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|Patrick Edaburn, editor|
years the Disney Company has gradually expanded itself into a variety of
arenas. Starting as a simple animation studio, they first expanded into
full length animated films, then into live action films.
They found their mark into radio, television and cable. They reinvented the amusement park industry, creating the first true theme parks. After all of this you might wonder where else they could go?
Well, the Disney folk are not the type to sit on their laurels, and they certainly never stop looking for a new place to grow. Music has always been a central focus of everything Disney does, so it was hardly a huge step for them to start looking beyond the Disney segment of the music industry.
They didn't have far too look. Over the decades popular music had always been part of the culture, but by the early to mid 1990's it was growing far beyond any prior standards, with millions of devoted fans, primarily teens, spending literally billions of dollars on everything from CD's and concert tickets to T-shirts and calendars. Many decorated their entire rooms to tribute their favorite group.
For the Disney folks, it was a no-brainer. Millions of teenagers, billions of dollars, and total fanatical devotion. Clearly this was something they needed to be a part of.
The first major step on this path was the beginnings of a series to be broadcast on the Disney cable channel. The idea was to bring in both established and up and coming groups and have them perform at Disney properties.
The group members would be seen touring the parks and riding the rides. They would be shown talking about their success, lives, dreams, etc, and of course they would be shown performing. By tying these groups in with the Disney magic it was hoped a whole new world would open up.
One of the first groups to be featured was N‚Sync. While there is hardly a person around today who has not been inundated with the N‚Sync tidal wave, when they came to Disney, they were just starting out in the USA.
There was a certain sort of synergy to having N‚Sync on Disney, two of the bands members, Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez had gotten their first big break on the 80's version of the Mickey Mouse Club.
Joined by bandmates Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Lance Bass they delivered on of N‚Sync's first public performances at Pleasure Island in Walt Disney World during October 1995. It thus seemed fitting that they were making their first national broadcast courtesy of the mouse.
But before we get to the show, let us begin at the beginning with the origins of N‚Sync.
The Early Days: The Group Comes Together
The origins of N‚Sync can be traced back to late 1994 and early 1995. At the time, 23 year old Chris Kirkpatrick (born October 17, 1971) was working at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Life so far hadn't been particularly kind to Chris, he had grown up poor in the small city of Clarion, Pennsylvania.
His father had died when he was young and his mother had worked hard to support the family. Economics required them to move frequently and by the time Chris hit high school he'd been in more schools than he could count. He had moved to Orlando in part to attend college and in part to try and lift the burden off his mom and with the hope that he could succeed enough to help her out.
When he wasn't working at Universal he attended college where took choir classes (one of his classmates was Howie Dorough, who later joined the Backstreet Boys) and sang in an ultimately unsuccessful musical group. By late 1994 he was ready to try again.
His first contact was with a guy he met through his agent named Justin Timberlake. Born January 31, 1981 Justin was all of 14 years old, but he had an amazing voice and was a show biz veteran. He was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. In love with music from birth he had been encouraged by his family to pursue his talent.
This led to many musical performances in church and school, and eventually to an appearance on Star Search. At the time a country act he came out on staged decked out in what can only be described as an unforgettable outfit (a very very loud shirt and cowboy hat) he sang his country heart out, but sadly he lost.
His loss turned into a win however when he found out that Disney was casting for a new version of the Mickey Mouse Club. Before he knew it Justin had won his mouse ears. For two seasons (1993 and 1994) he joined a group that included future bandmate JC Chasez and future singing stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera as well as TV celebrity Keri Russell.
After the end of MMC Justin and JC worked together for a while in Nashville, trying to continue their recording careers. Then in early 1995 Justin was contacted by Kirkpatrick with the idea of forming a group. Naturally, he suggested that his buddy JC join in the fun.
Chasez was a show biz veteran as well. Born August 8, 1976 in Maryland he was one of the last in the group to start working with his talent. His family was a strong and supportive one, his parents have been married for 25 years and he relished the summer road trips which took him and his family all over the country.
But it wasn't until a friend dared him to enter a talent contest that he flexed his musical muscle. To his surprise he won the contest and found himself the center of attention with both talent scouts and girls (he admits to liking that part). Less that a month after his first performance he was on the Mickey Mouse club, spending four seasons with the mouse.
On the show he bonded, sort of, with the younger Justin. Timberlake admits to sort of adopting JC as an older brother, and was constantly at his side wanting to be just like him. Chasez is politely quiet about whether or not his young friend was too annoying, but we can guess that there was at least some friction.
