Here today-gone today!’ comedian Chris Rock once quipped, describing the ephemeral life spans of pop music acts.
While it’s hard to imagine that Britney, Christina and the seemingly endless number of over-sexed boy bands that cause tween girls to shriek with adoration will be around in five years, that likelihood has had no bearing on their ability to generate sales in the here and now. As retailers of all stripes have discovered this year, pop sells-and Gen Y, flush with larger allowances than ever before, are buying.
According to The Licensing Letter, sales of licensed music merchandise grew 29% in 1999-the most of any category it tracks, including entertainment/character and fashion licensing, which grew by only 6% and 5% respectively for the same period. Of the US$1.55 billion licensed music merch took in last year, industry sources estimate that teen- and tween-skewing pop acts accounted for 70% of it. ‘It’s probably the largest chunk right now because the demographic that listens to pop are the hungriest for merchandise,’ says Maggie Dumais, director of licensing and merchandising at Bravado International Group, the Beverly Hills-based licensor to music acts such as Christina Aguilera, Vitamin C and the Spice Girls. ‘When you’re an adult and you like a group, you may go to the concert and buy their T-shirt; when you’re a kid though, you actually want to emulate them. It’s a fantasy thing,’ she says.
To be sure, pop acts and the religious fervor they incite in their young and mostly female fans is not a new phenomenon. The New Kids On the Block (the beta version of the Backstreet Boys) did it in the late `80s, and more recently, The Spice Girls’ mix of catchy tunes and girl-power mantra started a mini-cultural revolution among girls in the late `90s. The big difference this time round, say many industry folk, is that licensors and retailers are better prepared to take full advantage of the boon.
‘When the Spice Girls broke in `97, people were caught off guard and rushed to get product into the marketplace,’ says Dumais. ‘Now we have more time to develop a cohesive line. We can schedule products so that they’ll hit retail at the appropriate time, during the fourth quarter,’ she says. In other words, licensors are treating their artists like they would a film or TV property by timing their merchandising programs to coincide with the entertainment-in this case, the artists’ single, CD, video release and tour.
A longer-term approach has also allowed licensors to capitalize on new merchandising opportunities. Whereas music licensing had traditionally consisted of impulse product that manufacturers could knock out quickly (like T-shirts, posters and stationery featuring pics of the artists), new categories, such as toys and interactive games, are emerging as options.
San Francisco-based licensor Winterland, which reps male pop quintet *NSYNC, recently signed a deal with Hasbro Interactive, and at press time, was close to inking an agreement for its other key client the Backstreet Boys. The *NSYNC game, which is due out in stores next spring, will allow fans to experience a sim version of the backstage environment at one of the boys’ shows. Winterland also signed a deal with Patch Products to create an *NSYNC board game, which it released to retail in late August. According to Lisa Huston, licensing manager at Patch, preorders for the game had far exceeded those for the launch of the company’s other kids titles.
BIG has also signed deals with toyco Trendmasters to create a range of Christina Aguilera-branded electronics, including a digital camera, a phone and C-Rocks, a line of wrist watches that play a dot-matrix version of one of the singer’s videos. Trendmasters is scheduled to release all of the Aguilera product later this month.
Another key category that has provided momentum for pop acts has been fashion dolls. According to the NPD Group, toyco Play Along’s Britney Spears dolls were ranked amongst the top 20 fashion dolls during last holiday season. ‘It’s our top-selling license,’ says Matt Hautau, director of licensing at Signatures Network, which represents Spears and boy bands O-Town and LFO. Other artists who have their own doll lines include Vitamin C (Mattel) and Christina Aguilera (Yaboom). Though there’s been plenty of interest, Susan Valero, VP of licensing and merchandising at Winterland, says she hasn’t signed a deal for either the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC. ‘Unfortunately, the boys don’t do dolls,’ says Valero.
Winterland did sign a deal with Mattel, however, to create a limited edition *NSYNC’s Biggest Fan Barbie. The doll, which Mattel will release in the spring, will feature Barbie decked out in *NSYNC concert regalia.
With the tween and teen pop acts enjoying such a high-Q rating, for the moment, retailers from mass, to fashion specialty, to toy stores have been only too happy to participate in the windfall. Rich Brady, CEO of San Marcos, California-based toy chain Play Co. Toys has seen a 50% increase in sales of licensed pop merchandise from a year ago. The hottest-selling product? ‘The Britney dolls. We’ve had a hard time getting a hold of the line all year,’ says Brady.
Department store chain Sears has also bowed to the power of teen popsters. This summer, the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based retailer along with apparel company Levi’s co-sponsored Christina Aguilera’s fall tour. As part of the agreement, Sears inserted Aguilera boutiques in its stores, which contain many of the products the singer has lent her name to, as well as exclusive posters and CD singles. Additionally, through its stores and on its website, Sears has been running contests that offer fans the chance to win trips to Aguilera’s concerts.
With so much heat surrounding teen and tween pop acts, the inevitable question arises: How long before the current iteration of bare midriffs and homilies to hormonal bliss lose their power with kids? Though he’s seen no signs of a drop-off in popularity, Signatures’ Hautau knows that when it happens, it will be quick and decisive.
Says Hautau: ‘Our CEO represented the New Kids on the Block 10 years ago. They were the biggest thing going and then, almost overnight, kids moved onto grunge. So somewhere along the line, I expect there will be a pretty quick falling-off of interest.’