Jonny Balzano-Brookes is a veteran of the Portland music scene who’s seen more success than most.
With Phantom Buffalo, he had label representation, was written up in big-time music mags like NME, even toured a little bit in the U.S. and Europe with listeners in the thousands.
But he’d never had a piece of music get a million listens on a platform until this month, when his new project’s first release, “Happy as Clams,” went over a million on YouTube.
“I couldn’t believe it when we went over 10,000,” Balzano-Brookes said, on a Zoom with Derek Jaskulski, the other half of Happy Face and a songwriter who’s been searching for some commercial success since the 1960s. “It just speaks to the power of buying the ads and turning those dials.”
It’s not just the ads, though, but the people they reach.
“When we put this up on YouTube,” Jaskulski said, “we got approved as a children’s view, and a lot of the views come from people looking at ‘Wheels on the Bus.’ … I remember back in the early 1990s people saying, ‘You know what, Derek? You should get into writing jingles. That’s where you can make money. And lately a couple of people – prescient people, I guess – have said, ‘You should get into children’s music.’”
With Balzano-Brookes’ penchant for bouncy and melody-filled indie pop, and Jaskulski’s borderline absurdist lyrics (“Everyone is smiling a happy-faced delight”) and muppet-like delivery, the bright and friendly animation Balzano-Brookes has supplied makes for a “Yellow Submarine” kind of experience. You certainly don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it, but it’s not hard to see that it appeals to those with a childlike sense of wonder.
Doing what comes naturally
It’s not uncommon for those who make music for kids to say, “It kind of chose me,” when talking about their gateway into children’s music from “regular music.” In this case, it’s Rob Duquette, who with his wife Amanda (aka Amanda Panda, in her kids’ music persona), makes up half of KindKids Music.
“I was doing gigs every night with different bands and I was asked to do a daycare center,” Duquette said, “and I was staying at home with my kids at the time, so I said, ‘Why not?’ Two songs into the show it became very obvious – it just felt like the most natural thing I’ve ever done.”
Duquette had been in Jonathan Edwards’ touring band, had played high-level jazz with people who really knew their stuff, taught music at the collegiate level, and toured with his own band. But now he’s prepping to release with Amanda a new album of original children’s music – “Time to Grow,” with John Kumnick (Madonna, David Bowie) on bass – and playing gigs like their upcoming April 24 event at the Collective Motion Art Studio in Saco. They’re even working on a KindKids Music app, full of songs, meditations, and stories.
It’s not just the transparent and instant feedback the kids provide, it’s also pretty dang fulfilling:
“We’re teaching kindness and compassion and resilience,” Amanda said, “and a lot of the time the parents are walking away with a song they can use if the kids are having some anxiety or discipline issues and needing to change their tune. For us, it’s as much about using music as a tool to help parents with making their own connections and less about us and our excitement.”
“I talk about how I practice my instruments,” Rob added, “but also about how I practice being kind. We use music as a vehicle to teach kindness and how we can simplify that and pass it on to kids.”
Ms. Rachel and Mr. Harley
As the ubiquity of streaming services takes hold, with their extensive back catalogs that have diminished the impact of new music considerably, it’s also true that children’s music appeals to an audience that doesn’t have established tastes or preferences and that tends – especially during the pandemic – to spend a lot of time on screens in search of content.
You might remember Rachel Griffin as a singer-songwriter on the Portland scene in the late 2000s. She played piano and sang poppy numbers, once garnering a nice mention from Gavin DeGraw as an up and comer. Then she moved to New York City and won a prestigious fellowship in musical theater.
What’s she doing now?
Rounding up 431,000 subscribers on YouTube with “Songs for Littles,” that’s what. A “Learn to Talk” video she posted last year has 11 million views; when she and her team go live, there are regularly 5,000 viewers at any moment. That’s the kind of career you can build when you combine a degree in music from the University of Southern Maine with a master’s in education from New York University.
It’s not the same as becoming the next Jewel or Carole King, but it’s making a living with music for Griffin, who is known to fans as Ms. Rachel.