Once MMC wrapped production, JC decided to try his luck in California, and he headed to LA with dreams of success and stardom. As anyone who has had any involvement with the LA industry will tell you, his dreams were soon crushed and he found himself a little bit wiser about the way Hollywood works.
On his way home he stopped off in Tennessee to visit Justin and spent some time with him working on music before heading back to Maryland. When he returned to Tennessee to try his luck again, Timberlake and Kirkpatrick were waiting.
There were now three in the group and as they got together in Orlando the key was rounding out the group with at least one, preferably two more members.
It didn't take them long to find the first new recruit. Relaxing at Disney's Pleasure Island one evening, they found a wild-haired dancer / singer named Joey Fatone. Kirkpatrick and Fatone had worked together at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios (Joey played Pluto, among others). Soon the group of three had grown to four.
Fatone was born January 29, 1976 in Brooklyn, New York. When he was a teenager his family headed for Orlando and he began to expand his musical horizons. Fatone's father (Also named Joey, our musician is actually a Jr.) had been a member of a doo wop group during the 50's and encouraged his son's musical dreams. Soon Fatone was working at Disney and Universal Studios. He was still looking for his big break when he ran into Kirkpatrick, Chasez and Timberlake.
By this time Kirkpatrick had secured funding for his group though a man named Lou Pearlman. Pearlman had made one fortune in the aviation industry and was now looking to a second with music. He had already started the very successful Backstreet Boys and now wanted a second group.
The guys were more than happy to sign up with Pearlman (a move they would later regret), but they knew the group wasn't complete. Timberlake and Kirkpatrick were both talented tenors who could deliver the high notes, Chasez provided a strong power voice for the group and Fatone was able to do a little of both. But the group lacked a solid bass voice, and without it the harmonies were not nearly as rich as they hoped.
For a time the group worked with a mystery man named Jason, but he didn't work out and has subsequently dropped out of sight. The search ended when Timberlake's formal vocal coach suggested a blond haired bass from Mississippi named (strangely enough) Lance Bass.
Bass was born May 4, 1979 in Laurel, Mississippi. From the start it was clear that he had talent. His supportive family encouraged him to pursue his talent. He began with performances in school and church, frequently impressing his friends with his musical talent.
While Bass might have preferred to spend more time playing sports (he admits to being a high school jock) he also enjoyed music. Soon he was touring the state with a group called the Mississippi Show Stoppers, and Lance was often a featured performer.
Lance also lent his musical talents to assist his uncle, a photographer. He would dress up as a dog named Poofoo and help entertain the kids. While helping out kids is a pretty nice thing to do, they job was somewhat embarrassing and it remains a sore spot with Bass.
Although he had been singing and touring from a young age, Lance never figured he would make it a career, opportunities like that just don't show up in Mississippi. He made plans to pursue his other dream, that of being an astronaut.
But then came the call from Timberlake. Bass flew to Orlando and the minute the other 4 heard him sing, the search was over and the group was complete.
Now all they had to do was succeed.
Starting Out and Hitting The Road
The guys from N'Sync had a pretty solid Disney background. Two of them had worked at the parks and two had been featured on the Mickey Mouse Club. It thus seemed fitting that one of their first public performances was at Pleasure Island in Walt Disney World.
The guys had made a few minor appearances at other locations (including Lance's high school) but the first big public show came in October 1995 at Pleasure Island at Walt Disney World.
While they were getting more spending hours rehearsing in the hot Florida sun their management was laying the groundwork for the future. The concert in Orlando was filmed as a promotional video and sent to recording companies. After a few false starts BMG music in Germany signed them up in early 1996.
Most of 1996 was a blur to the guys as they worked to perfect their singing and dancing skills as well as preparing to record their debut single: I Want You Back.
The single and it's companion music video were released in Germany and Europe in general during late 1996 and early 1997 to rave reviews. Within a matter of months they were one of the hottest groups in Europe.
Europe had always been more receptive to pop music, the Backstreet Boys had done well there, and so it was decided to follow up on the album release with a tour of Europe and a second single. Considering that they hadn't even released a full album the reception was pretty good.
In May 1997 their self titled debut CD was released in Germany and soon spread to the rest of Europe. Throughout the rest of the year things seemed to be blessed for the boys from Orlando as they won award after award including best new pop group at the European Music awards in late 1997. Once again Disney was there to help, with the boys making frequent appearances on Disney's European programs.
