In a curious new twist on an idea pioneered by the old Warner Bros. "Looney Tunes" cartoon series, record companies are rushing to fashion music stars out of animated characters.
On Jan. 21, Mattel Inc.'s Barbie--who has posed as everything from an astronaut to a beach bunny in 32 years as a doll--will try her hand at rock 'n' roll. She will release an album on Rincon Recordings called "The Look."
Meanwhile, MCA Records is finishing up work on an album based on the Mario Bros. characters from the popular Nintendo computer game. And SBK and Geffen Records are enjoying huge success with albums based on the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie and the Fox TV cartoon series "The Simpsons."
"You are definitely seeing a lot more record companies making those albums," said Ira Mayer, editor of Entertainment Marketing Newsletter in New York. With the Woodstock generation having kids and searching for entertainment the entire family can enjoy, Mayer contends "these albums have mass-market potential to reach whole families . . . not just kids."
In 1930, the creators of "Looney Tunes" were among the first to mix animated characters such as Porky Pig and Buggs Bunny with popular music. But not since the early 1960s, when songs by the Chipmunks became so popular that CBS gave the cartoon characters their own half-hour television series, have novelty albums based on animated characters stirred such interest from record companies.
"The Simpsons Sing the Blues" record has become the fastest-selling album to emerge from a TV show since the "Miami Vice" sound track in 1985. The album, which features the voices behind the Simpson characters on television, has sold nearly 2 million copies and now ranks No. 10 on Billboard magazine's pop chart.
Although SBK's Ninja Turtle soundtrack album differs from some other novelty records because it includes performances by pop stars such as M. C. Hammer, the album has sold more than 1 million copies. That kind of success prompted SBK to sign up to make another one for the movie sequel.
Besides the SBK soundtrack album, the Ninja Turtles have also spawned a singing group of the same name that tours shopping malls and has recorded an album for MCA Records. MCA has sold 3 million copies to Pizza Hut for use in a promotional campaign.
The emergence of so many novelty albums based on animated characters reflects the music industry's growing ties to television and its recent penchant for exploiting the visual aspect of recording acts, not just their musical talent. Since animated characters already have a well-established image, music industry officials say they can be packaged just as easily as any flesh-and-blood rock star if given a catchy tune to sing.
"The industry is using the visual reference as a packaging tool," said John Boylan, who produced the Simpsons album. "That is the wave of the future--exploiting the synergy between music" and television. "But you can't be successful if you just aim for the lowest common denominator."
For the creators of the animated characters, the foray into music also offers a chance to expand the traditional children's audience of kids under 6. The idea is to reach the kind of free-spending youth that have made teen-idol groups such as New Kids on the Block wealthy. Entertainment Marketing Newsletter estimates that, last year alone, New Kids sold an estimated $800 million worth of T-shirts, toys and other merchandise, mostly to young teens.
"We were looking for ways to expand the popularity of the (Barbie) doll, and we saw an album as a way to do that," said Donna Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Hawthorne-based Mattel, which struck a licensing deal with Rincon to record the Barbie album. "We think (an album will) appeal to a slightly older girl who may not play with Barbie any more but still has fond memories of her."
To promote its Barbie album, Rincon plans to launch a television advertising campaign and distribute a four-minute Barbie video.
The Simpsons video, which premiered at the conclusion of one of the TV series' episodes last month, is already getting airplay on MTV. Meanwhile, MCA said it hopes to have a video ready to promote its Nintendo album later this year.
Nintendo has a huge market share of the toy market, noted Geoff Bywater, vice president of marketing at MCA Records. "With rock 'n' roll parents now having rock 'n' roll kids, there's a big opportunity out there to win a new audience," Bywater said.
MCA Music Entertainment Group Chairman Al Teller, the force behind the Nintendo album, conceived the million-selling "Pac Man Fever" disco album while working at CBS Records in the early 1980s.
But some experts question the staying power of novelty albums based on animated characters.
"Novelty records are a hard sell," said Gary Stewart, vice president of artists and repertoire at Rhino Records, which has issued several novelty albums, including a compilation of novelty songs from the 1950s to the 1970s. "They usually have a brief life span because the fad fades."
Records based on popular characters have indeed had spotty success in the past.
In 1961, Mattel recorded four Barbie songs on 45s, but the toy firm was apparently ahead of its time and never compiled a Barbie album. Similarly, Pac Man mania faded before CBS was able to follow up its "Pac Man Fever" album. But many record executives think the impact of television on animation and music could have a long-lasting effect on today's youth and make them more avid pop music consumers at an earlier age.
"With the success of the movie 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' a lot of people are taking another look at the enormous buying potential of kids," said Charles Koppleman, president of New York-based SBK Records, which released the Ninja Turtle soundtrack album.