Where Have All the Pop Groups Gone?

As record-company profits have fallen, multi-member acts have given way to solo stars

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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.

"To have four or five members traveling around the country... the cost for a group like that sometimes outweighs the potential to sell," says Johnny Wright.

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.

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.

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Jason Richards is a writer from Toronto who has contributed to New York Magazine, Gawker, and RollingStone.com.

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