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Disney has recipe for tween pop

The Baltimore Sun

Just a few months ago, Baltimore and the rest of America were caught up in the craze over tween queen Hannah Montana.

At the sold-out 1st Mariner Arena, some parents showed up at ticket windows begging, pleading and even weeping to get their family in to see the wholesome pop star. That blockbuster tour was followed with a 3-D movie version that raked in more than $35 million and was the top movie in the country despite a limited release.

But today, the fascination over Hannah Montana, the real-life Miley Ray Cyrus, has noticeably cooled.

The TV show's ratings are down, the pop star is aiming to be more Cyrus than Montana, and fellow Disney stars such as the Jonas Brothers have suddenly eclipsed her as pop powerhouses.

No surprise in the world of tween pop. In the struggling recording industry, it's one of the last bastions of profits and mass-market appeal, but it's also the most unforgiving.

"It's all a rather ruthless, well-oiled machine that Disney operates very well," says Marian Salzman, who follows pop culture trends for the marketing firm Porter Novelli. "But because there's this small window of time for these tween acts, Disney keeps pumping them out."

On Tuesday, Cyrus will release her first album without the Hannah Montana moniker. It's aptly titled Breakaway. But many of her fickle fans have already moved on.

It will be the Jonas Brothers, not her, packing the 1st Mariner Arena for a concert next month.

"I'm pretty sure her voice has changed," says Kathleen Boidy, 12, of Glen Burnie, "because in some of her concerts she sounded really bad. The Jonas Brothers - all of their songs are really big."

Even as Hannah Montana's appeal wanes, the franchise remains a force to be reckoned with. The almost-billion-dollar empire includes CDs, movies, video games, school supplies and even furniture.

But Disney, which has a long history of grooming pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, isn't one to rest.

"Disney has written the blueprint for the tween market," says Billy Johnson Jr., senior program director at Yahoo! Music. "What is so genius about what Disney does is that they have a machine that maximizes the full extent of the talent of their stars.

"They can showcase their acting on their television shows. They can exploit their singing abilities on their radio stations and record labels. The Jonas Brothers are an even better success story."

Built around the talents of 15-year-old Nick Jonas, the youngest of the three, the Jonas Brothers languished briefly at Columbia Records before signing in late 2006 with Hollywood Records, the Disney-owned label. The siblings' self-titled debut for the company was released last August and sold more than a million copies, thanks to Disney's aggressive promotion of such fizzy, catchy singles as "S.O.S" and "When You Look Me in the Eyes."

Starting late last year, Disney moved the brothers beyond the recording studio and onto TV. While the Hannah Montana craze was at its peak, Disney placed the Jonases on the highly rated show. Last August, they appeared on an episode performing with Cyrus; it was seen by 10.7 million viewers.

This summer's Camp Rock - a TV movie starring the brothers and Disney's new "it" girl, Demi Lovato - scored 8.9 million viewers to become Disney's second-most-watched original movie of all time. A Camp Rock sequel is already in the works and a new Jonas album, A Little Longer, will land in stores Aug. 12.

"There are accepted formulas for what works with this [market]," says Bobbie Carlton, director of marketing at B*tween Productions, which publishes the popular Beacon Street Girls young-adult book series. "But tweens are still defining their likes and dislikes and have years of being a consumer ahead of them."

And that makes the tween scene even more fickle than the general pop market. So in a few months, another Disney act will likely sweep away the Jonas Brothers.

Some of Disney's pop prodigies manage to stay in the public eye, for better or worse, for years. But to survive the almost instant turn-around of the Disney tween machine, acts have to be incredibly savvy.

"There are only - what? - three good years in this market, so you have to work hard really fast, and some have to grow up even faster," says singer and actress Raven-Symone, the star of several Disney Channel shows, including Cheetah Girls.

Next week, she'll host the Disney Music Block Party Tour, a concert featuring kid-friendly acts including They Might Be Giants and Choo Choo Soul, at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

Although she resists the title "tween star," referring to call herself a "family star," Symone has made a smooth transition into movies. This spring, she co-starred with comedian Martin Lawrence in College Road Trip.

A performer since age 3, when she played sassy Olivia Kendall on The Cosby Show, Symone credits her parents for grounding her and teaching her about the business early on.

"I was able to take my breaks here and there and have a personal life," says the actress from her Los Angeles home. "My parents had been sitting me down in [business] meetings all along, so I knew what was going on."

Symone, whose personal worth is estimated to be close to $50 million, offers sage advice to her younger peers: "Make sure you're professional and make sure you understand that it's a business."

Almost as an afterthought, she adds. "Have fun and enjoy your life."

Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

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