How the heck did ''Kidz Bop'' and the soundtracks for ''Curious George'' and ''High School Musical'' take the top three spots on the albums chart? Chris Willman investigates
Credit: High School Musical: Fred Hayes/Disney

Surprise! Albums for kids dominate the chart

Kidz bop. And as you may have noticed, kidz buy. Right now, they’re even purchasing CDs, contrary to all the anecdotes out there about how today’s youngsters don’t recognize those shiny discs any more than they would vinyl albums. In a historical first, this week’s Billboard 200 albums chart is led by three kids’ albums, something that wasn’t even accomplished in the heyday of Alvin & the Chipmunks.

Leading this children’s crusade is the soundtrack for the Disney Channel’s movie High School Musical, rising from No. 6 to No. 1 with a tally of 101,000 units for the week. Debuting at No. 2 is Kidz Bop Vol. 9, part of a series featuring small-fry choruses singing grown-up songs, which sold 98,000. And at No. 3, proving that at least one George isn’t suffering in the approval ratings, the Curious George soundtrack sold another 89,000 discs.

These three albums must all be piggybacking on each other’s success, right? Not necessarily. It’s purely coincidental, according to Disney Records marketing VP Damon Whiteside, who says the chart-topping trio appeal to almost completely different audiences. ”Our really core demographic for High School Musical would be 8 to 14, though it can go younger, and there are probably some older kids buying it that wouldn’t admit it. I think Curious George is a very different demographic. That’s definitely not a tween purchaser like ours, but more parents buying it for their younger kids, as well as just fans of Jack Johnson. And with the Kidz Bop albums, we have a little bit of the same audience, but we definitely skew older. I think Kidz Bop is an under-10 thing, and I think our majority is gonna be over 10, reaching into the 14s and 15s.”

Those distinctions between various gradations of preteens may be lost on anyone who doesn’t have kids of their own right now. But what it all adds up to is a rare piece of good news for the suffering music industry, which hadn’t had any true young-teen phenomena to train kids to buy CDs since the boy-band boom went bust. Few had expected the Curious George album to debut as it did at No. 1 two weeks ago. And the Kidz Bop series only continues to gain momentum, with the first-week tally for Vol. 9 beating the previous entry in the series by a considerable 30,000 copies.

Those two albums arrived on the scene with built-in interest and branding, though. High School Musical is another matter: It isn’t a successor to anything, and has no stars or recognizable names. What the Disney Channel movie does offer is a chance for elementary and middle-school kids to enjoy a fantasy about extremely attractive but impossibly innocent high schoolers singing, dancing, falling in love, and overcoming peer pressure to put on a show. (Think a squeaky-clean, greaseless combination of Fame and Grease.) The first of its seven cable airings to date came on Jan. 20 — right when more pipsqueaks than ever had gotten their first digital music players for Christmas. “They wanted to fill their new iPods, for that instant gratification, and here was the first post-Christmas release geared to that audience,” says Whiteside. In the earliest sales, High School was truly an iTunes phenomenon, with digital downloads accounting for as much as 40 percent of full-album sales. But this past week, digital sales accounted for only 4 percent of that 101,000 figure. “Quite honestly, at the very beginning we didn’t have the volume of physical product out there in the marketplace,” says the Disney Records VP. “Now every retailer has it at the front of the store.”

But not every kid is buying the whole album. SoundScan says that 403,974 High School Musical albums have been sold in the first seven weeks, either in CD or download form. But on top of that, 900,232 individual singles have been sold via iTunes and other websites, 71,721 of which were downloaded this week. Four of those songs appear on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart.

The momentum isn’t likely to stop soon: This No. 1 ranking for the soundtrack followed a week in which the movie didn’t even air. Sales following the seventh showing of the movie, which was Feb. 28, will show up in next week’s chart… and likely will reflect an even bigger boost, since it was seen by 3.44 million viewers (on top of the 26.3 million who’d already seen it). And the soundtrack will get yet another jump start May 23, when a special edition with bonus tracks is released the same day as the DVD.

Is a High School Musical sequel in the works? That’s like asking, Is George curious? But before then, the Disney Channel will be airing another kiddie musical this summer: a sequel to last year’s faux-girl-group-themed Cheetah Girls, which prompted its own hit soundtrack. That album quietly went double-platinum without ever getting much grown-up media attention, but you can expect the second Cheetah effort to make a much bigger splash, based on the heightened media attention for all things juvenile and musical.

Sorry, David Seville and Josie & the Pussycats: You were all just born too soon.