Obviously everyone was thrilled with the success, but success wasn't complete. While they were something akin to a mini version of the Beatles in Europe, nobody in the US knew who they were. While this did allow them the ability to relax between tours, it still was frustrated to not have succeeded at home. So plans were laid for N'Sync to conquer the US market.
Coming to America
In December 1997 the first step was taken on the road to success at home with another WDW appearance, this time at the House of Blues. Another performance quickly followed at Pleasure Island in January 1998.
During both shows, the reception from the crowd was good and they were happy to finally be able to show friends and family what they had been doing for the last couple of years.
Around the same time the single 'I Want You Back' made it's way to radio stations in North America and it was soon one of the top requests. The guys made the rounds of the media circuit, and became regulars on MTV.
By the time their North American debut album (slightly different than the European debut a year earlier) made it's way into stores in March 1998 N‚Sync was well on their way to fame in North America.
Less than one month after the release of their album in Canada, it was given platinum status! Less than six months after it's release it became double-platinum in the USA, and quadruple-platinum in Canada.
But they still weren't getting the kind of success they had hoped for. They had loyal fans but they seemed to be just one of dozens of pop type groups, and there was no guarantee that they wouldn't end up like many flash in the pans before them.
Hello From Mickey Mouse
It was now that the Disney company came back to work with the guys. They had debuted a new program called In Concert a few months earlier, and it had met with some success, but Disney wanted to hook up with the hot teen market. It was a perfect match, N‚Sync needed exposure and Disney wanted a hook for the teen market.
N‚Sync had made an appearance at Disney MGM Studios during May 1998 and the Disney executives were impressed with the huge crowds which flooded the park (and swelled Disney admission receipts).
The N‚Sync In Concert special debuted in July 1998. It included performances from the group as well as an inside look at each of them. They were shown touring the parks with family members and having fun. This touring aspect also helped Disney promote the new Animal Kingdom theme park, which had opened a few months earlier.
Another feature of the program was an in depth look at each of the guys. They were shown together discussing how they got started and they were also shown individually discussing their ambitions as well as their take on their bandmates.
The program was repeated throughout the summer and gave N‚Sync major exposure. For the first time fans were able to really get an in depth look at the group and it gave them a real connection with N‚Sync. The guys sought to amplify this feeling by remaining as receptive as possible to fans (one part of the concert special showed them meeting fans while the tour bus was stopped for gas).
Disney also benefited greatly from the show. Ratings for even the repeats of the concert were among the best of any Disney Channel program. In addition, the exposure the show gave the park was credited with encouraging visits. As amazing as it seemed to Disney executives, many N‚Sync fans made trips down to WDW just to see where the guys had been.
Teens are traditionally a tougher market for Disney parks. They are in between the age of kids who love Disney and adults who enjoy the release from the real world. It's not considered cool to go to amusement parks. But N‚Sync helped to change that a little bit, at least for their fans.
Meanwhile N‚Sync was riding high. Throughout 1998 they made public appearances, promoted the album and laid plans for tours in 1999.
But Disney wasn't done with them yet. They had liked the impact of the July concert, and had followed it up with several more shows. By the time they were preparing the 1998 Christmas parade it seemed fitting that they should bring N‚Sync back to Orlando. The 1998 and 1999 Christmas parades featuring N‚Sync and other pop groups were among the highest rated in many years.
Meanwhile N‚Sync was ready to head out on two highly successful tour during 1999. Along the way they continued to work with Disney. In February they made a guest appearance on the ABC TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and later in the spring they worked with Phil Collins to record part of the Tarzan soundtrack.
When Tarzan premiered in summer 1999 the guys were on hand for a June TV special promoting the movie and that August they once again put in a Disney concert performance for the Disney Summer Jams concert program on ABC.
By the time they hit the MTV music awards in September 1999 it seemed that nothing could stop them. Plans were set for the release of a second US album in fall 1999 to be followed up by a world tour in 2000. But trouble was on the horizon.
For some time the guys had been a bit concerned about the contracts they had with BMG Music, Lou Pearlman and Pearlman's Transcontinental management company. It seemed that despite all of the success they weren't seeing much return.
