O-Town: Building the Perfect Boy Band
An unapologetically prefab fivesome culled from 1,800 hopefuls on an ABC reality show is the most cunningly marketed, cross-platformed boy band ever. Can the efforts of Clive Davis, teen-pop impresario Lou Pearlman and radio giant Clear Channel create the new 'N Sync? Band debuts at #5 on this week's charts.
by Warren Cohen

Wednesday, January 31 12:33 P.M.

When Sara Trombley gave her lawyerly, 30-second testimonial in the earth-shaped dining room at Orlando's Planet Hollywood last month, it was the end of a 2,947.6-mile journey. That's how far the 18-year-old college freshman said she had traveled to see her new fave boy band, O-Town, perform in various locations across the southeastern United States, demonstrating to one and all that she is their biggest fan. As proof, she unfurled before the five members of O-Town (who were splayed on bar stools judging the proceedings) a six-foot poster showing pictures of her at each concert stop.

The corporate-sponsored ''Making the Fan'' contest is a logical extension of ABC's fall 2000 reality show, Making the Band, which turned five boys into the pinups of O-Town. More than 70 other screaming hopefuls stood on tiptoes behind Trombley, waiting to give their own vows of devotion under the spotlights; the fans whose devotion is purest will fly to the Bahamas to witness an exclusive performance by the band.

But this was a lovefest with a purpose. The fans' testimonials were filmed for promotional use; they could potentially turn up on TV, radio and the Net, fodder for an all-out campaign launched by the backers -- including businessman/boy-band mogul Lou Pearlman, ABC, Clive Davis's newly-launched J Records and Making the Band creators MTV Productions -- who've invested nearly $2 million in O-Town's future.

On the TV show, fans watched the producers whittle 1,800 O-Town wannabes down to a creme-de-la-cute fivesome. They've watched them learn to dance, sing and groom themselves. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, record-biz legend Davis, his new label J Records and radio giant Clear Channel Communications joined the band's pit crew. The O-Town offensive has become one of the most elaborate star-making campaigns of the modern media age. The machinery seems to have paid off. In its first week of release, according to SoundScan, O-Town's self-titled debut CD sold 144,000 copies, bowing at No. 5 on the charts. (It's part of a new teen pop wave: Rival girl band Dream, svengalied by Puffy Combs, followed at No. 6 with 105,000 records sold.)

The band's first single, ''Liquid Dreams,'' a catchy but odd tribute to the oft-mortifying experience of a boy's nighttime emissions, is bubbling under the Top 40, boosted by a $500,000 video full of gee-whiz effects. Joshua Thompson, who has written songs for Joe, Babyface and Usher, led the team of veterans who composed the tune. For the group's many investors, all of whom hope to see handsome returns when the band ascends to mega-stardom, this spare-no-expense approach is a must. But beyond their financial interest in the group, each business partner has a lot riding on making the operation fly.

For Davis, O-Town, his label's first release, is a chance to show the gossipy record industry that he's still got the golden ear. In 1974, he started Arista with $10 million and built it into a company that had annual revenues of more than $500 million. In 1999, he engineered Carlos Santana's comeback with Supernatural, which has sold 22 million records worldwide. But despite his continuing success, executives at Arista's corporate parent, BMG Entertainment, demanded last year that the 67-year-old impresario draw up a succession plan for his eventual retirement. Davis refused, setting off a yearlong corporate standoff. Finally a truce was negotiated: Davis would give up his slot at Arista in return for partial funding of a new BMG-associated label called J, after his middle initial.

But don't call it a comeback. According to Davis, J's sizable start-up capital means that it's an instant major label. Having brought 80 percent of his former staff with him from Arista, Davis has his old team in place and, in addition to newcomers like O-Town, he's signed platinum-certified acts like Luther Vandross and Busta Rhymes. While his new venture will be closely watched, Davis says he has nothing to prove. ''I don't feel any special pressure now,'' he says. ''There's always pressure in this business.''

Davis learned about O-Town through the band's manager, Mike Cronin, who is the brother of the lead singer of LFO, a boy band Davis signed at Arista. Davis was aware of Making the Band, as were executives at Jive and RCA, but insists that the allure of a prefab audience didn't influence his decision. ''The recognition factor and awareness of a TV show is helpful,'' says Davis. ''But the formula is pure and simple: You need a major hit record to launch a group.''

And if you want a hit record, you need big-time radio play. That's why J's first marketing deal after signing O-Town was a deep promotional partnership with Clear Channel Communications. The San Antonio-headquartered radio behemoth may get less attention than your average Hollywood studio or TV network, but since 1996 -- when Congress lifted caps on the number of radio stations one company could own -- Clear Channel has been on a buying spree of unprecedented proportions, expanding its empire (from 625 stations in 1999 to about 1,100 stations today) and acquiring concert promotions giant SFX Entertainment. The company owns roughly five times the number of stations as its main rival, Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting. More importantly, particularly for O-Town, Clear Channel dominates pop radio, controlling 115 of the country's 483 Top 40/contemporary-hits formatted stations, according to BIA Financial Network, a broadcast industry research firm.

