The Crazy Rise and Epic Fall of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC
They were huge. They sold more records than almost anyone. They toured the world. They dominated MTV. Then they were gone. Here's the story of where the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC came from - and why they vanished.
Everybody has a favorite boy band -- some studly group that sings tightly harmonized love songs and rocks feverishly groomed styles. They rake in big money -- like, big. They sell out stadiums.
And they deal with problems as big as their tour budgets.
The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC would know a thing or two about all that.
Dozens of boy bands have seen crazy success, but none of them have made the kind of impact of those two mega-boy bands of the 90s. And they sometimes suffered for it. As a wise rapper once said: Mo money, mo problems. And when you earn as much money as these guys did, we’re talking mo, mo, mo, mo problems.
You’re Not Even Worth $2, Kid
Just how dominant were these guys? Whelp: The Backstreet Boys have sold more albums in America than Bob Dylan, Queen, and the Dave Matthews Band. NSYNC? They’ve moved more records than Jay-Z, Ozzy Osbourne, Frank Sinatra, and John Mellencamp. They worked harder, and longer, and did more in less time, than almost any artists of the last quarter century. They generated hundreds of millions of dollars for their record label and the man who created them.
And that’s where the problems started.
Behind the singles that were workshopped literally down to the syllable, the huge tours stocked with bodyguards and private jets, were deeply personal and human tragedies. There was greed, exhaustion, and substance abuse, and more than one accusation of fraud. And finally, there was a fickle record industry that was shattered by one random piece of tech -- tech that barely makes a dent here in 2019.
Read on to see what it was really like to be a boy-bander in the ‘90s -- from the money to the addiction to the private jets to the mysteriously disappearing paychecks. And a few allegations that were way, way worse.
If you’re going to understand the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, you need to know their granddaddys. If you’re a kid of the 2000s, you may not know this: New Edition, a young and dynamic R&B pop group, kicked off the whole 90’s boy band explosion. After emerging from housing projects in Boston, New Edition kicked around for a few years before coming in second in a 1992 talent competition.
Producer and singer Maurice Starr was there, and saw the group’s raw potential. It wasn’t long before he’d signed them to his personal record label and herded the group into a studio with a clutch of pop songs. While that 1983 debut album, “Candy Girl,” wasn’t a huge success, the title track went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B and UK singles charts.
But New Edition would experience something that so many musicians before them had: not getting paid. As the band itself recalls, when they were dropped off at their parents’ houses after the hugely successful “Candy Girl” tour, the boys in New Edition were given the fat paycheck they were due for their year of hard work: $1.87. Each.
It didn’t take long after that for New Edition to fire Maurice Starr and jump record labels.
So Starr tried again – but this time with white kids singing crossover hits to bigger crowds. His first signee was 15-year-old dancer and rapper Donnie Wahlberg. Donnie then recruited his brother Mark and some other buds. Mark quickly moved on, but Starr saw enormous potential in the others. He quickly got the group signed to Columbia Records and started them gigging around Boston.
King O’ the Blimps
It took a few years, but New Kids on the Block hit the jackpot with their second album, “Hangin’ Tough.” Five top five singles and two No. 1 albums followed – along with as much as half a billion dollars in ticket sales, albums, and merch.
But in 1992, the group was dogged by allegations that they lip-synched in concert, and worse than that - that they didn’t sing their own tracks on record. They tried to push back against the claims by singing live on Arsenio Hall’s show, but the damage had been done. With popular tastes changing from bubble-gum pop to gangsta rap and grunge, the group fired Starr and tried to re-brand themselves as a more urban group. It didn’t work, and New Kids split in 1994.
Right around then, the money that New Edition and NKOTB had generated fired the imagination of another would-be hitmaker: Lou Pearlman. And it was Pearlman who achieved more with boy bands than anyone had, before or since.
Born in 1954, Pearlman had already dipped his toes into the music business, watching cousin Art Garfunkel sing his way to wealth and fame. But his adventures in boy-bandom came in a more roundabout way. It all started with blimps.
His first big business success would also be the first in a long line of adventures: He convinced Jordache Jeans to buy ad space on a blimp that didn’t exist. Then he quickly had a blimp built and insured it to the hilt. In 1980, the blimp crashed, just minutes into its flight. A 1993 account of the crash blamed the gold paint Pearlman had chosen for the blimp, saying it absorbed too much heat and sparked the helium inside it. So how did Pearlman respond? He sued the insurance company after they refused to pay out, and got $2.5 million out of it.
