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FALL ARTS PREVIEW / POP

Banking on the taste of tweens

Music Retailers Hope Cheetah Girls Will Race Off The Shelves.

September 10, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

IF you're old enough to legally drink alcohol, you probably haven't heard of the CD that music retailers are hoping will boost their all-important year-end numbers. It's already on retail shelves, but it hasn't gotten much attention from MTV or VH1, or in the pages of Rolling Stone or Spin magazines. Instead, try the Disney Channel.

"The Cheetah Girls 2" may be this year's biggest seller, if history is a guide. The album, aimed at the tween set and pegged to a television movie that debuted last month, comes on the heels of Disney's other surprise hit album and television movie, "High School Musical," the top seller in the first half of 2006. Ratings for "The Cheetah Girls 2" movie were even higher than for "High School Musical."

"The only albums that seem to be consistently doing well are destination records, like 'High School Musical' and 'The Cheetah Girls,' " said Joe Nardone Jr., owner of the 11-store chain Gallery of Sound in Pennsylvania. "These albums have almost cult followings."

For those who aren't aware, the Cheetah Girls are four multiethnic teenagers with uncanny abilities to sing, fall into madcap adventures and avoid bad skin. One is a foster child, one summers in Martha's Vineyard, another is a genius with perfect SAT scores, and the last is shackled to a mother who is romantically involved with a rich Spanish aristocrat. The girls dance, harmonize, narrowly escape from wacky situations and spend hours complementing each other's small pores (well, not really). It's basically "Sex and the City," with no sex, less city, and a lot more singing.

It says a lot about the state of the music business that the Cheetah Girls are the bright spot in a retail season that also brings new releases from Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Janet Jackson, Clay Aiken, Alan Jackson, Ludacris, Beck, Evanescence, Jet, My Chemical Romance, Keith Urban and the Killers.

In the first six months of the year, U.S. album sales declined 4.2% compared to one year earlier, according to Nielsen SoundScan, so labels have pushed their biggest releases into the final four months of 2006, hoping that holiday shoppers will want to rock out.

But observers note that even such a heady lineup could fall short.

"We're a little nervous about how a lot of the superstars are going to sell this year," said Lenny Beer, editor of the trade publication Hits Magazine. "If you look at the pre-release radio singles for Beyonce, Jessica Simpson, Janet Jackson and OutKast, there's only minor successes. People buy albums that contain big radio hits. And there haven't been many big hits this year."

Music retailers are also growing concerned.

"The age of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys is over," said Nardone. "A CD isn't really a popular stocking stuffer anymore. Now kids want video game controllers. Instead of asking for 10 CDs, they want an iPod. Kids don't really say 'I have to own this' anymore."

There is one other hopeful glimmer on the retail horizon, say experts say: Dec. 7, when Grammy nominations are announced.

"There's a big Grammy effect that reminds people about albums they want to buy," said Beer, who guessed the Dixie Chicks and new singer Corinne Bailey Rae will benefit from nominations. Beer also forecast that Justin Timberlake and Evanescence will score big this holiday season.

But if the Grammys don't cut it, then the industry may have to rely on Disney's girls. Olivia Selemon, 9, stayed up late last month to watch the "Cheetah" premiere. She liked how they sang and were athletic.

But does she think they can save the music retail season?

"I'm not sure," said Selemon, when interviewed at her home in Hastings on Hudson, N.Y. "They're pretty good though. If my mom gives me an allowance this month, I'll probably buy the record."

That's music to the industry's ears.

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