Hit Disney Acts Find No Love at Top 40

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

The week Miley Cyrus debuted on top of the album charts with “Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus,” she appeared on national morning television shows, the cover of People magazine, newspaper front pages and other media outlets. The only spot she couldn’t be found was the one sure place you would expect a best-selling artist: Top 40 radio.

And she’s not alone. A league of tween-leaning acts, including The Cheetah Girls and Aly and AJ, all of whom are current or former stars of the Disney Channel, are routinely mining gold, platinum and multi-platinum CD sales while being virtually locked out at Top 40. That includes songs from the chart-topping soundtrack to “High School Musical,” which was the best-selling album in 2006 and has passed the 4 million mark (the soundtrack to the TV sequel is due in stores Aug. 14).

“We had the No. 1 album of the year and nobody seemed to pay attention in the mainstream radio world, they didn’t care,” says Gary Marsh, Disney Channel Worldwide’s president of entertainment.

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But radio might be the only entity that doesn’t.

“Disney has turned itself into something of a machine in terms of promoting these acts in a very integrated way in the marketplace,” says Brian Lucas, Best Buy spokesman. “They have TV exposure, ads, (placement) in stores. It’s almost like the lack of mainstream radio is the one area where the consumers aren’t getting touched.”

That’s because mainstream radio, which targets a coveted 18-to-34 year-old demo, doesn’t want to risk alienating its older listeners.

“Radio has a stigma about playing these acts, considering them teen and preteen in their appeal,” says Guy Zapoleon, a radio consultant and former Top 40 programmer.

But Top 40 has shown it is not averse to playing acts the same age as many of their Disney counterparts: 19-year-old Rihanna has one of the biggest hits of the summer with “Umbrella” and Sean Kingston, also 17, scored with “Beautiful Girls.”

“Their lyrical content is perceived as more adult,” says Steve Greenberg, chairman of S-Curve Records and also the music executive behind such past teen-friendly groups as Hanson and the Baha Men.

“I think it’s very hard for a very young artist with very clean lyrics to find a place on Top 40. In a previous generation, the Disney artists would have found a home at Top 40. Now there’s no room for records that kids like but scare off adults.”

Given the lack of response at radio, Disney’s music labels often don’t bother to pursue airplay with the saturation at TV via the Disney Channel and at tween-aimed radio through Radio Disney.

“The Disney game plan has been don’t work the soundtrack singles (from “High School Musical” or “Hannah Montana”). Instead, wait until the artist is on Hollywood Records doing a solo record and then go to Top 40,” says Sean Ross of Edison Media Group, which monitors the radio industry. Walt Disney Records is Disney’s imprint for its children/tween-oriented material, while mainstream pop and rock acts are issued on its sister, Hollywood Records.

That plan worked for Hilary Duff _ to varying degrees. Her 2003 album “Metamorphosis” followed the soundtrack for “Lizzie McGuire,” the Disney Channel show that catapulted Duff to fame. “Metamorphosis” came out while “Lizzie McGuire” was still on the air and has sold 3.7 million copies, the best-selling title by far of Duff’s several solo albums. The set also spawned two Top 40 hits, “Come Clean” and “So Yesterday.”

Her current album, “Dignity,” debuted at No. 3 on the album chart this spring. The first single, “With Love,” peaked at a respectable No. 36 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart, but has had none of the staying power of “Come Clean,” which a number of programmers still play. Hollywood is prepping a new single.

Ultimately, nature, time and genetics may help Duff in a way Disney, despite all its might, cannot. In a clear move to put her Lizzie McGuire past behind her, Duff is on the current covers of Us Weekly and Shape in a bikini. She is also on the cover of the August issue of Maxim, which breathlessly declares she has gone “from the queen of teen to breakout sex symbol.”

Provocative imaging “will definitely have a positive effect on the attitude of programmers, who are mostly male, as Disney tries to mature her image,” Zapoleon says.

Hollywood is now trying to transition teen sister act Aly & AJ into Top 40 artists. Aly starred in former Disney Channel series “Phil of the Future” and both appeared in the Disney Channel’s 2006 movie “Cow Belles.” The pair’s second album, “Insomniatic,” came in at No. 15 this week on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart.

But instead of turning to the Disney Channel as it has in the past, Hollywood Records and the siblings are plugging the project on MTV’s “TRL,” as well as appearing in MTV’s cable movie “Super Sweet 16: The Movie.” A number of the album’s tracks, including the first single, “Potential Breakup Song,” appear in the film.

Coming through the Hollywood pipeline in August will be the label debut from the Jonas Bros., a trio of teen brothers who have already garnered a tremendous audience through the Radio Disney and Disney Channel faithful. They have also filmed a Disney Channel pilot.

Even though Walt Disney Records/Hollywood have yet to pitch Cyrus’s material to Top 40 radio, sales are certainly not suffering. Last year’s fall release of “Hannah Montana” sold 2 million copies in about three months time. It has now sold more than 2.7 million copies.

Cyrus, daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, is clearly looking toward the future. In an effort to have consumers connect the dots between the Hannah Montana character she plays and herself, the new two-CD set includes one disc of songs credited to Montana and one by Cyrus.

However, Cyrus and her Disney-related counterparts are about to face more competition as traditional pop labels seek to stop the precipitous drop in album sales by chasing tweens themselves. Sony Music Label Group and Nickelodeon inked a deal in June to co-produce television series and original movies to air on the kids-oriented cable channel, as well as release a number of musical projects over the next four years. The first CD will be the soundtrack to kid series “The Naked Brothers Band” TV series, coming later this year.

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