As record-company profits have fallen, multi-member acts have given way to solo stars
Kelly Rowland fought back tears on Friday's episode of Access Hollywood when the show’s hosts queued up a prerecorded message of encouragement from Beyoncé Knowles. ‘“My Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, I love you so much,” Knowles grinned. Rowland seemed moved. “I love my sisters,” she told hosts Billy Bush and Tisha Campbell-Martin
A lot has changed since those so-called sisters were together as members of pop R&B trio Destiny’s Child. In the five years from when the group split up, Knowles has become the modern-day Diana Ross, a text message away from the Obamas, soaring into product endorsement deals, and collecting checks from Qaddafi. The analogous Supremes—Rowland and Michelle Williams—have struggled with underwhelming album sales, not-quite-hits, and guest spots on cable TV reality shows. Rowland’s well-received latest, Here I Am, represents an attempt to change that. But even so, the Access Hollywood hosts hounded Rowland, hard, to make a Destiny’s Child reunion happen.
Rowland played somewhat coy, but if the band did ever get back together, there’d be a definite throwback vibe to the proceedings. The era of chart-dominating pop groups seemingly ended around the same time that she, Knowles, and Williams went on their separate ways. Acts with two or more members are scarce these days in the traditional, corporate-backed, pop world: A glance at the Billboard charts reveal that singular newcomers like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Adele, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry reign. The surviving '90s holdovers like Britney Spears and Beyoncé each succeed by themselves. The Pussycat Dolls are gone, the Jonas Brothers are being spun off into solo acts, and the Black Eyed Peas are scheduled for a hiatus. It’s a seeming sea change from the ‘90s and early ‘00s when boy bands (*NYSYNC, Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, and their imitators) and diva coalitions (TLC, Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls) ruled.
What’s different now? Perhaps it's a reflection of the "me" era, which has seen the rise of My- and i- and You- as prefixes. Or maybe the pop-listening public has been conditioned by the format of huge-scale talent competitions like American Idol and The Voice that are focused on finding individual acts.
But Johnny Wright, who currently manages Justin Timberlake and the Jonas Brothers—and has overseen the careers of *NSYNC, New Kids on the Block, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys—says that commercial collapse of the music industry definitely plays a role.
"In the heyday of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, we were selling 15 million albums in the United States alone on one record," he says. "Now, if the group gets to a million records, you're popping bottles. To have four or five members traveling around the country, and if they're under 18, you have to bring parents or guardians, you have to have tutors, so the cost of maintenance for a group like that sometimes outweighs the potential to sell."
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Plus, as listening habits have changed, it’s become tougher to market a coalition of individuals, points out Jason Wiley, vice president of marketing at Bad Boy Records. Just try to imagine Lady Gaga sharing her Twitter feed with a band mate.
"Everywhere you go, everything you do has some component of music to it—it's in video games, you have it on TV shows, as part of movies,” Wiley says. “People are taking in more music, and therefore, as a pop star, you have to be more than just the rest. Now, it's more than 'Oh, the music is great.' Consumers have to know you, understand you, love you, and feel that you represent something for them, whatever that is. You're their voice. You're somebody that they want to become.”
That doesn’t mean groups are finished for good. Wright, who was on the forefront of multi-member acts’ dominance in the ‘90s, just wrapped up a web series with AT&T and AOL called On The Spot: Johnny Wright's Quest to Form the Next Supergroup, which relied on online submissions to form his latest musical creation, Y6, a six-member pop band composed of guys and girls. And he’s not stopping there. The manager continues a return to his pop group roots, having teamed up with R&B artist Akon (who discovered and signed Lady Gaga) to create the next boy band. The search, which will see the manager and musician auditioning singers both online and in person, begins in September.
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It's an ambitious move in today's pop music climate: Attempts to put together via public talent competition, through reality shows like Making the Band and The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious, have been unable to yield successful acts in the post-boy-band era. But Wright holds out hope.
"I've had success with solo artists, but I've had my bigger success with groups," he says. "And through *NSYNC, Justin has stepped up to become solo. So I always felt like if I had a talented group, the opportunity to break solo artists from it will happen further down the line."
The narrative of the pop star breakout is a well-trodden record company tradition, having launched the careers of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Justin Timberlake.
"You necessarily didn't create a group that had equal parts," Wiley says. “You could see who the natural star was, whereas everyone else could sing but they were just part of a component that made up that group."
The solo-artist phenomenon is far less common in rock. Incubus, Zac Brown Band, and Theory Of A Deadman are currently riding high on the Billboard 200 chart. Ann Powers, NPR’s head music critic, chalks this up, in part, to gender.
"Male rock artists are the most invested in the idea of a band, because as a form it is very masculine – modeled on the sports team or military 'band of brothers,'" she writes in an e-mail.
Perhaps that's why, historically, rockers who shed bands to go solo have sometimes turned out awkward products. While Rob Thomas found adult contemporary success after the end of Matchbox 20 and Phil Collins has had a fruitful career post-Genesis, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell's third solo offering, Scream, produced entirely by Timbaland, was a commercial and critical failure. The Los Angeles Times called it "a fascinating but heartbreaking document of how many wrong decisions one can make in writing and performing a record." Prolific as he is, Jack White seems reluctant to make any similar missteps as a musician on his own. Even coming from a two-piece band, he's avoided making a proper solo album; to date, his ventures since the White Stripes parted ways have been largely collaborative. Kings of Leon, rock's biggest "new" band, have recently made it clear that despite some public squabbling, they plan to stay together. In other words, don't expect a Caleb Folowill record anytime soon.
Meanwhile, changes are afoot in country music, Powers says. "Bands are actually not that common in country but two developments have seen an uptick in them recently: the influence of rock on country, and the emergence of songwriters, who traditionally give their songs to Nashville stars, as artists in their own right," she writes. "Sugarland is an example of a songwriting team that presents itself as a band."
As for pop, Powers says that within the genre's entire lifespan, solo artists, not groups, have actually been the norm.
"If you look at the long history of pop music, the Beatles-style classic rock/pop band occupies only a small space," she writes. "Much more common are collaborations that may endure, but are flexible. Think of the big bands of the 1930s, the Motown artist of the 1960s, or even disco in the 1970s – hitmakers in these styles usually included one or two visionaries and a shifting array of collaborators. Hip hop and the technologies of dance pop have led us back to that."
But Wiley says it may just be a quirk of the present moment that individuals rule. Who knows? If Destiny’s Child gets back together, they may kick off a new wave of group success.
"All things are cyclical,” Wiley says. “With fashion, you have new trends that are just something recycled. Same with music—you have periods where groups were more substantial than solo artists, and others where the opposite is true. Maybe solo artists are what's happening right now, but I believe we'll have a time when groups are the standout stars."