Bubble Gum Babes

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But the brothers look more like college professors than rap moguls or bubble-gum Svengalis. Sitting behind his dark wooden desk in a small office at DM's headquarters in a bank building, Mark is dressed in a gray tweed sports jacket and khaki slacks. The older brother at age 43, he sports thick, charcoal-gray hair that flies as though he has just been in a windstorm. David, who is 40, wears a soft red sweater, gray, wide-wale, corduroy slacks, and buttery leather Ralph Lauren polo loafers. Mark's saxophone sits on the floor beside David's chair.

It was Mark's idea to create the Funn Club, David says. The so-called "tween" market -- roughly 8- to 14-year-olds -- appears to the brothers much like the young black demographic that bought their bass tracks. "It was a decision really from the marketing side," Mark says. "It seems like the major labels are ignoring this segment, the preteen market, so it is an opportunity for an independent label."

Hundreds of teen bands today are playing everything from folk to rap, but DM focused on creating a light, pop, parent-friendly sound. "I've talked to parents, and they say even pop radio is..."

"Inappropriate," David says, finishing his brother's sentence.

To find their tween talent, DM hosted an audition with Radio Y-100 at the Broward County Convention Center in November 2002, promising a record deal to the winners. About 150 kids showed up. The company signed three-year contracts with the four winners that specify each performer will earn a 12 percent cut of CD sales but nothing for live shows. The brothers then hired a choreographer and a vocal coach.

So far, the group's done pretty well. It has headlined on a tour arranged by Radio Disney, WMNE-AM (1600) in West Palm Beach, with gigs in Norfolk, Indianapolis, Orlando, and Broward and Palm Beach counties. On September 23, the Funn Club released a CD of nine songs. More than 6,000 copies have been sold, Mark says. The CD was listed at number 32 on Billboard's hot rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop singles chart on December 6. Watson estimates that his company will invest about $100,000 in the band during the three-year deal. And the CD won't start to earn money until sales reach around 20,000.

"I believe in them," Mark says. "They are talented, and their image is good. But it's a work record. I mean, every day you have to work that record. It's not easy, but I think they have a good chance for success. It's not something that happens overnight."

To be associated with Disney, the lyrics of the group's songs must be squeaky-clean. In "Beginning End," for instance, the Watsons changed the words from "when we touch" to "when we talk" to win Disney approval. The girls can show no more than four inches of midriff. They are allowed no belly-button rings or body piercings, except for their ears. No tattoos. And they can't smoke.

The reward for fitting this mold could be lucrative to everyone involved. Disney star Hilary Duff, christened "tween queen" by Vanity Fair this past July, raked in $50 million between May and September for the media empire from the movie Lizzie McGuire, which is based on her popular television show.

"There is a whole shift in marketing to the tween demographic," says Dominick Centi, WMNE's director of promotions and marketing. "They are the next generation of brand-loyal consumers who haven't picked their brands yet. McDonald's is doing it. Disney does it. Even Mitsubishi car commercials look like music videos."

As the girls leave the studio to climb in the back of a rented Dodge van to ride to St. Jerome's about 8 p.m. on November 21, Kelsey locks arms with Danielle and shouts a cheer: "We are the Funn Club, mighty, mighty Funn Club." Smoky shadow coats the girls' eyelids, and their lips are glossed. They are dressed in variations on a white-slacks-and-black-top theme. Kelsey wears a black-mesh, sleeveless top over a white tank top. Danielle has on white slacks with undone, dangling buckles up the side. They now could pass for superthin 25-year-olds. As the van moves west along Yamato Road toward I-95, the girls begin to sing, harmonizing nonstop until they reach St. Jerome's at 2601 SW Ninth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. A crowd of about 30 people stands in front as they take to the stage. It's going to be a tough crowd. Families cluster at picnic tables set up beside food vendors. The cotton candy, burritos, hot dogs, beer, Ferris wheel, and Tilt-a-Whirl will vie with the Funn Club for attention.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman