Lisa Mathews, lead singer of Milkshake, performs at the Grammy Museum in… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)
The recent rise of multicultural, rock and roots children's music isn't news to Music for Little People. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Northern California-based independent label has been committed to bringing alternative music to families since its inception in 1985 as a living room mail order operation in woodsy Humboldt County.
Hot current favorites Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner and Milkshake appear in its catalog; so do such blues, world and folk veterans as Taj Mahal, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Pete Seeger and Buckwheat Zydeco. The company's themed compilations feature the songs of artists past and present -- Lena Horne, Judy Garland, B.B. King, James Taylor and Willie Nelson among them.
With more than 100 releases, a catalog of 500-plus songs and more than 8 million CDs sold, including the platinum-selling "Toddler Favorites," Music for Little People is an improbable survivor in a niche industry that not only presents singular marketing challenges, but also is subject to the ups and downs of the recording industry at large.
Luck and business savvy have played a part -- the company produces its own recordings and sells music-related and educational products such as instruments, CD and MP3 players, organic toys and child-safe headphones -- but it's the world-as-one vision of company founder Leib Ostrow that has earned respect and a loyal following through good times and bad.
Ostrow's mission is to celebrate diverse cultures, peaceful coexistence and the universality of family, childhood, play and community. He seeks out artists who share his commitment.
"The first time I talked to Leib," says Zanes, who sought Ostrow's advice before forming his own family music label, "I thought, man, this guy sounds like he's really enjoying his job. That's what I wanted to hear, somebody who got up in the morning and loved being in this world and was able to realize his musical dreams through making good family music."
A musician with an eclectic entrepreneurial background in the worlds of organic farming and musical instrument manufacture and retail (including a stint in the 1970s as owner of a Bay Area music store called Chickens That Sing Music), Ostrow became interested in children's music when he and his then-wife, Linda Dillon-Ostrow, moved to Humboldt County to raise their young family.
Living 40 miles from the nearest traffic light, in a house surrounded by old-growth redwoods, the Ostrows launched a one-page, foldout catalog of eclectic children's recordings, videos and musical instruments.
"We used solar energy to run our computers," Ostrow says. "It was the whole hippie thing up in the hills."
Enthusiastic response to the catalog soon propelled the venture out of Ostrow's living room into a trailer on the property, and then to office space in the Northern California town of Redway.
In the meantime, Ostrow turned his attention to producing. His first recording was "Shake Sugaree," a collaboration with blues-folk icon Taj Mahal. It set the tone for the ethnic, roots and pop songs that would follow, each release bearing Ostrow's signature touch as producer, often writer and sometime guitarist.
Los Lobos recorded its first children's album for the company, the Grammy-nominated "Papa's Dream," with rock and folkloric songs hung on an original story framework. Ostrow went to South Africa to record Ladysmith Black Mambazo's debut children's recording, "Gift of the Tortoise," with Zulu lyrics woven into a story narrated by Gcina Mhlophe, former director of Johannesburg's acclaimed Market Theatre.
He recorded '60s icon Donovan in Ireland and a Jamaican folk music project with Bob Marley's mother, Cedella Marley Booker, in Hawaii. The latter was another collaboration with Taj Mahal, who was also featured on the label's Grammy-nominated mix of blues, doo-wop and rock 'n' roll, "Shakin' a Tailfeather."
"Choo Choo Boogaloo" spotlighted Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural Jr., "a natural fit" for Ostrow's company, says the zydeco master's manager and collaborator, Ted Fox. "Almost a week doesn't go by when Buck is on tour that somebody doesn't come up and say how that record turned them on to roots music or zydeco."
"Disney was the primary purveyor of music for children when we got started," Ostrow says. "Then Raffi came along, and there was an openness to trying different things."
Music for Little People isn't alone in offering culturally diverse music to children, says Regina Kelland, the former director of children's marketing for A&M Records, now an independent consultant for children's music labels and artists. "It's the way they do it and the artists they choose to work with that makes them unique.
"I was bombarded when I was at A&M -- 'why don't you sign this or that?' And the 'this or that' was garbage. I was looking for things that would honor and support kids. Music for Little People has remained true to that."
"The good news," Ostrow says, "is that children are always children and they love music."