Earlier this month, a friend of mine (Teresa) forwarded me the following thought-provoking article. Following the article are some of my thoughts on the current state of R&B groups.
The Death Of R&B Groups by NPR Staff- August 18, 2011
Rhythm-and-blues groups ruled the airwaves in the 1990s, topping music charts and attracting devotees around the world. En Vogue, TLC, Boyz II Men, and others like them defined the music of the times.
But as the decade ended, so did the popularity of R&B groups. Today, they've largely faded from the charts.
TheRoot.com assistant editor Akoto Ofori-Atta recently wrote about this phenomenon for the news website. She tells Tell Me More guest host Tony Cox that En Vogue's recent concert in Washington, D.C., inspired her to write the article.
"When I was sitting in the audience and I was looking out there, I realized, 'Wow, this doesn't exist anymore.' There are no R&B groups that are currently on the pop charts, and there was something very nostalgic about the moment," Ofori-Atta says. "There was something even a little dated about what I was watching, so I wanted to explore further."
Why Exactly Did R&B Groups Disappear?
Ofori-Atta says the record industry has changed, and it boils down to mathematics. She says bringing a solo artist to market is less expensive than bringing a group to market. For example, hair and makeup for Beyonce Knowles is one thing, but hair and makeup for Knowles plus Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams — members of Destiny's Child — means the cost triples.
She says the 1990s saw boy bands flourish to the extent that many considered the trend nauseating. That might have contributed to public fatigue toward music groups.
Plus, Ofori-Atta says, the advent of social media allows for individuality. Artists can directly interact with audiences on Twitter and Facebook like never before. For example, she says, it's tough to picture Boyz II Men interacting through Twitter as an entity in the same way Rihanna can.
Record labels often look for a leader before signing a group, and that leader was usually the one who broke out to pursue a solo career, Ofori-Atta says. She attributes that observation to Shanti Das, a 20-year veteran in the industry who has worked with Motown.
"I think that record labels, intentionally or unintentionally, groom the breakout star for inevitable solo success," Ofori-Atta says.
Without Groups, What Is R&B Missing?
R&B today is missing harmony — the grand spectacle of hearing four or five people singing different parts together, Ofori-Atta says, adding that these days, people harmonize with themselves by singing multiple octaves of the same verse.
Ofori-Atta says that R&B groups will return when audiences are ready for them; they must want such groups back. She sees promising potential in Ahmir, a group that has attracted phenomenal success on YouTube.
"This is a group of very talented guys," she says. "[Their manager says] they've also had some difficulties getting signed to a major label. But the talent is there — that's not the question. ... They're just waiting their turn. They know things cycle in and out of pop music."
The article makes some excellent points, especially about the economics of promoting a solo artist vs. a group. Another factor which I feel has played a part in the disappearance of R&B groups is what I call the "American Idolization" of pop music. The phenomenally successful Fox reality competition series exclusively features solo singers making their bid for the big time. I think the success of the show (along with some of the unknowns who have competed) has caused record companies to follow suit by focusing on solo pop/R&B singers.
Although the current state of R&B groups is in dire shape, this trend can reverse itself. The NBC reality competition series The Sing-Off (which features solely a cappella groups, some of which are R&B based) returns for an expanded 3rd season on Sept. 19th. If the show is successful, it could play a role in R&B groups coming back into vogue.
Why do you think R&B groups died off after the 1990s? Do you think they will ever make a comeback?
Below is a clip of Ahmir (the R&B quartet mentioned in the article)