Interview with LOU PEARLMAN, manager at Trans Continental Records for Backstreet Boys, 'NSync - Jul 12, 2005
“I called a German radio station and said: 'I’ll let you use our airships. You can fly people, give away rides and also use them for traffic and weather reporting. ' All I asked was: 'Don’t pay any money, but please play Backstreet Boys',”
… says Lou Pearlman, chairman at Trans Continental Records in Orlando, USA. He started off by chartering airships before entering the music business.
His first attempts were Backstreet Boys and 'NSync. He put together the bands and sold over 100 million records. He is also the producer of MTV’s Making The Band and the new reality show Big In America.
What was the working process like when setting up a band like Backstreet Boys?
I began with the concept of “New Kids on the Block”. I wanted a very strong 5 part harmony for Backstreet Boys. Good vocals were the no.1 priority, and then great music, that was no.2, and a great look, no.3. No. 4 was that they had to be able to dance, which is crucial for a boy band.
Then we had to get vocal coaches and choreographers to teach them and get a good 5-part harmony. That took about a year, working 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. They started with some shows after 6 months, but the big shows came one year later. For the first shows, we used a booking guy in the States, Mike Schweiger.
So you started Backstreet Boys in the States even though they first broke in Germany?
Yes, we hit no.69 in the charts in the US and fell down, so we all had a long face. But you know we have airships built in Germany - we operate them here in the States and manufacture them in Germany at Essen-Mülheim airport. So I called a German radio station and said: “I’ll let you use our airships before we take them to the States to do radio promotion. You can fly people who are listening on the airships, give away rides and also use them for traffic and weather reporting.” All I asked was: “Don’t pay any money, but please play Backstreet Boys and let’s see what happens.”
So they liked it and said, “Ok, we’ll try it!” Then the band went top 5, so we brought the boys to Germany and promoted them throughout the rest of Europe, Asia and back to the States.
What promotion tools did you use in the very beginning with Backstreet Boys?
I made a VHS-copy of the boys performing at a small mall here in Orlando. So I showed a live show and then we did a show in Cleveland that the Jive people came to. The event was Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). They all came to the show and they loved it. The Jive people saw the crowd reaction and couldn’t believe it.
How did you set up the show?
We were invited to the event by the SADD-promoters.
But the record companies turned them down at first?
Nobody wanted them in the beginning. I was the only guy crazy enough, and so I took a chance. I was very nervous; everybody was telling me: close your checkbook, forget it, boy bands are dead, they are over. But I said: “No way!” I was travelling with these guys all around and saw the girls go crazy and I said: “I’ll know that boy bands are over when god stops making little girls.”
Why did you especially choose the German market?
Because our airships were there, and because Germany is the largest record market in Europe. And our record label distribution was there, too.
How much money did you invest?
1.5 million dollars.
How important are local independent sales, shows or local airplay?
Everything is important; you get a good vibe from airplay and local experiences, and get to see how it will work internationally.
What did you change when you started 'NSync?
I copied the same formula with 'NSync: put together a band with 5 guys. One of the guys was originally in Backstreet Boys, but he didn’t work so well in Backstreet, so he went away and came back later. We started building the band around him.
His name was Charles Edwards, but Charles decided to get married, so he left. So we replaced him with some others. But next thing we had a young guy called Justin Timberlake and some others, and the last letter of their first names spelled N.S.Y.N.C.
How did 'NSync enter the market?
What happened was, Backstreet Boys were coming to the States doing big shows and touring around. I had a big opportunity for them, because we were called by Disney: could they do the first Disney concert special on Disney channel? The Boys were tired and said: “No thank you, we don’t want to do it.” And I said: “Yeah, but Disney wants you to do it! They asked me and I told them you would!”
But they didn’t want to do it, so I went ahead and contacted Disney and said: “Sorry, Backstreet Boys don’t want to do it.” So they were really pissed off, and said to me: “Ok, if they don’t do it what are we going to do now?” I said: “We have another band we just put together called 'NSync.” They said: “We never heard of them.” So I said: “they’re getting some exposure in Germany right now like Backstreet Boys did.
They asked: “when are they in the States?” I said they were over for the Disney special. At this time we were selling about 5000 CD’s a week. After the special we were up to 25.000 a week at one point, then 50.000-60.000 per week, and then it kept going. But they started in Germany, their first album debuted at No.1 in Germany.
What partners did you have in Germany?
Trans Continental is only a record production company. So our partner was Jive Records in the States. We did a license deal with BMG.
For US 5, the band from the casting show “Big In America”, which is the biggest show they ever had on Viva (the most popular music television channel in Germany), we are doing the productions and the A&R together with Triple M (Mark Dollar and Mike Michaels) from Berlin.
On this show we showed exactly how we did it, with the guys on camera. So we revealed our secrets on the show. But basically it’s about getting the guys to work really hard, because we’ve got a shorter time with US 5 to get them ready.
Do you have people who preselect the songs?
Lou: No, we listen to all the submissions ourselves. We have our team at Trans Continental and at Triple M.
So who are the songs from?
From writers in Sweden; one of the songs for “US 5” is from Diane Warren; the rest were done in-house by Triple M.