Under the terms of the partnership, J Records will foot the bill for trips to a concert in the Bahamas for listeners from 25 Clear Channel stations around the country. J has also bought radio commercials for the album in eight of Clear Channel's largest markets and ensures that about 50 DJs around the country rattle off roughly 20 on-air and recorded announcements about the album's arrival. Financial terms are private, but Tom Corson, J's executive vice president of worldwide marketing and sales, says the promotion's cost is reduced because J offers O-Town's services to Clear Channel for promotional events; recently, the group has been crisscrossing the country to appear at ''Making the Fan'' challenges (hosted by Clear Channel DJs) in New York, Orlando, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

''Clear Channel has a list of assets they bring to on-air promotions,'' says J's Corson. ''But there's so much mutual benefit for each party that we scratch their back and they scratch ours. It's symbiotic.'' Other music industry veterans are impressed by the deal's scope. ''When you have a partner like Clear Channel, it is an immense help to break the act,'' says Jerry Brenner, a Boston-area music promoter.

But O-Town's main benefit to Clear Channel is on the Net, where Clear Channel radio station Web sites are in serious need of traffic. Thus far, the Web has been a weak area for traditional radio. Despite the runaway popularity of Web-only music sites, most radio groups have either failed to trumpet their Web sites or neglected to offer any compelling features beyond rebroadcast signals. On PC Data's list of the Web's most popular music properties, the top-ranked radio Web site is New York pop powerhouse (and Clear Channel affiliate), which comes in 61st. This year, Clear Channel has vowed to make its Web sites a corporate priority. That way, it can offer companies advertising space on radio, the Web, billboards (another business Clear Channel dominates) and at concert venues, giving their ads both the demographic-precise targeting of radio and the massive reach of network TV. ''We can bring events like U2 concerts, Michael Jordan golf tournaments and tractor pulls to our audience with our content partners,'' says Ted Utz, vice president of strategic partnerships at Clear Channel's Internet Group. ''When you compare the Clear Channel Internet group to AOL, we're going to have a similar platform with the power of our combined Web sites.''

O-Town will be a test case for Clear Channel's budding Web strategy. Half of Clear Channel's pop-station sites streamed the album the weekend before its release; when the album finally hit the street, these sites featured a webcast of the band's record release party, jazzed up with interactive technology that let users control the camera angles from their home PCs. And on Feb. 9, the sites will host a live chat with the band. In short, it's a full-court Web press, designed to transform online radio into an experience closer to concerts or live TV.

Both parties stress that all the cross-promotional frenzy doesn't guarantee that Clear Channel strongholds such as Z100 or LA's KIIS-FM will actually play ''Liquid Dreams.'' Theoretically, there's a church-and-state separation between the marketing and programming departments at radio stations. Prior to launching a promotion, Clear Channel's marketing team solicits feedback from its stations, then allows individual stations to opt in depending on whether they like the music. This prescreening is an early tell of whether the song will get a fair shake from DJs and program directors. J Records certainly thinks it will. ''Paying for play is illegal and they can't commit to anything about adding spins,'' says Matt Shay, J's director of new media. ''But we feel like it's a cool promotion to radio, and spins come naturally to a cool promotion.''

ABC will also be watching the charts closely. Last season, Making the Band averaged 6.7 million viewers a week in its Friday time slot -- disappointing numbers, given that its lead-in, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, averaged about 9 million a week. Although ABC has optioned 13 more episodes, it has yet to add the show to its 2001 schedule. A hit record could give the network reason to do so.

But there may be no one who has more riding on O-Town than Pearlman, the controversial idolmaker behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. While he insists that there's not a shakeout on the horizon in boy-band-land -- ''As long as God keeps making little girls, there will be boy bands,'' he says -- some critics believe the wave is cresting. Pearlman is optimistic that O-Town will be his next big success -- and not his last. He has a few more groups at his finishing school in Orlando, where he feeds and clothes his charges and hooks them up with vocal and dancing coaches.

But O-Town's success, even after a stellar first week, is far from a sure thing. Megahit records have always depended on an unscripted alchemy rather than marketing muscle. The intro to the ABC show promises viewers that O-Town ''will become stars.'' But there's no guarantee that an ingeniously-marketed, cross-synergized, multi-platformed quintet of hotties will slay teen America. That requires one unscriptable element: actual fans.

This article appeared in [Inside] magazine.