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Is this any way to make music?
By ERIC DEGGANS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001
But it highlights what troubles many critics about the made-for-TV bubblegum boy band, O-Town.
Is its current, chart-topping success evidence that this act really has talent? Or is it just further proof of the plastic nature of modern pop music?
In other words: Are these guys for real?
"I think the level of respect should come from the amount of work that you put in," said Erik-Michael Estrada, an emotional sparkplug who has emerged as one of the five-man group's better singers. "It doesn't matter how quickly you were formed. If you're willing to put the work in and . . . that's your passion, I don't think you should really be (penalized) for it."
It's the answer to be expected from a twentysomething whose only contact with professional show business has been the media attention and spoon-fed success that are ABC's Making the Band.
But it may also offer a peek at a pop music future in which giant media conglomerates no longer wait for prospective performers to prove themselves through years in the trenches of nightclubs or indie record companies.
Instead, they'll grow the performers themselves -- retaining a sizable chunk of control over the artists and their profits in the process.
"It's the price that comes from (AOL Time Warner vice president) Ted Turner being a billionaire, Al Gore deregulating radio and the record company cartels being allowed to continue as cartels," said Dave Marsh, co-founder of Creem magazine, longtime writer at Rolling Stone magazine, author of Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story and creator of the Rock and Rap Confidential Web site.
"These things have a price . . . and it's not only monetary, it's cultural," adds Marsh, an iconoclast whose wife, Barbara Carr, has managed artists such as Springsteen and Shania Twain. "These kids, they're a commodity . . . not even at the level of dish soap. And the music is just another part of the commodity."
Viewers first met O-Town before the band had an album, a stage show or even a solid lineup -- watching a team of professionals build the group from the ground up.
Crafted by the team that brought us MTV's The Real World, Making the Band sent its cameras last year to follow impresario Lou Pearlman (Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync) as he auditioned thousands of hopefuls, winnowing them to eight guys, who then competed for five slots.
Over 22 weeks last year, viewers watched them struggle with dance steps, commitments at home, vocal pitches and more. Even after the five were chosen, a member quit, forcing Pearlman to pick a replacement from those who were cut early on.
Though the series earned middling ratings for ABC on viewer-starved Friday night (doing best among teens and young women), the alliance between television and music earned big CD sales. So far, O-Town's self-titled debut CD has sold 500,000 copies, with their first single, Liquid Dreams, notching $490,000 in sales, according to the SoundScan sales tabulation service.
And they're not alone. Eden's Crush, a five-member female group assembled on the WB network's "reality TV" series Popstars, has sold 219,000 copies of its first single, Get Over Yourself, since mid-March, according to SoundScan.
The newly merged AOL Time Warner supported Eden's Crush with corporate-wide synergy, signing the group to the Warner Music Group labels London-Sire and 143 Records, while providing downloads of Get Over Yourself via America Online. Similarly, MTV this week is airing marathon telecasts of Making the Band's first season (which MTV Productions co-produced) and will also air Popstars.
"The London-Sire people were surfing (AOL's) message boards, picking up information to make sure the marketing image they were putting out was being reinforced," says Steve Wonsiewicz, music editor for the trade magazine Radio & Records. "This is really showing the benefits of having a lot of different media properties all firing on the same cylinders."
David Foster, the Grammy-winning producer who helped develop Eden's Crush for Popstars, said he was surprised by the group's early success.
"The power of television is just astounding; having your group on TV week after week . . . you can't buy that kind of advertising," said Foster, who has written songs and produced albums for Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel and others.
"The best way to make it is the Celine Dion way . . . seven years of struggle, nobody knows your name, and you learn the business," added the producer, who also serves as president of 143 Records. "We carved two or three years off the struggle for these girls. If they were raised right, they'll be fine. But I don't know how it's all going to play out."
Similar problems will emerge during Making the Band's second season, which focuses on recording the first CD, making the Liquid Dreams video and launching the first tour.
A preview tape shows the group disintegrating during a live performance of Liquid Dreams at the Miss America awards show -- a lapse blamed on technical problems that eliminated recorded backing music from the group's monitor mix onstage.
If they were experienced performers, with years of touring under their belts, perhaps they could have compensated. Instead, O-Town dissolved into a mass of off-key harmonies before a national audience.
As the band's vocal coach screens the tape and berates them, viewers will see this group of fledgling performers struggling to shoulder the corporate expectations of their label, J Records (and president Clive Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston), Pearlman's Trans Continental Corp., MTV Productions, ABC-TV and more.
"They were expecting a group that was polished and perfect, but we had only been together a few months," said Jacob Underwood, shown during the series as the group's most responsible and demanding member. "We were singing in front of 40-million people just for the fact that we were famous."
Group members now say that the first season's shows overemphasized their inexperience and mistakes to add drama -- pointing to its album's skin-tight vocal harmonies as evidence of their abilities.
But stars ranging from Jennifer Lopez to Madonna have weathered rumors that their vocal performances were corrected by digital editing programs that can pull out-of-tune singing into perfect pitch.
"There are people who talk about how Jennifer Lopez should get a Pro Tools Grammy for all the work they did on her," said Foster, referring to the program producers digitally manipulating music tracks. "But the one thing you can't buy is vocal tone -- that has to be there. Besides, there are artists from the earliest history of time that didn't sing well but can do well."
Sure enough, pop history is littered with artists manufactured by the industry, including the Monkees and Fabian. But Marsh argued that today's teen-oriented artists are designed for a short shelf life -- only increasing the disposability of modern pop music.
"If you make something that's designed for the most fickle audience in our culture, then it's a foregone conclusion," he said. "What does MTV do with its VJs, or the kids on the Real World? Because, if people stick around and get more popular, they want to get paid. For the record companies, it's much cheaper to just start over."
That thought is echoed by Foster, who doesn't expect Eden's Crush to return for the next edition of Popstars, which concluded its first season last Friday.
"We hatched the babies, they've grown up, and now it's time for them to move on," said the producer, who will stay involved with Eden's Crush as the band prepares for a summer tour with 'N Sync. "They have to compete with Britney and . . . everybody else that's out there. So far, they've been in a controlled environment . . . now it's hardball."
But don't bother suggesting to Foster that this spells the end of vibrant, experienced artists in pop music.
"I've always said rap is the new rock 'n' roll and the next Bob Dylan is Eminem," he added. "Rock 'n' roll doesn't exist that way anymore. Just get over it."
Marsh agreed. "It's disposable music for a disposable age," he said. "If anyone sustains a career from it, it will be by accident and against all logic."
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AT A GLANCE: Making the Band returns for a second season at 8 tonight on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: n/a. Rating: TV-PG.
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