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American Inventions - Game 10, Central Florida

The story of a man who recruited more high school talent to Orlando than George O'Leary ever will.


In our American Inventions series, we discover a famous style of music was that defined in Orlando, Florida. While certainly not as venerated as Memphis blues, the style is unquestionably influential in modern pop music.


Our story begins in New York in the late 1980s. A shuttle flight operator overhears a client, a music manager, that the then-popular group New Kids on the Block was grossing $100 million a year. The flight operator was immediately intrigued, and took an interest in forming his own musical group. As it turned out, he had ignoble reasons for seeking a move and career change.

In June 1992, this ad appeared in the Orlando Sentinel:

"Teen male vocalists: Producer seeks male teen singers that move well between 16-19 years of age. Wanted for New Kids-type singing/dance group. Send photo or bio of any kind."

Our shuttle flight operator relocated to Orlando, where he had a vacation home, and spent the next year auditioning teenaged boys at his hangar in Kissimmee. After months of rehearsals, he started booking appearances and set out to land a record contract.

It should be pointed out that this is completely insane. The man had no music experience, and new music connections beyond his air taxi passengers. His aspirations were reminiscent of Hal P. Warren's boast that any old shmoe could make a movie. Warren did make a movie, but it was the infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Things would go a little better for our former shuttle flight operator. His name was Lou Pearlman, and his group took its name from a popular but short-lived outdoor market near International Drive:

The Backstreet Market.

Pearlman's group was the Backstreet Boys. Most of the members had moved to Orlando to pursue entertainment careers. Which usually ends up like this:

But not in this case. It took a couple years, and they had to get popular in Europe first* - but in 1997 the Backstreet Boys became a massive global success. When they did, the term "boy band" joined the cultural lexicon. To be sure, musical acts of this type had existed before. But Pearlman's creation defined it for the millennium: a carefully controlled image; slick record production; elaborate dance choreography; no pretense of playing instruments, or songwriting, or being anything other than manufactured pop; and a certain combination of personalities. The band's success also proved there was a market for such acts, whereas the original New Kids were seen as a one-off novelty. Especially after their disastrous attempt to go darker and edgier. NKOTB IS HARDCORE, DAWG.

The rest of the music industry set about creating clones. They needn't have bothered, because Pearlman had his next act ready to go: N'Sync. It was similarly molded and polished in Orlando, with two local members: Joey Fatone (Dr. Phillips High School) and Chris Kirkpatrick (Rollins College).

N'Sync hit it just as big in 1998. But the biggest music star of all was the heavy-set, middle-aged, former aviation businessman Lou Pearlman. With two massive hit acts in his stable and others in development, this out-of-nowhere producer was being compared to legendary hitmaker Berry Gordy. And O-town would be the new Motown: Pearlman set up a base of operations in Orlando, with several mansions and an entertainment complex.

But it was over as quickly as it started.

Lou Pearlman's foray into music was all just part of a massive Ponzi scheme.

Before getting into music, Lou Pearlman had raised millions of dollars by soliciting investments in two fraudulent schemes: Trans Continental Airlines, which existed only on paper, and "EISA plans", which are similar to ERISA plans except that ERISA plans exist. Pearlman put some of that money into developing his bands. When the bands became profitable, the proceeds were used to pay off investors in the fraudulent schemes, and other shady businesses from further back.

(Side note: This was one reason Pearlman launched N'Sync while the Backstreet Boys were still at the top of their game. The man who once goggled at New Kids' $100 million take now needed more revenue than one such band could produce.)

Before 1998 even ended, the Backstreet Boys filed a massive lawsuit against Pearlman, alleging that they weren't getting paid. N'Sync soon followed. This seemed like the usual artist-management squabbling over money, but revealed some shocking details: the band members were only making about $12,000 a year, while Pearlman was paying himself as a band member, and otherwise absconding with most of the money. These lawsuits were settled out of court, with the bands winning their freedom but Pearlman retaining a share of their royalties.

All of Pearlman's other acts also sued or left. Subsequent ventures, which included the reality show Breaking the Band and the flop movie Longshot, failed. By the early 2000s, the boy band fad was wearing off. All of this deprived Pearlman of the massive income necessary to keep his Ponzi scheme running. To do so, he leveraged all his possessions to take out bank loans, like when you're losing a game of Monopoly. And just as in Monopoly, that merely delayed the inevitable.

After fleeing the country, Lou Pearlman was finally arrested in 2007. In 2008, he was convicted of bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. (For the whole story, which includes even more sordid accusations, see Vanity Fair's article.)

But Pearlman's influence on pop music can still be felt today. Backstreet Boys are the biggest-selling boy band in history, topping even the Jackson 5. More than a decade later, new groups such as One Direction and The Wanted mimic the style that was created in Orlando. Though we'll understand if the city doesn't put that on its Chamber of Commerce brochure.

* - which means that someone in America can honestly say "I liked the Backstreet Boys before they were famous." And that person is in their 30s now.