It started in 2003, when the soundtrack to a Disney Channel movie called "The Cheetah Girls" quietly went double platinum.
"It just shocked everybody," recalled Cheetah Girl Sabrina Bryan. "No one was going to guess that. And then 'High School Musical' came out and just knocked everything out of the ballpark."
As a matter of fact, the soundtrack to "High School Musical," another Disney production, has sold nearly 3.5 million copies since it was released in January, more than any other album in 2006 (see "What Is 'High School Musical' And How Did It Get To #1?").
Spawning a national tour, an upcoming sequel and several solo careers (see " 'High School Musical' Stars On Tour: Don't Expect Any Dirty Looks" and " 'High School Musical' Stars Have Sequel, Solo Projects In The Works"), "High School Musical" is clearly a phenomenon in its own right, but it's also part of a larger tween takeover that is having an enormous impact on music.
While the rest of the industry is struggling, artists aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds are soaring, with the soundtracks to "The Cheetah Girls 2" and "Hannah Montana" — which recently spent two weeks at #1 (see " 'Hannah Montana' Holds Billboard #1; K-Fed's Tough Week Continues") — and Aly & AJ's Into the Rush all nearly platinum.
"I think it's teaching the record execs and the public who really buys albums," said "High School Musical" star Lucas Grabeel. "The kids have parents, the parents have money, the parents want to give them what they want, and not only is Suzy gonna get one, but her brother Joe is gonna get one too."
On average, tweens spend $51 billion annually, according to recent data, and another $170 billion is spent on them. For that reason, preteens have become big business, or, as The Associated Press declared in a recent article, "Tweens are the new teens."
"What was the statistic a couple years ago, that we spent the most money in the whole entire country?" said Raven Simone of "The Cheetah Girls" and "That's So Raven." "Hello! The kids are about to rule the world."
Tween-oriented entertainment is nothing new. After all, "The Mickey Mouse Club" — whose '90s revival on the Disney Channel launched the careers of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — dates back to the '50s. More recently, Hilary Duff demonstrated the mighty muscle of Disney with her "Lizzie McGuire" character.
Still, tween album sales have never been this high. So why now? Well, for one, many argue that the quality has never been this high. "I am totally impressed by everybody out there," said Vanessa Hudgens, the first breakout star from "High School Musical." "I think everybody is really stepping it up a notch."
"Kids smell bullsh--," added Ron Fair, the A&R guru behind Aguilera and the Pussycat Dolls. "I don't know how, but they do. They gravitate towards the real stuff. For instance, the Vanessa record that's out right now, that's a really strong pop record."
Fair recently got into the tween business with the Slumber Party Girls. To promote the act, he's partnered with CBS (which is airing their TV show on Saturday mornings), Mattel, Archie Comics, the Limited and KOL (AOL's kids' site).
"Things that used to have tremendous meaning in the entertainment industry have changed," Fair said. "Kids aren't hearing the Cheetah Girls on top 40 radio because top 40 radio isn't playing it. And these records could go on to sell millions of copies without radio and without MTV. When did that ever happen in the last 15 years?"
Television, especially, has proven invaluable, as it provides consistent exposure to fans. "I know when Hilary Duff's first album came out, that was the big thing, and I was like, 'Mom, this is what I want for Christmas,' " said Miley Cyrus, who plays Hannah Montana and has her own solo album in the works (see " 'Hannah Montana' Star Miley Cyrus Ready To Break Out, Hilary-Style"). "It's because you grow up watching the show and you kind of experience the same thing the show talks about, and then once they are older, you are older too. So you feel like you kind of know the person."
"I think that each girl stands for what the girls are in this country today," Raven added. "With every girl that the Disney Channel pumps out, it's someone that you can look up to, and I'm very proud to be a part of that genre right now."
Of course, television carries broader expectations, meaning that in the tween world, a good voice alone doesn't cut it. "What we think is so attractive about our group and things like 'High School Musical' is that they involve acting, singing and dancing," said Kiely Williams of the Cheetah Girls, who are currently recording their first non-soundtrack album. "It's all-encompassing, and they want to see that."
So if tweens are saving the music business, the question is: Will the industry learn from them? "Bottom line is, I believe people love music more than ever — they're just not buying CDs," Fair said. "And I think that the strength of the tween thing is it's so on-target. We know who the buyer is, we know where they are and we know how to reach them.
"What do 'The Cheetah Girls,' 'Hannah Montana' and 'High School Musical' have in common?" he continued. "The Disney Channel. So they obviously figured out, in a very profound way, who their audience is. And it's [something] top 40 can't figure out because they're serving too many niches. You can't be all things to all people, so as music and film and all popular culture progress, I think you're going to see more defined, smaller niches that are done with a different business model."