For example, when Chris asked about some money to get a nicer apartment he was told that he still owed the management company money. Considering the huge record and merchandising sales of the previous few years he couldn't understand it. The rest of the group was also concerned, so in the summer of 1999 Bass suggested that they have JC's uncle, an attorney, look over the contracts.
What he found was very disturbing. While the talent traditionally gets the dirty end of the stick in most contracts, Pearlman had taken the process to a new level.
It is normal for a manager to take a huge chunk of the pie right off the top, and this is exactly what Pearlman did. But then he took a second step, making himself in essence the sixth member of N‚Sync. In essence he took his cut, and then took an additional 1/6 of what was left.
As a result Pearlman took 50% of all recording royalties and 100% of all advances, plus a further 25% of recording income as management commission. He also cut himself a similarly large slice of N‚Sync's touring pie as well. This left the guys with practically nothing and the prospect of working hard for little more.
But the case was beyond money. The management company also was mistreating, some would allege abusing, the guys. At one point Lance Bass became ill, but he was forced to continue touring and performing. As a result he ended up in the hospital with severe exhaustion. The management people never showed any concern, they simply pressured him to get out of the hospital as soon as possible.
The guys also felt blocked artistically. They had been labeled as a boy-band, a fluff pop group, and judging from some of the material they were forced to use, they could hardly argue. It wasn't that they had a problem with love songs and light pop, but they wanted to expand their horizons a bit.
With all of this the guys decided to make a major move. They began quiet discussions with Jive, a record label which had previously signed groups like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
On September 9, 1999 they announced they were jumping labels, leaving BMG, RCA, Transcon and Lou behind. Needless to say, none of the jilted suitors were very happy with N‚Sync's departure.
Soon lawyers were involved, so of course everything was messed up beyond belief. Lawsuit piled upon lawsuit and things looked grim indeed. The boys were faced with a $ 150 million lawsuit and a possible injunction blocking them from performing. If the lawsuit stretched out too long they could find the fan base headed to other groups.
Luckily for everyone involved there was simply too much money involved for everyone to let the fight drag out. The guys won a major legal victory when the threatened injunction was denied by the courts.
The denial of the injunction left Pearlman and company in a bind. They wanted to get what the thought their due, but they also had to recognize the bigger picture. If the lawsuit drug on with N‚Sync able to tour and make public appearances, then they could generate strong public sympathy.
The last thing a record label and a pop group promoter wanted was for tens of millions of potential customers to be alienated from any future musical releases. They were thus inspired to settle.
Lance, Justin, Joey, JC and Chris also wanted to settle things so they could move forward. While they felt strongly about the issues that had led to the break the money wasn't as big of an issue, so they were open to a reasonable settlement as long as it didn't bind them artistically. By December 1999 the lawsuit was settled and plans moved forward for the Spring 2000 release of No String Attached (the 2nd US release) and the corresponding world tour.
During the spring the guys took time to explore other venues. Justin made a TV movie for ABC (on the Wonderful World of Disney) while Lance did a guest spot on Seventh Heaven.
All of the guys started working on other business projects as well. Lance started a production company, Justin set up a non profit foundation to help fund school music programs, JC worked with several other artists as a producer, Joey worked on an acting book with a former teacher and Chris started a clothing line.
But the key was always music and in March 2000 they finally released NSA almost exactly 2 years after the first US release. They expected the release to do well, they even had hoped of beating the record for the best first week sales (1.1 million sales set by Backstreet Boys in 1999).
But nobody imagined what would really happen. They didn't beat the old record in 1 week, they beat it in 1 day. By the time the week was over they had sold nearly 2.5 million albums, an amazing record. They continued to sell huge amounts of CD's, remaining in the #1 spot for nearly 2 months. The US tour was equally successful, selling out in a matter of hours.
Disney was ready to capitalize on this success, re-airing the 1998 concert special several times during 1999 and 2000, while discussing the possibility of several more shows in the next year.
It has been a long road for the guys from Orlando, and it has been in no small part due to Disney. Flush from the success they had with N‚Sync, Disney has begun promoting a number of new artists and has continued the highly successful In Concert series.
I know that this column is a tad different than many of the others. It's connection to Disney may seem a bit looser than most.
But the purpose of this site is to keep us all up to date on everything Disney. In the coming years I suspect that this segment of Disney will grow to immense proportions.
In addition, I hope that these columns will be helpful in introducing these groups.
Part of the Disney magic is family, and I would like to think that these columns will help to guide parents and their children in yet another family activity.
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