Image: High School Musical cast.
ABC Studios
The made-for-TV movie "High School Musical" debuted in January 2006 and quickly became one of the Disney Channel's most lucrative franchises.
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updated 8/20/2007 3:33:02 PM ET 2007-08-20T19:33:02

Dan Zanes has been playing and recording roots-based music for more than two decades. But his audience nowadays is more likely to be nursing sippy cups than long-neck beers.

Yes, the former front man of Boston rockers the Del Fuegos now makes music for the kids market. And he says it's been more artistically and commercially rewarding than anything he's done before. He played Carnegie Hall last year. He even won a Grammy Award in February.

"There's so much satisfaction and there's so much joy from this," Zanes says.

Music for children has been around since before the dawn of recorded sound. But it's never been as big a business or as creatively diverse as it's become today.

The second soundtrack album from the Disney Channel's hit series "Hannah Montana" debuted last month at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, just like its predecessor did last fall. Also new on music-store shelves is the 12th installment of "Kidz Bop," a series of cleaned-up remakes of contemporary pop songs, which claims sales of more than 10 million units in the U.S. and Canada since 2001.

Last Friday saw the debut of "High School Musical 2," the hotly anticipated sequel to last year's monster Disney Channel hit. The soundtrack to the first High School Musical has sold 4 million copies in the U.S. and was the biggest-selling album last year of any genre, easily topping releases from Carrie Underwood, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

In addition to these platinum-selling smashes, a new wave of kid-focused recording artists, such as Justin Roberts and Ralph's World, is making appealing all-ages music that is aimed as much at hip parents as it is at their children. Even the annual Lollapalooza rock festival has been getting in on the act, with a "Kidzapalooza" area that showcases live music for children.

Thanks to the potent one-two punch of "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana," combined U.S. sales of 2006's 10 best-selling kids' albums totaled 9.4 million units, more than triple the prior year's top-10 sales total of 2.8 million units, according to SoundScan. Even if you remove the two Disney Channel soundtracks from the equation, sales of the rest of last year's top-10 kids' albums still totaled 3.7 million.

What's driving this growth? As has been the case in the grown-up pop market, television is playing a profoundly influential role. Cable outlets like Viacom's Nickelodeon and Noggin networks and Walt Disney's Disney Channel have provided a home for a variety of music-drenched kids' shows like "The Cheetah Girls," "The Backyardigans" and "The Wiggles."

Those same networks have also given invaluable exposure to family-focused independent recording artists, such as Zanes and Laurie Berkner, enabling them to reach a far broader audience than their precursors could have imagined in years past.

Back in 1988, when the award-winning radio show "Kids Corner" debuted on WXPN 88.5 FM in Philadelphia, there wasn't much exciting children's music to choose from, recalls program producer Robert Drake.

So the show made do with a mixture of kid-friendly folk like Peter, Paul and Mary, G-rated contemporary hits such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand" and well-meaning newer children's music acts whose material tended to be "very granola, a lot of empowerment-type music," Drake says.

Things got more interesting in the early '90s with the emergence of fun, offbeat acts like Trout Fishing In America and by the end of the decade, the floodgates had opened.

Today, Drake marvels at the diversity of material available. There's the world music record label Putamayo, which has a popular line of youth-oriented compilation albums centered around different musical styles. There's Candy Band, a quartet of full-time moms from Detroit who play basic, Ramones-like rock 'n roll for kids. And Warner Music Group's Rhino record label put out an album last year by "Farmer Jason," the kids'-music alter-ego of former Jason & the Scorchers lead singer Jason Ringenberg.

"Musicians began to realize that hey, if we do music that both kids and parents like, not only do they have larger audiences, but a longer shelf life," Drake says.

One thing that hasn't changed in children's music is the Walt Disney Co.'s place at the center of the action. The company's key contributions to the current boom have been the efforts by the Disney Channel and Radio Disney to cater to the pre-teen "tween" market.

Disney Channel President Rich Ross says that tweens had been previously lumped into the broader audience for mainstream entertainment like The Cosby Show and other similar all-ages programming.

"In a world where there's more customization and super-serving of demographics, it gave us an opportunity," Ross says, observing that tweens have "one hand holding a stuffed animal and the other hand holding a lipstick."

Although the entertainment industry has come to recognize that kids' music has become big business, Ross notes ruefully that mainstream radio has been slow to join the program. Despite the chart-topping success of High School Musical and Hannah Montana, "Top 40 radio doesn't play our stuff," he says. "What does 'Top 40' mean if the No. 1 album is not being played?"

Even with its stable of huge franchise hits, Disney also provides a platform for popular independent artists like Dan Zanes. Zanes, who runs his own record label, has performed at Disney World in Florida and his videos are featured regularly on the Disney Channel.

Although the glossy, platinum-selling product that Disney churns out is a far cry from the kind of music that Zanes makes, he says he and his daughter enjoyed a performance they saw of the High School Musical concert tour.

"I got the feeling that everyone onstage was having a great time," Zanes says. "We do have something in common: We're all entertainers. I think we're generally trying to keep the message upbeat and positive and not treat people like idiots."

Zanes consciously pitches his music to an all-ages audience, not just to kids, striving to recreate the same all-inclusive vibe that he says suffused American music before the record industry began segmenting the audience into different age brackets.

The result has been critical acclaim from occasionally surprising quarters. Several months after Zanes' 2006 CD "Catch That Train!" won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children, JamBands.com attended one of his live shows and gave his band a rave review.

"If there's songs about teddy bears and learning to eat with a fork, those are going to be difficult for me to connect to emotionally," he says. "And if I sing about old girlfriends and drinking, that's going to be hard for a 3-year-old. But in between, there are incredible possibilities."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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