Ah, the mid-90s. When going online meant connecting to a screeching modem, which allowed you to browse low-resolution photos and text-heavy websites that took forever to load. Michael Jordan unretired and led the Chicago Bulls to a second threepeat because why not? Tragic love stories featuring sinking boats were all the rage. And Lou Pearlman — head of a company that offered travel agency services, male exotic dancers, and offering charter flights — decided there must be more to life than travel agency services, male exotic dancers, and offering charter flights. Once while providing a charter plane for New Kids on the Block, he wondered how they could afford to do so, and how could he ride that gravy train/plane? And voilà, he entered the music business.
After forming Trans Continental Records, Pearlman invested $3 million into a talent contest with the goal of creating a boy band. The first winner chosen was A.J. McLean, who auditioned in Pearlman’s living room. The remaining auditions were held in a blimp hanger, which would eventually be the place where the group members would rehearse their singing and dancing for as many as 8 hours…without air conditioning. Howie Dorough, Nick Carter and Kevin Richardson also got the gig, but Perlman was having a difficult time finding a 5th member. Finally, Dorough suggested his cousin Brian Litrell, who was shuffled out of his high school history class to answer the phone call. The Backstreet Boys, as they were called, didn’t achieve success immediately. They spent a few years toiling around in Europe, waiting for their big break with the U.S. audience. It finally arrived in 1997 with their hit “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), reaching #4 in the Billboard charts.
But as all of this was taking place, Pearlman was up to something downright sneaky: he had formed a second boy band – ‘N Sync – without The BSB’s knowledge. He had first chosen Chris Kirkpatrick, followed by Justin Timberlake (perchance you’ve heard of him!) and J.C. Chasez, the two of them having finished a run on The New Mickey Mouse Club. Kirkpatrick’s friend Joey Fatone, who happened to be working as a stage performer at Universal Studios, joined along and Jason Galasso capped things off…or did he? It turns out, he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of becoming a heartthrob for the teenybopper crowd, so Lance Bass replaced him.
Why did Pearlman keep ‘N Sync a secret at first? Simply put, he didn’t want to piss off the BSB while they were paying the bills. As a result, the members of ‘N Sync felt like the hideous creature in the basement that the parents are too embarrassed to let out. Eventually, he did break the news that there was Another. This did not go down very well, and it stoked what would become a rivalry. In those days, you were either a fan of one or the other; much like choosing one sports team to follow, you couldn’t root for both of them.
In 1998, the BSB were offered a chance to perform a one-hour concert on the Disney Channel, but after all that non-stop touring, they said, “No thanks.” That’s when ‘N Sync stepped in instead, and suddenly Pearlman put them on the same pedestal. In fact, he would play the two off of each other, complaining about one to the other and vice versa, like a manipulative middle schooler. As a result, when the two groups were on top of the boy band world, they hated each other.
The BSB released Millennium in 1999, and it was an immediate smash album, selling a record-setting 1.1 million copies its first week. However, the group only received $300,000 vs the $10 million that Pearlman’s record company earned. Meanwhile, the members of ‘N Sync were given measly checks of $10,000 each, even though they had sold a total of 10 million albums by then. Without going into the long, drawn out details, both groups ended up severing ties with Pearlman and a whole lot of litigation ensued. ‘N Sync’s first album post-Pearlman – 1999’s No Strings Attached – more than doubled the sales of their boy band archrivals, selling 2.4 albums, a record that would stand until Adele broke it in 2015.
As the expression goes, “All’s well that ends well.” Once the members of the respective bands began talking to each other, they realized they had a lot in common. Most notably, they had both been completely screwed by Pearlman. They would ultimately have respect for each other, with some of them even appearing in a charity basketball game together and heading off to McDonalds afterwards to vent about their experiences.
‘N Sync went on a temporary “hiatus” in 2002, although it seems to have become permanent as they haven’t released an album or toured together since then. They did perform on the MTV Music Awards in 2013 as part of a tribute to Timberlake, who has had a huge career as a solo artist and in cinema. Meanwhile, the BSB are racking in the dough performing in Larger Than Life, the fastest-selling residency in Las Vegas history. As for Pearlman, in 2008 he was convicted of taking part in a ponzi scheme and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He would die from cardiac arrest in 2016.