How colorful was the blimp escapade? Pearlman’s childhood friend and future companion in blimp adventures Alan Gross told Vanity Fair in 2007 that the blimp was a “giant turd” and that “Lou never intended to fly that blimp.”
Whatever the case, that money started another Pearlman blimp bonanza, Airship International. He got some exclusive advertising contracts, built more blimps, and was soon a multi-millionaire. He was leasing planes and hobnobbing with celebrities who came through Orlando. At one point, New Kids on the Block leased a plane from Pearlman, and the wheels started spinning. By 1991, he’d relocated to Orlando, Florida, and put out an open call for singers to form a pop group.
AJ McLean was the first teen to audition for Pearlman (at his house, against industry best practices), and he was soon joined by cousins Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson, along with singers Nick Carter and Howie Dorough. The boys already knew each other from singing groups around Orlando, so their chemistry was instant. Their first gig? Sea World’s Grad Night, in May 1993.
Like New Kids before them, the Pearlman-christened Backstreet Boys had some rigorous early years. They gigged relentlessly and cut rough demos, perfecting their harmonies and stage presence. By early 1995, Pearlman was confident enough to send them to Sweden to record with another up-and-coming talent, producer Max Martin.
It was a huge culture shock for everyone. Only Richardson had been out of the country before, and at 15, Nick Carter was so young that his adolescent voice hadn’t changed enough to harmonize with the other members. But over late nights, marathon video game sessions, and constant practice, the Boys and Martin found something close to magic.
“We were in shock and awe that we were in Sweden,” McLean told Billboard in 2017. “We had a real proper record deal now -- this is not us making cassettes in someone’s basement back in Florida. This is really happening.
The first single cut in those sessions, "We've Got It Goin' On,” became an instant top-five hit all over Europe in summer 1995, where its high-energy fit in with dance music trends. The second song, done from start to finish in two days, was “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart.)” Another instant hit in Europe, it had a slow burn in America, but eventually caught fire.
By 1996, they’d released their first album in America, a compilation of old and new tracks that was self-titled. And then the dam broke; the self-titled American record sold almost 12 million copies in the U.S. in 1997.
Backstreet Boys had gone from grad-night gigging to diamond-certified records in just four years. And they were just getting started.
Even before the Backstreet Boys had their big breakout, Pearlman was looking to grow his talent roster. Backstreet Boys auditioner Chris Kirkpatrick approached Pearlman in 1995 about starting a second group, and quickly recruited his friend Joey Fatone. The duo got Pearlman to look through other audition tapes for would-be members, and former “Mickey Mouse Club” cast member Justin Timberlake caught his eye.
Timberlake recruited another Mickey alum in JC Chasez, and the quartet added bass singer Jason Galasso – branding themselves NSYNC, after the last later of each of their first names. Galasso soon quit, to be replaced by 16-year-old Lance Bass, who was so raw he’d never been on an airplane. At first, Bass had to go by “Lanceton,” to replace the departed “N” in NSYNC.
As “Lanceton” put it to EW, “When we all sang together, I mean, I just got goosebumps. It was just this magical sound and I looked at my parents, I’m like, 'I don’t think I’m going back to Mississippi'.”
With that same spark as his earlier group, Pearlman put the group on the same path as the Boys. They cut their first demos literally in closets, then played their first gig, just three weeks after coming together, at Disney’s Pleasure Island resort. That got record label interest, and they graduated to making tapes at Shaquille O’Neal’s home studio.
Sure enough, recording in Sweden with Max Martin followed (like the Backstreet Boys before them, only one NSYNC member had ever left the country before). And during those marathon nights and recording sessions, they hit the same paydirt the Backstreet Boys did.
In 1997, they put their first album out, skipping the Europe-only releases that the Backstreet Boys had issued. That NSYNC album sold ten million copies in the U.S. alone. Just a few years after getting into music, Lou Pearlman had two massive groups - and American pop music was totally transformed.
The Secret Formula You Should Have Thought of Yourself
So how did they do it? A formula. And we don’t mean hiring all-star producers like Max Martin. We don’t mean a certain ratio of insanely catchy dance singles to syrupy ballads. We mean math.
