A debate at Cologne’s Pop Komm music conference brought industry experts together to discuss the implications arising from the influx of manufactured pop personalities on, well, other manufactured pop personalities.
Old Boys on the Block: Are success stories like U2 a thing of the past?
The title of the discussion, 'U2 would not be possible today', said it all.
On Thursday afternoon, record executives and industry experts gathered at the 14th annual PopKomm music trade fair in Cologne to discuss why.
In the spotlight were the record executives responsible for boy bands like 'Nsync and the Backstreet Boys, the former head of a pioneering hip hop label, an Artist and Repertoire (A&R) executive from Warner in Germany and the editor of Music Week UK.
These experts were brought together to debate the reasons why some bands are not being developed and if success stories like U2's rise to fame can even be duplicated in today's climate.
Under chandeliers in an auditorium on Cologne's trade fair grounds, the real question was about money. Is it possible, in today's music industry climate, to nurture and invest in an organically formed band's long term future? There were many differing opinions but the general consensus was 'no'.
This opinion has never had such a ring to it as it has in these days of ‘Pop Stars’ and ‘Pop Idol’, the television shows that take ordinary, every day folk and create singing stars.
Manufactured bands have been with us ever since The Monkees started the trend in the Sixties. Every decade has had its defining plastic pop group. The scrapyard of teenage fancy is littered with names such as New Kids on the Block, Take That and The Spice Girls.
One man who has played a hugely influential part in the more recent manufactured band phenomenon is Louis Pearlman, the head honcho at Transcontinental Records.
From Disney Club to world domination, care of Lou Pearlman.
His team has been responsible for putting together boy bands Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and guiding a youngster called Britney Spears towards superstardom.
He is currently pushing new bands O-Town and Natural in Germany, the country who gave Backstreet Boys their first gold discs thanks to enthusiastic air play.
Financial risks holding back new acts
Pearlman believes that talented bands are not being promoted because the immense amount of money needed to get a group off the ground and into the charts.
And he should know. Pearlman spent 1.5 million euro ($1.47 million) on the Backstreet Boys before they even got a sniff of a record deal. Luckily the gamble paid off.
Executives nowadays aren't as bold. The reason is something Tom Silverman, founder of the seminal hip-hop label Tommy Boy Records and man responsible for the rise of artists De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Coolio, calls the 'risk/reward factor'.
Speaking from the Pop Komm stage, Silverman said, "It'll cost you two and half million dollars to take an act all the way and even if they make it, the reward has to be higher than your costs."
"Look at Puff Daddy. He lost his deal with Bad Boy Records even though he sold a million copies of his album. It didn't make a profit."
Silverman sold his shares in Tommy Boy to AOL Time Warner before taking up a position as head of an independently minded subsidiary of his former empire. He plans to open a distribution centre in Germany that will serve Europe.
It's a business
Markus Bruns, an A&R man from Warner Music Group in Germany, defended the policies of the big companies. "Our target is to make money. If you want to invest everything in development, it won't work. If you want to invest everything in marketing, it won't work. You need balance between risk and reward."
Tom Silverman offered a ray of hope to the bands that struggle against this ratio.
"If you want to take a chance and want a band to succeed, you should say, 'that video will not cost fifty thousand dollars, you're going to make it for ten," he said.
'Popstars' winners No Angels are a product of television as a marketing tool.
For Lou Pearlman, however, the future already seems bright. He's invested heavily in his 'Pop Stars' and 'Pop Idol' concepts and German winners No Angels and Bro'Sis are currently climbing up into the pop big leagues, thanks to the programmes' popularity along with clever marketing.
TV is crucial
"You need television to break an artist and specific types of music need television and the media. Having your act on TV cuts the risk and ups the reward," Pearlman said.
Moderator Ajax Scott of Music Week UK challenged the panel by asking if the plastic band phenomenon was a destabilising, momentary trend and if a new U2 would eclipse the Backstreet Boys of the future.
Lou Pearlman summed it up: "People ask me when boy bands will be over. I tell them 'when God stops making little girls.'"