DVD Talk chats with Laurie Berkner
"Kindie" musician Laurie Berkner and her Laurie Berkner Band have been big names in the childrens' music arena for several years, propelled by appearances on Nick Jr. and her well-crafted music, including kids favorites like "Victor Vito," "We are the Dinosaurs" and "I'm Gonna Catch You." After a recent concert, Berkner sat down with DVDTalk's Francis Rizzo III, to talk about keeping both kids and adults entertained, the challenges of the kids music business, digital distribution, Jack's Big Music Show and what it was like working on her latest DVD, "Party Day."
DVDTalk: You were part of a group of artists that, after an era of Raffi, the Wiggles and Barney, made kids music cool. What do you think led to that?
Laurie Berkner: When I started writing songs, I was in the classroom, as a music specialist, as a music teacher at pre-schools, and I remember thinking, "I really want to write songs I would want to listen to over and over again," you know? So I felt like I was thinking about the parents as much as the kids and maybe that's some of the difference. It's not at all to leave the kids behind, but also not leave out the parents, so I'm thinking from both of those angles.
D: What's the biggest change you've seen in kids music since you started?
LB: I think, when I first started, it was really hard actually to get kids music from all over, because basically things like Amazon were just starting and the Internet was just getting big. So suddenly you were able to actually get kids music from all different places, not just someone who plays at your local library or in your local area, and I think that made a really big difference in the kinds of people who were making kids music, so suddenly we're getting people who are doing rock music and stuff that was officially for adults, having kids and noticing they could make a living making music for kids and wanting this music out there that they would like to listen to too for their own kids, so that whole "kindie" movement that everyone's talking about, that was one of the biggest reasons it actually happened. The accessibility of the music became enormous compared to what it used to be. You just couldn't do that much with kids music, because it wasn't that accessible.
D: Having been at this for over a decade, you've had at least two different waves of kids listening to your music.
LB: More than two! [laughs]
D: Well, at least two. Is the need to cultivate new fans regularly a bit of a challenge when you're listeners grow up?
LB: Yeah, it's big. When I was on Nick Jr. much more regularly, I didn't have to work so hard, but now, because they don't show Jack's Big Music Show as much...I still have a lot of people listening, but in the same numbers, it's hard to reach that audience without TV presence. So when there's less, I have a harder time, and when there's more, it's much easier.
D: Can you talk a bit about your involvement with Jack's Big Music Show? (The hip kids music show has returned (in re-runs) to Nick Jr. after a long absence.)
LB: When I first did it, they asked me to be a part of the pilot, and wanted to kind of...they tried to see if that show or another show was going to be aired. The pilot went over really well, and they got such a good response from us playing, with Brian (Mueller) and Susie (Lampert) and myself at the time, in the musical breaks, that they asked us to be on every episode. Originally we were just going to do a couple of the episodes. That was really great for us, because it was a really fun thing to be a part of.
So we did the two seasons, and it's been on for a while. Then, they kind of went to a new format over the past year, and that was one of the shows they dropped, because they were also promoting their own musicians and not a whole bunch of other ones like they had on Jack's, which at the time I thought was a very generous and bold move, to try to promote so many different kids artists, because it is a way that kids artists can get out there, and for people doing kids music, there aren't that many outlets. I mean, it's great that we have the Internet, but it's hard to focus people's attention, so when you're on a place like Nick Jr. where a lot of parents go to have their kids watch, you have a chance to reach a lot more of an audience. That was a very nice thing that they did, but they took it off for the new format, and I think maybe now they're trying to win back some of the people they may have lost, because I don't know how well the change worked for them.
D: Being in the kids music market, does the increased emphasis on digital distribution affect you the same way it has other musicians?
LB: Yeah, I mean people still buy CDs, but they just don't buy as many as they used to. And some of that is the economy, some of that is the change, how things are available digitally, and you sort of have this feeling, I think, well you can just download a song when you want it, or you just kind of pick here and there. It used to be, you know, go to a CD store, a record store, and buy a CD and that doesn't even really exist anymore, except in places like Target and Wal-mart.
That has definitely made a difference in sales, and that's hard, because that's one of the biggest ways I support myself, is through the sales of my albums. You try to sort of roll with the times. People expect things to be free a lot more now. You put a video out and it's like "Why can't I download it for free?" Well, it costs me many thousands of dollars to make it, so if you just pay me $1.99, I can cover the costs, and that would be great. [laughs] So, you know, it's hard to understand that when you're a viewer, and you just want the music, and it seems like you should be able to get it.
D: Especially when there's nothing physical to hold onto.
LB: Right. It doesn't feel like it's worth anything, but it certainly took as much love and energy and time and work and money to make as anything else.