To build their songs, Martin and the bands worked off a formula called “melodic math.” The trick: Fitting syllables to sounds, instead of writing words and adding music later. It made for crazy-memorable choruses, even if the lyrics often read as all kinds of weird on the page (who actually tells someone “bye, bye, bye?”)
The instrumentation was slick, song lengths were maxed out for radio play, and every was beat pored over to perfection. And over and over again, it paid off.
Oh, Sales Boy!
And the videos! Pearlman and his team learned quickly that you can’t sell a boy band single without an epic video. MTV already knew this; the Carson Daly-hosted show Total Request Live was, intentionally or not, basically built for boy bands. Get the cute guys in front of fans. Watch the magic. Backstreet Boys and NSYNC ruled TRL. Literally. For the first six months after the show debuted in 1998, the number of times one of their videos did not reach the number one spot was zero.
Early on, the videos they made didn’t cost anywhere near as much as they looked like. JC Chasez recounted to Entertainment Weekly that they reserved some of their earlier clips only for Europe because they looked so cheap.
But the more you make, the more you spend. The 1999 video for BSB’s “Larger than Life” cost $2 million to make (and is still one of the most expensive of all time). In “I Want It That Way,” the Boys dance and greet fawning fans in front of their own private jet. Not to be outdone, NSYNC’s videos saw them get chased across moving trains, dance in full-body puppet shows, and go jet-skiing.
Those videos, as much as anything, remain the symbol of an era when record labels had more money than they knew what to do with, and so they did whatever they wanted with it.
The degree to which the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC dominated the world-wide pop charts from 1996 to 2001 really can’t be overstated. Of the 75 best-selling records in U.S. history, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC each have two. BSB’s second American album “Millennium” dropped in May 1999, and stormed the record charts to the tune of 30 million copies. “Black and Blue” hit 18 months later, and sold “only” 24 million.
NSYNC ‘s albums weren't quite the worldwide success that Backstreet Boys’ were, but in America, they took turns crushing the competition. NSYNC’s second album, “No Strings Attached,” released in 2000, moved about 12 million copies. It became the fastest selling album in history, topping the then-record first-week haul of “Millennium” the year before. The 2.4 million copies “No Strings Attached” sold in its first week would stand as the American record until Adele’s “25” broke it in 2015 – and the groups still have three of the top five fastest sellers.
The groups were so crazy popular that Boys’ first best-of album, “The Hits – Chapter One” sold 14 million copies worldwide in 2001, despite having just one new track. Even NSYNC’s Christmas album -- which, come on, is a Christmas album -- went double platinum in 1998.
Good Money > Bad Reviews
Of course, the music press trashed the groups. In their review of “Millennium,” Rolling Stone slammed the Boys as “prefabricated, too pretty, suspiciously well-choreographed.” Entertainment Weekly dissed NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” for being full of “overstuffed… synthetic funk spectacles.”
The groups were (as most boy bands still are) written off. They weren’t writing their own songs. They didn’t play their own instruments. Those are sins to music snobs. But even that wasn’t totally true. As early as “Millenium,” Backstreet Boys members were playing live instruments and landing songwriting credits.
“We play [instruments] right now in our show," Dorough said in a 1998 interview. “It's a little spoof that we're doing for 'Quit Playing Games (With My Heart.)' We kind of swipe the instruments from the band members and do a little bit ourselves. But Kevin and Nick actually play the drums and piano.”
Likewise, about half the tracks on “No Strings Attached” have at least one NSYNC member credited. But for the most part, the hits were still penned by professionals - adding fuel to the criticism.
Even positive reviews were full of backhanded compliments. It just wasn’t enough to sell a lot of records or make people happy. In a classic review, rock critic Robert Christgau gave the first American Backstreet Boys record an A grade, while also calling it “genius teensploitation” and a “juicy sexual fantasy for virgins.”
None of the barbs mattered to fans. Or to advertisers, who saw teenage girl gold in the two groups. For about half a decade, it was impossible to go somewhere or buy something without seeing one of them. Backstreet Boys worked out a deal with Sears to sponsor their massive tour for “Millennium” in exchange for exclusive commercials. And NSYNC crashed McDonald’s outlets to promote a compilation CD that the fast food giants would distribute.
