Music by VICE

Have We Witnessed the Death of Boybands?

Peter Robinson investigates whether the appeal of five handsome men harmonising together died off with One Direction.

by Peter Robinson
Sep 12 2016, 9:34pm

Boybands are incredible. Take, for example, Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way"; you'd have to be dead, twice, inside and out, not to have your head exploded by the soaring majesty of its final, key-changing chorus. Or how about that time 5ive, apropos of nothing, did a version of the Battlestar Galactica theme on one of their albums? Pop gold, right? Then there's the everlasting image of *NSYNC as marionettes – incredible.

It's been well ascertained - through the grand medium of history - that boybands had an almost interminable influence on the vast plains of youth culture. But time, as it always does, has passed. Lakes have dried up; buildings have been torn down; and culture has treaded onward, toward newer vistas. Gone are the days of East 17 performing on Top of the Pops bare-chested, over a grand piano; Boyz II Men topping the Billboard chart for 17 weeks; 5ive telling us what happens when the lights go out in a way deemed acceptable for mainstream radio. Now we just have The Vamps playing gigs in West London shopping centres.

In fact, in 2016, we're fortunate enough to see one boyband climbing the charts, never mind the entertaining all-out rivalries we used to witness between Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. So, did the idea of between three and five handsome chaps making beautiful harmonies together really die along with our dreams of a sixth One Direction album, or could the world's hearts once again be sent a-flutter?

It's hard to imagine how a new boyband might break through right now, but people were saying that in 2008, and then JLS appeared. Meanwhile, the BBC have commissioned a new primetime boyband search helmed by Gary Barlow, Zayn Malik is exec producing a boyband drama for NBC, and even One Direction's label Syco are at an advanced stage with the development of a brand new US boyband, purportedly modelled on *NSYNC. Irons are in the fire — but it won't necessarily be easy.

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In the UK, 2006 marked a Year Zero for pop music. It was the year in which Smash Hits folded, Top Of The Pops was taken off air, and CD:UK abruptly ended. In many ways, the collapse of those once great institutions accelerated the demise of a particular type of popstar. But as those doors slammed shut, others opened: 2006 was also the year YouTube took off, Twitter was founded and Facebook opened to the public. Ten years on, the consequences of that sea change are clear: music fans of all ages, but particularly teenagers, are far more likely to find their own music to fall in love with, and they're far less likely to endure new artists being rammed down their throats.

Since 2006 — and with apologies to acts like The Vamps — the only wildly successful UK boybands have been One Direction, JLS and The Wanted. 1D and JLS were both from The X Factor, while The Wanted were launched thanks to support from Global, which runs radio stations like Capital but also develop acts like, well, The Wanted.

Before 2006, with a captive audience and the right TV appearances and magazine covers, it might have been possible to launch a boyband from a cold start. But if that's no longer possible, and traditional boyband audiences go berserk for Ed Sheeran in the way they once did for JLS, are boybands even relevant in the post-1D pop landscape?

"'Relevant' is an extremely annoying and frustrating word," begins music mega-publicist Simon Jones, who worked with One Direction from "What Makes You Beautiful" until their indefinite 'hiatus'. "I've worked in the PR business for nearly twenty years and much of that time has been spent doing pop that hasn't been considered relevant, but still sold millions of records. The best pop is about having a good product that somehow captures the imagination of the record buying public — it's never been about being 'relevant' or having tastemakers endorse you."


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But that makes it hard. When you consider how many acts launch through industry-voted events like the Brits Critics Choice award or the BBC Sound poll, or how both grime artists and sensitive singer songwriters are given a clear launch structure by Radio 1, it's clear that things aren't exactly weighted in favour of boybands anymore. Apple's experiment with Beats 1, essentially a 24-hour specialist station, isn't likely to give the world the new Take That.

Maybe the best route is not to behave like a boyband and hope for the best. At the end of last year, WSTRN — a band, of boys — scored a massive hit with "In2", an out-of-the-box smash that sounded like exactly the sort of song you'd pick if you were launching a boyband in the vein of, say, Another Level. One member, Akelle, has talked about how he was initially wary of joining something that could be seen as a boyband.

But WSTRN didn't pitch themselves as a boyband: they were a 'collective'. They were signed by Atlantic's A&R exec Alec Boateng, who's better known to 1Xtra listeners as Twin B. "If I put to them that they were a boyband the response wouldn't be nice," he notes. "I wouldn't call them a boyband because they wouldn't want to be called a boyband. 'Collective' is the word. I think in their minds — and I think they are right — they are individuals who happened to come together to make music."

By being a collective rather than a boyband, WSTRN were able to glide through 1Xtra and Radio 1. For the next One Direction, that's not an option. "The way you build up your support on national radio is through specialist, and approaching specialist shows with a boyband - well, you'd just get met with silence," says radio plugger George Williams. "In order for Radio 1 to take a new boyband seriously, there'd have to be something spectacular going on on social media. With a boyband, we'd have to rely on the social media teams having done a lot of the groundwork before we step in."

Catch 22 isn't just an amazing potential boyband name: it's the media only being prepared to support boybands, as long as they're already big. Malcolm Mackenzie is the editor of monthly mag We Love Pop, the closest thing to Smash Hits on UK newsstands. When asked if he'd put Syco's new boyband on the cover, he says, simply: "No. Not immediately. We'd need to know the readers know who they are, and are in love with them. To get on the cover, the boyband would probably need to have had a Number One single."

