The Prefab Four

concert-819149_1920Rolling Stone’s cover story last week featured Five Seconds of Summer, the Australian pop-punk-band-that-insists-it’s-not-a-boy-band, whose first two albums of catchy pop tracks have become international #1 hits.

For a band this new and young to hit the top of the charts and get this much media hoopla is quite a success story. But I find other aspects of the story to be more interesting.

For instance, I was surprised to discover the business calculation behind this teen success tale. According to Rolling Stone the band started out in Sydney with a one-year business plan, hatched by their first manager, that clearly delineated the marketing territory the band was aiming for: “Musically, 5SOS can occupy the space between One Direction and McFly.” (One Direction is a megastar UK boy band and McFly is a UK pop band.)

The band also carved out in advance an individual persona for each of the four band members (one would be the mystery man, another the creative one, etc.) Then they fully exploited social media to build up a fanatical teen fan base. (That part was not a surprise.)

But what floored me was finding out that One Direction acquired a 50% stake in 5 Seconds of Summer Limited Liability Partnership. No wonder One Direction tweeted up 5SOS from the start and had the band open for them on their 2014 tour! They had a share in 5SOS's profits.

I never imagined a major band having a 50% stake in another major band. Especially when they're two of the hottest groups on the planet. (1D holds the box office record for the most lucrative tour of any modern band: $290 mill grossed from 2014.) I guess that would qualify as business model innovation—at least in the rock world.

It’s like The Beatles owning half of The Rolling Stones—or vice versa, given the superior business savvy of the Stones. It reminds me of an early Beatles’ press conference when they were asked why they were the most popular group in world. John Lennon cheekily replied, “If we knew that, we'd get together four boys with long hair and be managers.” Not such a crazy idea after all.

But I had a more troubling realization from reading RS's description of 5SOS's debauched lifestyle. It struck me as so de rigueur. A day-in-the-life of this band—at least a day spent in Hollywood after performing at the American Music Awards—was so (yawn) predictable. They woke up in the late afternoon, badly hung over, after a dissipated night of LA party-hopping—which seemed to characterize much of their life, at least while touring. (And touring is most of their life.) The only thing missing was Justin Bieber. Oh, wait, they crashed a Justin Bieber party in Hollywood too.

But then I wondered if these guys even had a choice. Aren’t all young rock stars forced to live like this? Don’t they have to live up to the dissolute image that young rock fans and rock reporters expect of them? Aren’t they required to tour constantly, eat bad food, smoke Camels, get wasted, and stay out til 6 am every night? Isn’t that part of the business plan?

After all, everybody gets something out of this narrative: the band members get to live out their adolescent dream; the pop media get to sell yet another story of rock-band excess; the fans get to imagine what it would be like to party with their faves; and the record company and management (including One Direction) get to count their money. Everybody’s happy. Except that over time certain band members—who may turn out to have fragile egos—could fight lifelong addictions, suffer debilitating health issues, and live shortened lives. (One 19-year-old member of the band already deals with depression.)

I hope I’m wrong. These guys are likable enough and they actually have talent. But I’ve seen this movie before. Someone should encourage them to write their own script.

Shifting metaphors, if you think of 5SOS as a fast food company, serving pop junk food (as tasty, visually appealing, and well packaged as it is), shouldn’t they be careful to not consume too much of their own product?


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6 Comments

    1. Many of my favorite bands fired members, but it was their decision, not management's. (The Beatles fired Pete Best, the Stones canned Brian Jones.) I respect bands that flex their muscle with their management or record company. It's good to have some creative tension between the artists and the suits. Meanwhile the exploitation can go both ways.

  1. With your title being such an overt reference, I kept waiting for something about how this didn't happen to Davy, Micky, Peter, and Mike.

    Beyond Davy Jones' lifelong hatred of Nez, it seems like these four guys went about their lives without too much damage. Peter Tork seems like a happy guy, playing music. Same for Mickey. Nez, one of my few musical heroes, is perhaps the most serenely contented person on the planet.

    But then, that might also describe Keith Richards.

    Re-read a long and interesting article about gaslighting, the psychological effects of. (As in, my life until I married Best Beloved, from childhood through an entire 23-year marriage.) At its core, gaslighting is based on the manipulator's belief (real or only stated) that there is only one truth, one right method, one right belief, that it is theirs, and that you will be happy if only you can learn and accept their truth.

    I'll be the first to say that sometimes, Truth exists. Not as often as some folks think, though.

    And it certainly doesn't mean that rock stars have to live a certain life. (Whew! Began wondering if I was ever going to get to the point!)

  2. Talking of business plans and music biz cliches, has anyone heard David Bowie's new album? You must: it's fabulous.

    Maybe one day, probably around 25 years from now, a member of McFly or 1D or 5SOS will turn out to have walked away from one of these bands and re-invented himself several times over, producing a catalogue of varied and high quality work across a variety of styles (no pun intended). And comparison to The Dame on so many levels won't seem too out of place.

    1. And less than 24h later comes the terrible news that David has died. His producer, Tony Visconti, has said even his death was a work of art: releasing the album just prior to dying. RIP David.

      1. Yup. Great album by a great artist. A true innovator.

        Been listening to "Sue" off his new album. This is a rhythm section from Mars.

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