Pop phenoms before they sang a note

Reality TV produced a band, adoring fans and big sales projections. Music was last, if not least.

Pop Music

January 28, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

By early last week, millions of Americans knew each member of the boy band O-Town by name. The boys were so popular they'd long been accustomed to having fans mob them at appearances. And they'd already earned a firm stamp of boy-pop success -- dozens of fan Web sites with such titles as "The Erik Luver's Club," where smitten teen-age girls regularly gush about their hormonal yearnings.

Fairly standard boy-group developments. Except, of course, that all of this occurred before anyone had even heard O-Town's self-titled debut album, which was released only Tuesday.

That's because long before the music, long before there was even a band, O-Town was already a nationwide phenomenon. The group of 19- to 21-year-olds -- Ashley, Trevor, Dan, Erik-Michael and Jacob -- didn't have to rely on its music to amass its following. The fan worship began almost a year ago, when Americans began tuning in to ABC to watch 1,800 would-be members of O-Town try out for the group on a weekly reality-television series.

Every Friday night for almost six months, an average of 6.4 million viewers caught "Making the Band" to watch the masterminds behind 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys choose the five members of O-Town from among the hundreds of aspirants, then train them for a big audition with BMG label J Records.

What audiences saw wasn't a polished boy band breaking onto the music scene with a catchy debut album and slick music videos to follow. Instead, they witnessed five guys in all their ordinary glory -- the silly squabbles, the bad hair days, the scratchy, raw voices badly in need of coaching. And apparently they liked it.

The debut CD "O-Town" is expected to sell at least 150,000 copies in the first week. By comparison, 'N Sync's 1998 debut album sold a mere 14,000 in its first week, while Backstreet Boys' freshman effort sold 40,000 its first week in 1997.

Why listen?

Once, audiences latched onto bands after they'd listened to their music. But the O-Town phenomenon raises the question: Does a band really have to produce good music to build a lasting audience? Or is it enough to just start the cameras rolling and hook potential listeners by inviting them to watch the creative process, then selling the CD almost as a soundtrack?

Guy Zapoleon of Houston, a music industry trends consultant, said he's not surprised that audiences have latched onto O-Town.

"What this process says about our society is that, at this point in time, people aren't as concerned about the depth of character and the work put into being a band as they are interested in being entertained for the moment," said Zapoleon, whose clients have included 100 radio stations across the country. "They're not really caring as much about the quality."

The idea for "Making the Band" began when MTV Productions approached Lou Pearlman of Orlando, Fla. -- who discovered, trained and managed Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync -- about having a camera crew follow him during his next talent search for a new boy band. After several discussions, Pearlman and MTV hatched the idea for a reality-TV series that would track not just the talent search but also the shaping of the band.

In addition to discovering the two reigning champs of boy-band pop, Pearlman also is responsible for unleashing Britney Spears on the world. So Pearlman, founder and CEO of Transcontinental Records, has a pretty good sense of what the teen market wants. And right now, he thinks they want to get behind the scenes.

"The show gets you to know them better, so they're like the boy-next-door kind of thing," Pearlman said. "I think the audience enjoys having this easier access to information."

The O-Town formula has already inspired at least one copycat. WB's "Popstars," which premiered earlier this month, is a girl-group version of "Making the Band."

In from the start

By watching O-Town practice, live, and play together, audiences learned much more about its members than they ever could by gleaning the usual boy-band tidbits from teen magazines like Tiger Beat.

"I had a really dramatic talk with my dad on camera in one episode because he never wanted me to go into the entertainment industry," said O-Towner Ashley Parker Angel, 19, of Redding, Calif. "I actually had fans come up to me and ask, 'How are you and your dad? How's that going?' because so many people watched me in my kitchen talking with my parents."

At least in some quarters, Pearlman's theory about attracting teens by taking them "behind the music" even before there is any music seems to be paying off.

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