Inventing Stardom

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Ask Jacob Underwood of the boy band O-Town what has surprised him most about the music business, and he sighs, "How much of it is business and not music." It's an age-old artist's plaint, but you may wonder how much of a surprise it could have been, given how he came to be here: doing a sound check for a Manhattan party for teen magazine YM. Underwood and his crew found fame through ABC's reality series Making the Band, which showed boy-band architect Lou Pearlman holding auditions and casting O-Town from scratch. The team behind MTV's The Real World captured the group's production, primping, packaging--and, of course, fights with girlfriends. A year, several MTV Total Request Live appearances and a platinum album later, the boys are belting out Liquid Dreams (an almost parodic number about autoerotic fantasies starring celebrities), putting touching sincerity into lines like, "And Salma Hayek brings the re-e-est!"

The O-Towners don't like to think of themselves as TV characters, though they are. But the obvious comparison of Making the Band (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. E.T.; season premiere 8 p.m., April 13) with the '60s' fabricated four The Monkees misses the real difference: Micky Dolenz and his pals relied on an innocent relationship between fans and stars. They were a fantasy the audience gladly bought into: they fought villains and got in slapstick trouble, and no one worried too much about the artifice that created them.

In Making the Band, the artifice--the sound-enhancing wizardry, the dance drills, the media coaching--is the reason for watching. Likewise on the WB's girl-group incubator Popstars and VH1's new Bands on the Run, in which real unsigned bands compete to make the most money on an eight-week tour, the entertainment business becomes entertainment. It's a breed of programming suited to an age when ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY readers and E! watchers are increasingly attuned to the mercantile biz end of show biz. (Is action director Michael Bay over budget? Is Disney chief Michael Eisner the most powerful man in Hollywood?) "Kids today are 10 times more sophisticated about the business than they were even five years ago," says Making the Band executive producer Ken Mok. "People know more about Puffy as an entrepreneur than as an artist. The Wu-Tang Clan is not just about the music. It's about Wu Wear."

Of course, ironic detachment alone doesn't get teenage girls to buy CDs. Making the Band showed O-Town's warts, as the group mangled harmonies and struggled to learn discipline, but it was also a priceless showcase for five cute boys. And Popstars (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. E.T.) went Making the Band one better by not only creating girl group Eden's Crush but also giving it a guaranteed contract on a label owned by the WB's (and TIME's) parent AOL Time Warner. (O-Town was turned down by several labels before signing with J Records, veteran music exec Clive Davis' new endeavor.) Popstars' treatment of the young synergettes makes Making the Band look like a Bill Moyers special; it cheerfully depicts its women as a hungry, hardworking pop juggernaut in leather pants, portraying them with all the hard-nosed pugnaciousness of a Tiger Beat cover. Producers Scott A. Stone and David G. Stanley say there simply hasn't been much fighting or failure to show among the final five members, though Stanley also says, "We sold this as a show that would be relentlessly upbeat."

Which is pretty much exactly what you would want if you were selling the band's music. And it has worked: Eden's Crush's first single, Get Over Yourself, debuted at No. 1 two weeks ago, nearly doubling sales of the No. 2 single, according to SoundScan. (A CD is due May 1.) Not that there hasn't been friction. Shaunda Johnston, who made the group of 10 finalists before being cut, charges that the singers were rushed into signing a stingy contract with little room for negotiation. While none of the parties talks contract specifics, Stone and Stanley counter that they offered "a fair-marketplace agreement for a new artist" and that they helped the finalists find legal representation. Asked if the deal was fair, Maile Misajon of Eden's Crush hesitates: "I would really hate to answer that question. I'd probably go in a direction I don't want to go." Certainly less than sweet deals aren't new (ask any '50s bluesman). But on a show that purports to open the backstage door, why no mention of the signing--certainly one of the most important aspects of a new band's life?

The first season of Making the Band also stinted on such green-eyeshade details (we learn little about O-Town's record deal), but the second season promises a closer focus on business issues--in particular, the guys' decision not to sign a management deal with Pearlman (who had famous contract disputes with Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync).

From the start of Bands on the Run (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), however, money isn't simply the name of the game; it is the game. Four unsigned bands pile into vans and go from city to city playing club dates. At the end, $50,000, a video on VH1, a shot at a record deal and $100,000 in equipment go to the best band--that is, whichever one made the most scratch selling tickets and merchandise. It's good TV--the competition heightens the stress and personality clashes on the road--and a depressing, if true, statement about musical priorities.

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