music reporter

Disney dancing along as tweens' soundtrack

Few record labels can truly claim they rule any sector of the marketplace. But Walt Disney Records, beyond being the clear leader in soundtracks, has got the tween-music market nailed.

This week, Disney takes the top four positions and five of the top 10 slots on the soundtracks chart (with sister label Hollywood Records accounting for a sixth top 10 entry). The top three titles are chipper soundtracks for three Disney Channel shows appealing to 6- to 13-year-old listeners: "Hannah Montana," "Cheetah Girls 2" and the tireless "High School Musical."

The "Hannah" album also holds atop the Billboard 200 this week, selling 203,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; it trumped Barry Manilow's debuting "The Greatest Songs of the Sixties" by 1,500 units. The soundtrack debuted at No. 1 last week, selling 281,000.

Clearly, Disney is reaching its oft-neglected target audience in a major way. Robert Marick, the label's senior vp and general manager, says: "Part of our success is that this was indeed an ignored demographic. We've made an earnest effort to make Disney music cool again, and we've succeeded — certainly with our demo."

Not too shabby a way for a label to celebrate a 50th birthday: Walt Disney Records' precursor, Disneyland Records, bowed in November 1956.

As Tim Hollis and Greg Ehrbar note in their recent "Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records" (University Press of Mississippi), despite its music-driven films and TV shows, Disney made a belated arrival in the business. Disney took control of its own musical destiny only after the "Disneyland" TV theme "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" became a No. 1 hit in 1955 for Bill Hayes on Cadence Records (Fess Parker, the star of the Crockett serial, cut a top five cover for Columbia the same year) and the first "Mickey Mouse Club" records scored for ABC-Paramount.

As recently as the '90s, Disney sold millions of its soundtracks for "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid" but plainly missed some in-house opportunities. Although heavily exposed on Disney Channel, the latter-day cast of "The Mickey Mouse Club" never issued any albums — despite the presence of Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, who have sold a few records since.

Today, Disney's cross marketing is so scientific that Walt Disney — the mogul who developed multiple-platform marketing into a fine art — surely would approve.

The "High School Musical" soundtrack — the biggest 2006 release to date with 3.2 million sold and still a top 35 Billboard 200 album — was stoked by 15 Disney Channel airings and constant Radio Disney airplay. Yet another sales spurt can be expected after a two-month tour featuring the film's stars begins Nov. 29 in San Diego.

"Hannah" premiered in March, with new series episodes churning forth since then. Digital downloads of the show's songs were a steady prerelease seller, and six tracks have reached Billboard's Hot 100 with no airplay beyond Radio Disney. The show's young star Miley Cyrus opened for the Cheetah Girls tour. She likely will headline her own tour in the future — and, Marick suggests, she will move from the Disney Records "farm team" to the more adult-oriented Hollywood Records, like precursor Hilary Duff of "Lizzie McGuire."

Synergy, anyone? Says Marick: "This has been the culmination of building our business. Four years ago, we made a conscious decision to be not a children's music label but a family music label."
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