He adds that he was interested to see 21 Pilots doing well in a recent readers' poll, and anyone who's been to see The 1975 live will be well aware that teen audiences are still finding music to get excited about. Many, however, aren't excited by popstars at all. While boybands are always selling something — concert tickets at £60 a pop, £25 t-shirts that cost £4.50 to produce, overpriced albums and singles anyone sensible consumes for free — there are other boys with equally splendid hair on YouTube. YouTubers' content is free, plentiful and feels intimate. "I feel," comments radio plugger George Williams, "like boybands have been replaced by YouTube stars."

Indeed, We Love Pop's current cover star isn't a popstar at all: it's Zoella, who Malcolm Mackenzie says scores twice as highly as any other person or band whenever the mag conducts reader research. Mid-level UK boybands like The Vamps, Rixton and Lawson are "nowhere to be found" and there hasn't been a boyband on the cover since One Direction. "And that," he adds, "was a couple of years ago. They stopped selling [magazines]. At the beginning of something — that's when you buy all the posters, the t-shirts, the bedding. Four years in when your poster is flaking off your wall, you've just lost the taste."

Mackenzie agrees that YouTubers may have quenched this generation's thirst for idols. "Every kid growing up likes to be obsessed by something," he notes. "But at the moment pop music isn't quite cutting it. Wouldn't it be great if we could bring together both worlds? If there was a proper YouTube boyband? That would be phenomenal."

Social media, and streaming, have certainly allowed fans to become more sophisticated and diverse in their tastes. During the 90s, along with brilliantly executed boybands like Take That, East 17 and even 5ive, there were a number of bands who simply should have been executed. In 1996 a high profile BBC documentary followed the creation, development and launch of a boyband called Upside Down. It was clear throughout that the band was terrible, but at a point in music when it was hard to see anything beyond what was put in front of you by a limited array of TV shows, radio and magazines, fans made the best of what they had. Even Upside Down managed three Top 20 hits, at a point when a Top 20 single still felt like a hit.

In 2016 fans can see everything: a boyband has to match up to the best music across all genres. But it's not just fans with higher expectations. "Artists in general feel more empowered these days," suggests Aaron Buckingham, who works in A&R and management at Global, and launched Lawson. Buckingham has seen this from both sides: in the mid-2000s he was a member of the British boyband V. Their management was already riding high with Busted and McFly, who'd put a guitar-based twist on the boyband formula, but V were an all-singing, all-dancing affair.

"Young artists now see Beyonce and Lady Gaga," he adds, "and they hear artists bashing management and record labels and saying things like, 'Do what you want to do and stand up for what you believe in'. People in boybands now don't just feel lucky to be there — whereas in my day, we all did. The message embedded into us by management was: this is a great opportunity, kids would die for this, keep schtum. I was always just super paranoid that we were going to get dropped at any time." He laughs. "And then we were."

On the topic of whether it's too soon to launch a new boyband — while the world is still mourning One Direction — Aaron isn't so sure. But he adds that when you take into account how long it can take to find the right members, then find the right songs, you could be two years down the line. And by that point there might be a window.

Some are hoping the window might already open. There's Syco's boyband, for instance. Another US band, Citizen Four, have already soft-launched. They've been put together by experienced pop overlord Tim Byrne, who invented Steps in the 90s and subsequently launched the boyband A1. In the intervening years Byrne has spent a decade working at Syco, where he worked with One Direction from the beginning, and was creatively in charge of X Factor in 41 countries and Got Talent in 65 countries. Since leaving Syco, he's collaborated with Island Records on Citizen Four.

"We started a year ago, before One Direction announced their hiatus," Byrne explains. "But we sensed that One Direction might be coming to its natural conclusion, and we saw a big hole in the market about to happen, especially in America."

He agrees that expectations are at an all-time high when it comes to pop acts. "I could do auditions for Steps and in would walk somebody with very little experience, but you could put them in a group like that and manufacture it," he recalls. "It's different now. And I listen to artists more now than I did before. Back in the day it was very much about us as managers and label bosses deciding everything. In 2016 you have to listen to them and involve them in the process. You have to give them the space to be real artists."

Citizen Four were revealed earlier this year and have been busy creating noise on social media. Byrne paired them with a social media star for one YouTube video that got 2m views; a buzz track called "Cold" appeared on Spotify last Friday and has already had 100,000 plays. The music, Byrne insists, is paramount. "I wasn't expecting 'Cold' to do so well, but I still want to build it bigger before we go to the proper push," he explains. "When you first start out, the song is more important than the act. And when you have a hit song, then you can have a hit act. Without 'What Makes You Beautiful' One Direction wouldn't have become as big as they did."

So could Citizen Four, or Syco's boyband, work in 2016? Hart Media's George Williams says yes. "There are so many variables, but if the music is very good and the guys are good looking, young, and you have loads of money, I'd say there's no reason it wouldn't work now as opposed to any other time."

While spectacularly unexcited at the prospect, Twin B also sees the potential. "If you get the song and you've got the right act behind it it could work," he concedes. "You might have got the beginnings of something. I've had conversations and calls before, with managers who say 'I've got the white one, I've got the mixed race one, I've got the one who will take his shirt off, I've got the black one. All we need now is the songs.' And it's a bit: 'Okay — cool. Good luck'."

And the good news, publicist Simon Jones adds, is that while it might be harder for boybands to get a foot in the door without crazy social media numbers, if a boyband is good enough and can get enough momentum, there are still areas where they'll find support. "There's still MTV, The Sun Bizarre column, daytime TV, regional radio stations and massive things like The X Factor, Capital and VEVO. They don't massively care about credibility."

And when bands get really big, it can be surprising who gets in touch about acts they didn't help launch.

"Even the trendiest media still needs hits on their website..." Jones says. "Everyone succumbs in the end."

You can follow Peter Robinson on Twitter.

Image credits:

Lead illustration - Esme Blegvad

JLS - Press photo

Zoella - Via YouTube

Citizen Four - Via YouTube