By this time, both BSB and NSYNC had become well-oiled machines in concert. They had to be. NSYNC spent over a year and a half on the road for their first album, and played over 300 concerts from 1998 to 2000. Likewise, BSB basically lived on the road, never getting more than a few months off until 2001.
Why Can't We Be Friends?
The work paid off. At the height of the boy band craze, their tours were routinely in the top ten grossing tours for a given year, putting them shoulder to shoulder in revenue with giants like Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. These were huge operations full of crazy visuals. A New York Times review of NSYNC’s PopOdyessy tour in 2001 noted its massive excess, containing “futuristic mechanical bulls, giant playpen toys, zip wires, trampolines, treadmills, magic tricks, rubber sit 'n' bounce balls, bicycles, individual elevating platforms, Velcro suits, freight elevators and video game simulations.”
As big as the tours were, they came with bigger problems. The Backstreet Boys had different security guards for each member, and NSYNC played two Atlanta shows under a threat of assassination by a mentally disturbed teen boy.
It was a lot. As Kevin Richardson said in 2019 of their tours in those days, "it used to be the VIP room, stocked with alcohol for our friends and different people that come to see the show, but now it's the family room."
At the height of boy band hysteria, the Backstreet Boys “Millennium” tour stop in Atlanta was the most attended individual pop concert in U.S. history. That record stood until U2’s 2009 gig at the Rose Bowl.
It was all so big that at one point, it couldn’t get bigger. Then it got smaller.
The two bands fan bases were often described as hating each other’s guts, and for years, most people thought the band members felt the same way. But was it true?
In an in-depth look at the rivalry between the two bands, Rolling Stone unearths quotes like BSB’s Richardson declaring “It’s not NSYNC itself but where NSYNC comes from that digs me, digs me, digs me – and gets me, still to this day.”
Turns out, much of that bad blood was actually manufactured -- hyped up by Pearlman, who tossed out quotes comparing the two, often claimed one dissed the other, and would slot one band into a gig if the other turned it down. As Bass put, the “animosity was real because Lou made it real.”
Ultimately, Backstreet Boys were bigger worldwide, but NSYNC were mostly seen as better performers, and minted the only mega-star to come from either group in Justin Timberlake. Either way, there was plenty of money to be made by everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
The same way New Edition saw virtually no dollars for their first hit single, both the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were not taking home money in line with the money they were generating.
Here’s how they found out: In a McDonald’s. In Germany.
In 1997, the two bands finally met up. Over burgers, they got to know each other and bury whatever hatchet there was. They also compared notes about how little they were making. And they got mad.
Less than a year later, Littrell was the first to take legal action. Three of the other four members joined him in a $10 million fraud suit. They claimed Pearlman had misled them, played on their inexperience, and took as much as 43 percent of their income. The documents from that case, revealed in Rolling Stone in 1999, claimed that, from their first gig in 1993 until 1998, the Backstreet Boys made an estimated $10 million for Pearlman - but that they saw just $300,000 - total, for all five members.
The Backstreet Boys suit against Pearlman was the first real crack in the empire the mogul had put together. There would be more.
At a legendary dinner in LA in 1999, the relationship between the NSYNC team and Pearlman went as sour as BSB’s had. And it was about money. After two years on the road and a huge hit album, Pearlman presented them with their tour cut, after being reimbursed expenses.
Band members have said it was about $10,000. Each.
Sure enough, NSYNC almost immediately sued Pearlman for fraud and taking as much as 50 percent of their earnings. Denying he’d done anything other than enforce the contract they group had signed, Pearlman countersued for $150 million.
While the lawsuits wound their way through court, both bands fired Pearlman, and signed new management and record deals with Jive Records. The albums that came next reflected those struggles. “No Strings Attached” wasn’t just a hit machine, but a signal to the world that they weren’t puppets of Lou Pearlman anymore. BSB’s “Black and Blue” showed the Backstreet Boys’ emergence from Pearlman’s clutches bruised and battered, but still funky and sexy.
In recent interviews, including one for a 2019 documentary aptly called “The Boy Band Con,” members of both groups speak at length about Pearlman, leveling shocking allegations about their financial situation. McLean claims members of BSB couldn’t pay their rent, while Bass speaks of being kept on per diems of as low as $35 per day, and making less money than they would have working at that McDonalds in Germany.