Harley Smith, who similarly performs as Mr. Harley, said being a children’s musician never crossed his mind when he was 15.
“You think you want to be a rock star up on stage. But someone asked me to come and perform for a preschool and I figured, ‘OK, I’ll learn ‘Old MacDonald’ and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,” and then I got asked to do a birthday party and then I wrote my first song and then I produced an album and now it’s been a part of who I am for the last 20 years.”
And while he still plays “adult music” with various cover bands at bars and events, utilizing the music education he got at UMaine Augusta, playing children’s music has made it so Smith hasn’t worked a “real” job since he was 24.
“I’ve been blessed to do this for my livelihood,” he said. “At times it’s been difficult – during the pandemic I questioned everything, but it made me look deeper inside myself.”
Inspired by the king
Smith used the time to write episodes for a show he’s trying to get into production called “Mr. Harley’s Hangout,” which he describes as “‘Sesame Street’ for the Soul,” something that refocuses kids music away from some of the more commercial efforts out there.
This is just the way the true king of Maine children’s music, Rick Charette, has always carried himself.
The Duquettes got to play with Charette a bit before he retired recently, urged out of performing by both his own age and the pandemic’s squelching of opportunity.
His generosity of spirit and his ability to connect with kids on a level that was never condescending or dismissive remains inspiring to those who continue his work.
“The only difference between me and a 3-year-old,” Smith said, “is that I’m taller than them. If I can find my inner child with them, they give me everything and just have a blast. And in turn for me doing that for them, I get something so much greater. It wipes away all my troubles. When I give, I receive, and it’s beyond compare.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Do children buy non fungible tokens?
An interesting wrinkle in the effort by Happy Face to find fans on YouTube with their animated “Happy as Clams” is that they are hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the video by turning cells from the animation into non fungible tokens and selling them to produce ancillary revenue.
NFTs are unique digital items that are stored on the blockchain, which is a transparent and theoretically immutable digital record. They offer the ability to buy a digital item in an exclusive fashion, just as you would buy an original painting or sculpture.
As you might imagine, there is a bit of a learning curve as you try to enter that marketplace.
“We’re walking through the dark here,” Derek Jaskulski said. “The internet is really handy for learning about all of these things, but it’s really just a lot of digging and learning.”
And things can change quickly.
They were all set up to start selling NFTs on OpenSea, one of the largest NFT marketplaces, but then, well, there was a massive hack of the platform and someone managed to steal millions of dollars of NFTs. Maybe that’s not the right place to be?
They’re also exploring a place called Nifty Gateway (they’re on the waiting list for acceptance) and they’re watching Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange that hosts digital wallets for the purchase and storage of digital currency and has said it will soon operate an NFT market where users will be able to purchase items with their regular credit card and not need to figure out cryptocurrency.
“That’s actually a big hurdle for people,” Jaskulski said, “to go and set up a crypto account.”
What about the environmental hazard that cryptocurrency presents, with bitcoin-mining machines using huge amounts of energy?
“I’ve heard those complaints about the environmental impact,” Jonny Balzano-Brookes said, “but I don’t know if it’s any worse than other ways musicians make money.”
What’s the carbon footprint of a tour? Or manufacturing vinyl records? He said he’s heard the complaints that rich musicians don’t need the money they’re making from NFTs, too.
“But then there are some people like (Canadian musician) Grimes,” Balzano-Brookes said, “who has made millions from selling NFTs and are giving back to organizations helping the environment or neutralize the carbon footprint.”
Nor is creating an NFT for sale a guarantee that anyone will buy it.
“Some people make decent money,” Jaskulski said of artists who have entered the marketplace. “There are a few headliners, but if you dig through these sites, there’s a lot of stuff selling for $80 or $100. But this is, in theory, a great way for artists to monetize their work.”
“That’s the upside,” Balzano-Brookes agreed. “Musicians can stand to make an income for once. To me it feels like a worthwhile experiment, to see how it goes and test the waters. I think no harm trying.”
— Sam Pfeifle