SEA YOU SOON: Plans call for Baby Shark Live! to hit the road again in the fall for rescheduled dates. (Courtesy Baby Shark Live!)

A YouTube earworm becomes a successful live tour and proves TV isn’t the only place to find a hit

When Korean-based YouTube channel Pinkfong put up its version of the “Baby Shark” song in November 2015, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Fast forward five years, and 5 billion video views later, and this moneymaker is on Year Two as the first major children’s brand tour that isn’t propelled by a television show.

Jonathan Linden

“We thought it would be a challenge without deep penetration, but being a phenomenon, and the second most viewed YouTube video ever, helped,” said Jonathan Linden, who with Stephen Shaw is co-president of New York City-based Round Room Live, the tour’s producer. “We were high on the Baby Shark property; we loved the song and the idea.”

Round Room Live’s hunch turned out to be right on target. Baby Shark Live!’s first run, a 33-city tour running Oct. 3 to Nov. 10, sold about 100,000 tickets in less than six weeks.

“It definitely exceeded our expectations,” Linden said.  

It didn’t hurt that the Baby Shark song made another big splash when it became the unofficial anthem of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals on their run to winning last year’s World Series.

The success of last year’s tour prompted a spring outing for Baby Shark Live! that, other than a couple of new songs and a greatly expanded market, essentially mirrored the 2019 leg. Only two weeks into the 17-week tour, however, the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., grounding the Baby Shark Live! phenomenon for now.

“While some shows postponed for a month to see what came next, we postponed the entire tour right away and rescheduled for fall,” Linden said.

Pollstar Boxoffice reports for 39 shows during the fall and spring showed an average of about 2,500 tickets sold and a gross just over $100,000 for each date.

This isn’t Round Room Live’s first rodeo in the kid’s show arena. Its successful tours have included PJ Masks Live, Super Why! and Yo Gabba Gabba Live. It’s also scheduled to take Peppa Pig on the road in 2021.

The tour’s success has proved that a YouTube hit can spawn a lucrative show.  “Many were skeptical at first, saying a successful television show was the only way to penetrate the market,” Linden said. “But we’ve seen with our own kids that YouTube was becoming a go-to concept. Now we are following a new way of conducting our analyses by seeing how things are trending on social media and YouTube.”

It can take time for a tour to come to fruition, but that wasn’t the case with this venture. After Round Room Live reps met with Baby Shark’s licensors, SmartStudy, in March 2019, the deal was completed in three months and the tour launched that October.

“The Baby Shark Live! tour was as quick a timeline as we’ve ever had,” Linden said. “With YouTube-generated content, everything moves quicker. Being able to launch last fall was a real benefit.”

Round Room Live, acquired by Entertainment One in 2018, was able to tap into Pinkfong’s music library and create a 20-song concert around the Baby Shark song as well as classic children’s tunes like “Wheels on the Bus,” “Five Little Monkeys” and “Skidamarink.”

“While shows like PJ Masks are more of a first theater or Broadway-type experience, Baby Shark Live! is more akin to a child’s first concert,” Linden said. 

When show director Jaimie Selke created Baby Shark Live!, she leaned on her 5- and 6-year-old children, who were “perfect research tools.”

“I put the whole SmartStudy song library on my app and saw the types of songs they gravitated to,” Selke said. “The show includes songs kids know and love already, in addition to a couple new songs specifically designed for this tour. My goal was to bring families together.”

Rather than a story, she describes the show as a journey about Baby Shark and his friend Pinkfong missing each other and making new friends along the way. New characters from the Pinkfong brand are included, with a total of nine characters in the mix. There is audience interaction, with characters asking questions to get fan reactions, along with the cast dancing in the aisles.

Because Baby Shark Live! skews toward a younger demographic, everything moves quickly and there are no involved story lines to follow. 

“It ends up being my version of a rave, with strobe lights, dancing and the show turning into a big party,” Selke said. “What I like best is adults come in not knowing what to expect but end up dancing with their kids and having fun. The only time we hear crying is when the show is over.”

YOUNG LOVE: Tour producer Round Room Live found the show was drawing a surprising number of children under 3. (Courtesy Baby Shark Live!)

The first and second acts are 30 minutes each, with a 20-minute intermission.

All shows are one-nighters. For a 2 p.m. curtain time, the crew loads in at 5 a.m., finishing at 1 p.m. The set includes a giant LED video screen and both “underwater” and land sets. A big bus comes out for “Wheels on the Bus.” The portable stage is set up in advance.

“We will play a quarter of an arena, so it feels more intimate,” Selke said. “For these shows, there are logistical adjustments, such as blackened pipe and drapes on each side.” 

When a show ends, crew members roll out in sleeper buses to the next city for another 14- to 15-hour day.

“We have a rock ’n’ roll style mentality for the crew to be able to get things in and out quickly,” Selke said.

Audience sizes vary but are typically at least 1,500. Two Texas shows at Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land in October sold out 3,000 seats apiece.  

Marketing for the tour has been almost all digital to capture Baby Shark Live!’s audience where it lives — online.

“We had a handle on where the fans were, and it was mostly online,” Linden said. “What surprised us was the age range, which we thought would skew older.”

Marketing was aimed at kids between ages 3 and 6, but many of those who attend shows are under 3.

What wasn’t a surprise was the popularity of the merchandise. Unlike some pricey concerts, where fans won’t spend time in long lines, Baby Shark Live! audiences rarely leave the building without buying something.

Per caps “were as high as we’ve seen for a kid’s tour,” Linden said, without giving specifics.

As it did for its Blippi Live tour, Round Room Live partnered with Toronto-based KT8 for Baby Shark Live! merchandise. This included tour T-shirts, sweatshirts and light-up toys. Baby Shark licensed products also were available.

“There is a difference between YouTube and television brands, whereas TV brands follow a traditional path where merch is much easier to access,” Linden said. “At our shows, people came in with homemade shirts. But we think this may have fostered even greater sales, as it shows how excited they are about the brand.”

The ticket price, about $41 on average depending on the market, left families money to spend on novelties, he said. VIP experiences, which included a ticket, lanyard, photo op after the show and a bag of merchandise for $100, sold out in every market.

Baby Shark Live’s tour is scheduled to resume Sept. 8. Tickets for the spring shows were transferred to fall or refunded at point of purchase.

The rescheduled tour has a schedule similar to spring, with 50 cities lined up.

“Coming out of the first tour, there were lessons learned as well as efficiencies and ways to streamline it,” Linden said. “We tightened things up and added a few components, but the core is still the same.”

Because YouTube brands are internationally accessible and don’t require a broadcast partner for screen time, Linden said, there are areas outside North America that are potential targets for future Baby Shark Live! tours.

“Australia is one, as are the U.K. and other parts of Europe,” he said. “We had a number of plans and ideas for the tour’s next stretch, but because of the pandemic’s interruption, we’re navigating what that timing looks like now.”

He anticipates that the extensive time indoors will create pent-up demand, where families will be eager for normalcy — and entertainment.

“The success of the show proved our instincts were right,” Linden said. “And though now we’re living through unusual times, we need to be optimistic and plan with some level of caution. Kids and families who haven’t been out in a while will be able to go to a show and have a fun time; if we can contribute to that, all the better.”