Backstreet Boys Lose It all
''The business is over here, '' Kevin Richardson, at 29 the oldest group member, said recently, stretching his left hand out. ''And the artistry, '' he continued, stretching out his right hand, ''is over here.''
The story begins with Lou Pearlman, an aviation entrepreneur based in Florida (and cousin of Art Garfunkel). Inspired by the success of the 80's heartthrobs New Kids on the Block, who happened to charter a plane from him, he decided to recruit and groom his own clean-cut boy bands. After a series of auditions in 1992 and 1993, he recruited Nick Carter (the youngest at 12), Howie Dorough, Mr. McLean and Mr. Richardson, who was 20 and whose cousin, Brian Littrell, soon completed the Backstreet Boys lineup. Mr. Pearlman booked them at grade-school assemblies, shopping malls and Sea World, and assigned management duties to Johnny Wright, who had worked with New Kids on the Block.
A year later, Jive Records, an independent label best known for its hip-hop acts, was coaxed into signing the Backsteet Boys. But the band's first single, ''We've Got It Going On, '' sputtered in America, where its sweet, harmony-laden pop was out of step with the alternative rock of the time. So in 1995 the band's first album, ''Backstreet Boys, '' was released in Europe and Canada, hitting the top 10 in numerous countries. Jive and Mr. Pearlman kept the band busy overseas for the next two years, sometimes putting it on tour for five months straight.
When teenybopper bands like the Spice Girls and Hanson began to succeed in the United States, Jive and Mr. Pearlman decided to bring the boys back. In the fall of 1997, an American version of ''Backstreet Boys'' was released and, over time, its popularity wore down skeptics at radio stations and MTV. When the album crossed the 10 million mark in sales, it heralded the cultural arrival of Generation Y.
''They were probably single-handedly responsible for the advent of 'Total Request Live, ' for Radio Disney, for Teen People becoming the force it has become, and, no doubt, for the explosion in teen purchasing power in America, '' said Barry Weiss, the president of Jive. ''They pushed the envelope.''
As with nearly all sudden pop sensations, a conflict soon grew between the band members, who wanted time off to relax and find perspective, and the business forces behind them, who wanted to keep the momentum going.
''The Backstreet Boys got so big they got tired, '' Mr. Pearlman said. ''And after a while, it became not about managing them but reasoning with them.''
Matters grew worse when a doctor recommended in the spring of 1998 that Mr. Littrell have surgery because of a leaky heart valve. ''I remember management at the time saying, 'Can't you postpone it so we can finish the tour?' '' Mr. Richardson said. ''And this just hurt Brian so much because he was like, 'Dude, this is my heart.' '' (Mr. Pearlman said that he had supported taking time off for the operation immediately.)
Meanwhile, Mr. Pearlman rolled out his next big boy band: 'N Sync. That summer, the Backstreet Boys decided not to accept an offer from Disney, which wanted to broadcast a concert special. Mr. Richardson said that he and his bandmates were exhausted and wanted to spend time with their families.
''That left the door open for 'N Sync, '' Mr. Pearlman said. ''And 'N Sync walked through the door.''
Mr. Richardson said that 'N Sync worked hard and deserved the breakthrough. The Backstreet Boys directed their anger at Mr. Pearlman and his management team, coming to believe that it was a conflict of interest for them to handle such mirror-image acts. ''They were directing them to work with all the writers and producers that we worked with, '' Mr. Richardson said. ''And they were using 'N Sync against us, saying, 'Oh, if you guys don't do this gig, we'll just book 'N Sync.' ''
In response to accusations from Mr. Pearlman and others that the band lost its drive, he said: ''We tried to find a balance. We got tired of being taken advantage of. That's the bottom line.''
So the band took its contracts to outside lawyers, who discovered that Mr. Pearlman had legally made himself a sixth member of the group, meaning that he was able to keep 17 percent of the money he distributed to the band after taking his 15 percent commission, according to court documents.