How do you get the songs? Do you brief the writers?
We had a television show, so it was very easy, because people knew who we are. As we did our TV show the clock was running, so we only had time to take a handful of outside artists.
We listen to all of the different music and see how it fits the vocals. We have 5 guys, so we have to have very strong vocals. We have to know which one is going to be singing which part that the range fits.
Do you test the songs somehow on a test-audience or through a market research company)?
We do both, we market-test it through Clear Channel. And in our house we do it ourselves, myself and our A&R guy Dakari. And with Triple M we have Mark and their team.
Why did you choose Triple M?
Because they have a very good track record dealing with Ayman and other bands like The Boyz and Overground.
Do you listen to unsolicited material, too?
Always; sometimes it’s the best stuff!
Is the band involved in the production process?
Yes, one of the members actually co-wrote the songs on the album. This time we were putting the band together while we were making the show, so because we didn’t have the band assembled yet there wasn’t a lot of time for them to get them involved. Consequently we only had one of the members concentrate on writing, and he did it for the TV show. But the band is always invited to get involved with the songs.
How do you find new talent?
New talent is hard to find, but we’re always looking. It’s basically auditions. If we’re putting together a boy band, we’re looking for boys, depending on the ages and upon the market.
We go by how old do we want the group. When we want them between 16-21, we don’t look at anyone else. It’s not possible to check everybody, so we limit the age. Then we have our girls look at them. If the band has the right look, and the girls are pleased with them, we go by the talent and listen to the music.
If we’re going to build a rock band the look isn’t as important as the music and how they play. If we do a solo artist it depends on everything. With a boy band it’s very much the look, but you have to have good vocals, otherwise you don’t have a vocal group. Then we invite them to Orlando to the final casting before we pick them.
Do they have to pay anything?
The ones we select, we pay.
Where do you announce those auditions?
With US 5 we did the auditions in the States and the ones in Germany were announced on the TV on RTL2, they did a big promotion for Big In America before the show started. In the States, everybody knows who we are, so we just go out and make a big announcement on MTV, on the local news and on NBC, ABC, and CBS. They helped us doing this. So we had thousands of submissions.
What about Talent Rock?
With Talent Rock it’s something else. We give the people seminars and workshops to learn how to sing, dance and act. We give them lessons over an extended weekend and in 3 days they are learning all the basics they need to. So if you are an actor, a model, a comedian or musician we teach you exactly what you need to know, and based on all this you have the chance to be discovered.
Do they have to sign a management contract to participate?
We don’t do a contract. We usually teach them the basics and then we take these people and give them a chance to compete, and they get to be seen by over 100 industry people (casting agents, managements, record and movie companies etc.). If we like somebody we may make an offer, but there’s no requirement that they have to sign with us. We make it open for everybody.
You have the opportunity to compete in the industry and learn what it’s all about. You have entertainment; artists come down and explain how they got in the business and what they do.
The people learn from professionals. For example, one of the seminars is given by John Daily, a producer who is one of the 5 members of the Billion dollar club from Billion dollar productions, a friend of James Cameron and also Steven Spielberg. He discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger and produced Terminator, Platoon and many more movies. So many people are coming to our events.
How much do you have to pay for it?
For the weekend including the teaching and the training, including hotel and food they have to pay 995 dollars. But if you have talent, you can be discovered everywhere; we see it, either at clubs or at workshops - like with Talent Rock - or we have scouts in the streets who see people performing. We like talent and we may sign them.
How do you use the Internet?
Today the Internet is important because we get to see people if they have digital.com-cards, which means digital photos, digital resumes, audio and video streaming. We can see the talent quickly instead of having it sent in the mail.
Can you analyze the music business in relation to other businesses?
Yeah, it’s a very interesting business because it keeps changing in cycles; pop music keeps changing, the style changes, but the concept never changes. In pop music, in our business, we are dedicated to young teenage girls. They are a big fan base, because boys are more into sports or rock.
When you changed to the music business, who taught you how to do the right things?
I had to learn everything on my own. Having my own band years ago gave me a good experience. Speaking with Smokey Robinson and my cousin Art Garfunkel gave me some good experience too. They gave me names of people and ideas, and from there I created my own concept.
I met Smokey 2 years before I started Backstreet Boys. He was at my college and I spoke with him in great detail. I love pop music and Motown and I asked him how they did it and he said they set up a little factory, where they were making records. You need to have a good studio with good people, good musicians and good training, vocal and dance training.
How many people did you start Trans Continental Records with?
It started with 10 people - now we have 400 employees. With our television company we did Making The Band, the first ever network television show in the States.
What advice would you give to an unsigned artist?
To follow their dream and go after all record labels after all possible management people and play their product for them, play all the songs they have, let them see them and take advice. Or they can come to our Talent Rock anytime. On talentrock.com everything is explained in detail. But they can still go ahead and send ideas to us, we don’t charge anybody anything. We check it out. We always review talent.
What should they send?
A CD, photos, video would be nice, and we need to have their details on a resume and any experiences they have. The CD doesn’t have to be record quality, as long as we can hear it, it’s good.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
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