Who Killed the R&B Group?
There was a time when vocal groups ruled, from the Temptations to TLC. No more. What happened?
Digital Killed the Group Star
Still, the difficult dynamics of managing a group and the lure of the solo career don't completely explain the current drought of the once all-powerful R&B group. Vocal groups thrived for more than 50 years, despite their long history of in-fighting and messy breakups. So what's changed? What is it about the 21st-century music industry that keeps groups from flourishing?
Part of the problem is the industry itself. Record sales have declined dramatically, so major labels sign fewer artists -- all a casualty of the digital age.
Consider, too, the cost of bringing a pop song to market in 2011. NPR put a price tag on marketing a solo artist to the masses: One song, including advertising, songwriting and producing, costs upwards of $1 million. It's much more expensive to market a song for a vocal group, which explains labels' hesitancy to take on that risk.
"Compared to a solo artist, marketing a group means five airline tickets, five hotel rooms, five outfits, with each artist having their own stylist," Das said. "For female groups, it's even more with hair and makeup. It costs a lot of money."
Or maybe Facebook killed the R&B group. After all, we're living in the me-first era, when the individual uses social media to star in his or her own drama each and every day. Solo musicians can tweet their entire lives, immersing themselves in self-promotion, while fans foam at the mouth, waiting impatiently for their favorite stars' status updates. Groups don't fit well into this framework. After all, can a group tweet as one?
"Society's narcissism is totally a part of the group's decline," said Greg Kot, music critic for the Chicago Tribune. "We're experiencing the ultimate ego trip."
Music in Cycles
In the late '90s, boy bands like Backstreet Boys, N Sync and 98 Degrees re-emerged as pop music's latest obsession -- and completely wore out their welcome. Boy-band fatigue may have turned the public off to groups altogether, but Kot also believes that the disappearance of R&B groups is typical of the cyclical nature of pop music.
"It's true that for any kind of trend on anything that gets overexposed on radio, people will burn out on it," Kot said. "Everything in pop music runs in cycles, nothing is built to last and things come back in new form 15 years later."