D: Now you've done an eBook and you have an app. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with these digital tools?
LB: I'm trying to get more involved. [laughs] Yeah, so we made an eBook out of the song "Party Day" that was really funny. Nook actually came to us and said "We'd like to do something with you, so what can we do?" So we kind of created this book out of it, which I really enjoyed that because it was really fun to make it interactive. I didn't know what it was going to be like before we did it.
That's so interesting too because it's one of these things were you can only use it if you have a Nook Color, because other platforms don't support how interactive it is. So, I was so happy to make it so fun, but it was also very limiting in that way, so actually I'm talking about doing another one and I think I may just make it simpler so it's more accessible to more people. So those are the things I'm learning.
The app we have out, that's another thing where people can get the music for free, you know, so I'm trying to be on top of, well, how much do I give out for free, and how much do I ask people to actually pay for, so that I can keep doing what I'm doing. It's a hard balance to strike and I'm not sure if I'm doing it great, but I'm trying. [laughs]
D: Do you think more of your fans buy your DVDs after seeing your shows to continue the experience, or do they watch your DVDs and then want to see you live?
LB: I think most people have heard the music before they come to a show, but I don't know in what form. If it was just from maybe seeing m on Nick or hearing it from a friend or having been given a DVD or a CD as a present.
D: What was it like making the Party Day DVD?
LB: Oh, that was fun. It was a lot of work, a lot of preparation leading up to it working on the songs. The whole thing took about a year, although the filming of it was one weekend. We went out to L.A. and filmed the whole thing in two days. But then there was animation to be done and of course the recordings themselves, that had to be done in the studio, so that was separate. That was all done in advance and we lip-sync'd to them while filming. So it's one of these things where there's a lot of either doing a whole lot really fast, and then spending a long time working on it afterwards, or a lot of time preparing and then having to get it done quickly, when you're actually recording or actually filming, that the time costs a lot to do it, so you have to bang it all out. And then you make it out of what you ended up with.
But it was really fun. There's something very...it was a real bonding experience with all the people that you work with when you work that hard with that intensity for 48 hours over a weekend, you feel like you know these people really well.
D: It's like camp.
LB: Yeah, it's like camp! Or putting on a show, right? So I enjoyed it.
D: Most kids DVDs don't feature a lot of bonus material. Did you have a lot of input on the extras?
LB: Yeah...I didn't even know there wasn't a lot of stuff on other ones. I just was like I always want bonus things, so let's put it on there. And, in fact, it was people who work in my office actually, who did a lot of the filming. They just went and visited each one of us and kind of asked us to talk about things that we like, and I thought that was a really nice idea.
What else is on there? There's the four of us...
D: The making of.
LB: Oh, yeah, the making of. Actually, a lot of those things, I have really good people working for me and they throw out good ideas and I'm like "Yeah! That sounds great!" Bring the cameras and I think even we had some people from Razor and Tie, who are our distribution, they came and they filmed one of the shows. I think it was here, actually, at Tilles (Center in Brookville, NY.) Yeah the concert one. The one with "I Really Love to Dance." Most of that was filmed here. Mostly, someone throws out a good idea and I say "Let's do it!" and we go with it.
D: Now you started in a cover band, Lois Lane, and had another band, Red Onion.
LB: The other way around actually.
D: I believe you struggled with song writing until you turned to kids music. Do you do any "adult" songwriting on the side?
LB: I don't actually sit around and write songs so much anymore. Sometimes I'll just write about those things and I feel like before I was doing kids music, I would take sort of more journal writing, prose, and turn those things into songs. And now, I just kind of do the first half of it and I don't usually go all the way with a song. But I think about it now and then. Just it would be fun to go ahead and do that sometime. But often, I'm writing other stuff, so I don't make the time to just take the poetry or take the prose and turn it into music that's not for kids.
D: Do you see yourself one day trying it as a recording artist as well?
LB: Yeah, although I think for a long time I was just happy to move into something that felt so natural to me, to do the kids music, but yeah, I think about it sometimes.
D: What's up next for you?
LB: Right now, we don't have any DVDs in the works, but I'm putting out a Christmas album that's being mastered right now. It' be done next week. It will come out at the end of October. The band helped me on that one, but it was a bit more of my own project, and I had some other help Brady Rymer is doing a little, and Elizabeth Mitchell. They both lent their voices.
I am talking about doing another eBook, hopefully by the end of this year. Working on some other things...we're working on possibly some animated stuff, that would be television-based, other videos, or maybe even a full-length series, but we'd need to get funding for that, so I'm kind of in the process of trying to procure that. [laughs]
You can find out more about Laurie Berkner and her band at http://www.laurieberkner.com.
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