One Direction: when boybands stop

Five years into their stratospheric career Harry Styles and the rest of the band are a money-minting jukebox. Their coming ‘hiatus’ – let’s face it, their split – will be a financial earthquake for many in the business


Ever hear of a couple having a “trial separation” and then getting back together to live happily ever after? The news this week that One Direction are taking a “hiatus” next year is a way of letting their fans down gently.

An announcement that the pop super group were definitely breaking up would have distressed young fans and could even have led to a repeat of the situation in the mid 1990s when the Samaritans helpline was flooded with calls from Take That fans distraught at the bombshell that their idols had split up.

In essence One Direction are giving us the “It’s not you, it’s me” line.

When Zayn Malik left the group, in March, reducing the British-Irish act to four – Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson – some youth-support groups and charities called on parents, teachers and employers not to dismiss fans’ feelings of grief and loss.

A boyband are not about the music but about the emotional connection between fan and idol. Trivialise this and you fail to recognise that young fans are perhaps experiencing not just their first sensations of romantic love but also the first stirrings of their sexuality.

To see, and indeed hear, the reaction of a 12-year-old girl at a boyband concert is to witness an all-encompassing passion and desire that can disturb a parent. But it has always been a pivotal part of popular music. The reaction has not changed since Elvis Presley first flicked his pelvis on TV and The Beatles induced “mass hysteria” among their young fans. It will be the same next year, when the next new boyband come off the conveyor belt.

Through the spin cycle

One Direction were always going to break up. There is a time-honoured spin cycle for boybands, and, five years into their career, One Direction are wrung out. The four remaining members are now in their early 20s. Like many a pop act coming up to their best-before date, they have grown tired of their paymasters telling them how to live: what to do, what to wear, how to style their hair, what they can and can’t say to the media.

A boyband’s managers and record labels can even dictate their personal relationships: ideally, all of them should be “available” and “just waiting for the right girl to come along”. As long as she is a paid-up fan.

Peter Quilter wrote the musical Boyband, about the rise and inevitable fall of one such group. “A lot of these guys are young and naive, with very little to say, and they do come across as plastic cut-outs,” he says. “They can be rabbits caught in the headlights. When you ask them a question they just sit there and look pretty and say, ‘I haven’t been told what to say.’ But it’s easy to forget that these are real guys with their own agendas.”

For all the fame and fortune that can come with being part of a boyband, it can be a joyless existence. You have to have a perma-smile, continually thank your “fantastic fans”, never have an opinion about anything, and project that clean-living, romantically available image at all times.

Your serious colleagues despise you, even though you know enough about music, and have enough of an opinion, to resent being ordered to record a Barry Manilow cover as your new single. When Zayn Malik left One Direction it was to make “real music”.

The emotional trauma of his former band’s hiatus is mirrored in the financial trauma of the band stopping for even a year. Their immense personal wealth – each of the four is worth about €20 million – means they will be spared the indignity of appearing on reality-TV shows or ending up in panto, as many of their less successful kind eventually do.

Billion-dollar babies

But the foursome get to keep only a fraction of what One Direction earns overall. Business Insider examined the band’s 2013 figures and found that the biggest revenue stream was from concert tickets: €380 million gross for that year’s world tour.

After adding €250 million then accumulated in record sales, €10 million from DVD sales and €50 million from merchandising, not to mention a series of endorsement deals with Pepsi, Toyota, Nike and Nintendo, among others, the magazine said that One Direction could be the first billion-dollar boyband.

With no new album or new tour in 2016, redundancies could follow at the Syco label and everyone in associated music industries could take a hit, such is the money that One Direction generate. From the makers of the band’s bubble bath to the extra security staff needed to police their shows, the split has financial consequences for a lot of people.

Still, even as we speak, One Direction’s replacements in the boyband market are being fitted out with white suits and instructed in the art of lip-syncing and dancing suggestively. The Osmonds, Menudo, New Kids on the Block, Boyzone, Backstreet Boys, Westlife: all did their years in the teen trenches. The lucky ones stayed out of rehab and made it to the lucrative reunion tour.

Pop never sleeps.

Andy McCluskey, once of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, made the successful transition from being in a credible rock band to writing hits for pop acts. “You can write the most contrived drivel for a boyband and sell millions,” he says, “because teenage girls are in love with the members. They say love is blind. It’s also deaf.” But before you even get to the songs that will be lip-synced by hysterical fans, there are a few requirements.

Although the band is sold as a shiny, lovable package, individual members still need to adopt different personas. You need an out-and-out heart-throb, a cute one (not so good looking but, realistically, more attainable), a goofy joker (usually the first to leave or develop a drink problem) and a shy or serious one, who may or may not be heterosexual.

You are marketing the concept of undying love, not adult sex, so although you can be suggestive you can’t do raunch. You must always be available: wives, girlfriends and groupies need to be hidden away. Bonus points if your heart has already been broken, as every member of the audience will want to believe that they are the ones to mend it.

Drink and drugs “do nothing” for you. You do not vote and have no political opinions. You love your mother, and your favourite colour is that of the eyes of the girl you will eventually marry.

You can never want to “grow as an artist” or “expand your musical horizons”. Tearful piano ballads are your lot from now until doomsday. But the occasional uptempo number will show that you are a fun guy to be with.

Lyrically, you will lean heavily on the words “love”, “heart” and “baby”. Their usage needs to be accompanied by emotive hand gestures, as proof of your sincerity.

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