“I couldn’t believe the number I was looking at,” Bass says in the film, referring to the money the band members got at that dinner in Los Angeles. “The check was $10,000. And not to sound ungrateful … but when you compare it to how many hours we had put into this group for years, it didn’t even touch minimum wage. At all.”
For his part, Pearlman claimed in a 2014 interview that “Backstreet Boys each made well over $50 million apiece,” and that he “got [his] piece, and it was very nice and very substantial.”
By 2001, Pearlman was out of the bands’ lives, though the legal actions between the two would drag on for years.
Bye Bye Bye to the Money Money Money
By the point that they’d moved on from Pearlman, both NSYNC and Backstreet Boys had another problem to deal with: age. Boy band fever had started to wind down. Their fan base was getting older, garage rock and more aggressive rap were on the rise, and people just kind of got sick of boy bands. And an atomic bomb had hit the music industry – file sharing.
The moment MP3 sharing site Napster launched in June 1999, the music industry had its legs cut out from under it. File sharing made every new album available for free, and made it so you could get the songs you wanted without spending money on a CD. And it meant the days of eight-figure album sales were pretty much over.
As early as 2000, while the boy band craze was still going, industry insiders were fretting about Napster’s growing popularity. By the end of the decade, pop and rock album sales were dropping as much as 8 percent every year, and they have never recovered. After a lawsuit by Metallica and the threat of Congressional meddling, Napster shut down in 2001. But the damage was done - and the once untouchable boy bands got hit the hardest.
The last album of the era, NSYNC’s “Celebrity” from 2001, topped out at 5 million in the U.S. Backstreet Boys had it even worse, taking five years between albums, during which CD sales flat-lined. With that, the American boy band craze was over.
Since then, the fortunes of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and their creator, Lou Pearlman have varied wildly.
After they finished touring for “Celebrity” in 2002, NSYNC went on hiatus. They have never recorded or performed together again, outside of short award show reunions. Justin Timberlake has gone on to become a huge star, complete with a performance at the Super Bowl, while some other group members have found limited success as solo artists.
Backstreet Boys also went on hiatus in 2002. McLean had already gone into alcohol rehab by 2001, forcing the group to postpone some “Black and Blue” tour gigs. After struggling for years, Nick Carter eventually did as well, in 2011. The band would take three years off, coming back with “Never Gone” in 2005 – an album that still moved a respectable 1.7 million copies in the U.S.
Richardson left the group, only to come back a few years later. And then a strange thing happened: The band got back together. For real. And it’s kind of worked.
It worked because they returned to what they started off as: a working band. They’ve put out new albums every few years, toured regularly, and even did a year-plus gig in Vegas. After 20 years, Backstreet Boys hit number one on the album charts again, with 2019’s “DNA” – but selling 220,000 copies, rather than the millions they moved in the good old days.
The Blimp King Deflates
Having been fired by every band he started, Lou Pearlman struggled to stay afloat. He championed an airline called Transcontinental Airlines and tried to take it public.
But Trans Con Air existed only on paper. Pearlman was running a massive Ponzi scheme, getting people to invest in non-existent companies based off his fame, then paying those investors with the money of others.
The state of Florida eventually sued him and seized his assets. His music studio was liquidated in 2006, and BSB immediately sued the estate in a lawsuit that took until 2014 to wind down. Prosecutors discovered that the scale of the fraud was staggering - $317 million bilked from more than 2,000 investors stretching back into the early 1990’s.
Even as boy band money was rolling in, Pearlman was running the scheme, and with the boy bands gone, it was pretty much all he had. He was indicted by a grand jury, and after being captured in Indonesia, Pearlman was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Successors to the Throne
While in prison, even more troubling allegations started rolling in, some levelled by members of the two big boy bands – inappropriate sexual contact.
It should be noted that several members of Pearlman's groups, most notably Nick Carter and Lance Bass, have denied seeing or experiencing any of this themselves. Others have never spoken about it on the record.
Pearlman denied all of the sexual misconduct allegations against him in that 2014 Hollywood Reporter interview, and it was the last he ever gave. Two years later, Pearlman died in prison of a stroke.
Boy bands are still around, of course: Korean superstars BTS, Brit popsters One Direction, and others. But for all their success, One Direction sold half as many albums as the Backstreet Boys did, with BTS nowhere close to even that. The times have changed forever, and at least in terms of raw records sales. It may be safe to say that Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were the last of their kind.