, there’s fertile ground (and perhaps more longevity) in being able to do something they’ll enjoy alongside their kids. .
“We’ve collaborated with a lot of artists that adults will recognize,” says Okine, a Triple J alum. “That adds an extra layer for parents.”
These artists include Sam Cromack of Ball Park Music, Art Vs Science and Peking Duk, to name a few. The subject matter they explore ranges from the sublimely inclusive anthem Love Is Love (Rainbow Family) to the ridiculous Sad Spaghetti, written from the perspective of a lonely leftover pasta. It stems directly from the Millennial Parents Playbook.
And indeed, the children’s music scene in Australia suddenly seems chock-full of artists who have successfully created music for adults, become parents, and then pivot. Old-school ’90s dance/rock favorites Regurgitator created kids’ offering Pogogo Show, reworking lyrics from one of their NSFW classics into an adapted I Sucked A Lollipop To Get Where I Am to children, alongside other pieces such as Mr Buttocks. The Little Stevies – hardly a household name in their former life as a folk band – have enjoyed much more success since becoming kids’ favorite, the Teeny Tiny Stevies.
As for the Wiggles, they play the game backwards; the skivvy-clad icons have harnessed a second wave of success thanks to over-18 gigs and Tame Impala coverage that saw them crowned the unlikely winners of this year’s Triple J Hottest 100.
If there’s a winning formula for making successful music for kids in this country, it’s the one that Paul Field helped shape. “One of the main factors is that you have to see things with the eyes of a child,” he says.
“It’s not always straightforward, because our audience ranges from pre-verbal to kindergarten and beyond, so you want to create something that appeals to all levels of cognition.”
But while looking through children’s eyes, being mindful of not offending adult ears has another benefit, he adds: the increased likelihood of more airtime. “In the world of early childhood…it’s the personal recommendations that really matter.”
There are few people in Australia more trusted to make these sorts of recommendations than Zoë Foster Blake, skincare entrepreneur, author and mother. A prolific curator of cool stuff – her blog Zotheysay crashed under the weight of traffic from her post about the baby products she used and loved – one of the tastemaker’s hobbies is creating lists playback on Spotify.
“I get great feedback from parents,” she says of her playlist hobby. “I think we are all looking for new ideas as parents; we will try anything.
In the Foster Blake household, music is a crucial pillar of family life and its playlists reflect this – with names such as ‘Hey Kids, Calm Down’, ‘Kids In The Car’ and ‘ Mornings With Kids”.
“Good music is good music,” she says. “The Wiggles and Queen have songs the whole family can enjoy; it gives me great joy to find and collect them.
Field’s Peachy Keen incorporates many of the traditional early childhood themes you might expect. There’s gross motor encouragement in Jump Like A Froggy Does and digital repetition in Ten Koalas, while Tummy Time, a track tragically close to Field’s heart, promotes safe sleeping practices after the father-of-five children lost her daughter Bernadette to SIDS in 1988.
He doesn’t shy away from the simplicity of some of these pieces, saying “it’s really wonderful because, as we all know, in the world of early childhood, everything is new. So what may seem mundane or mundane to two adults is actually magical to children.
School and daycare drop off, with full autonomy on the car radio again, I have to admit that Field is right. One of the bops on Animal Songs, titled Ten Puppies, So Cute! plays: a jazzy Winehouse vocal over a sexy Spanish guitar riff. I’ll have it in my head for the rest of the day, and I’m okay with that.