Literature Society: Lou Pearlman's Brands, Bands and Billions: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum
When he published the memoir/business manual Bands, Brands & Billions: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum in 2003, disgraced boy band Svengali Louis J. Pearlman was decades into running one of the longest, most lucrative and notorious Ponzi schemes in American history.
He was only three years away from getting arrested in Indonesia after going on the lam under the clever fake name A. Incognito Johnson and only thirteen years away from dying in prison as one of the most reviled and notorious figures in the history of American popular music, a field not exactly lacking for scoundrels.
If anyone’s life should not have been an open book, it was Pealman in the early aughts. Before reading Pearlman’s loving tribute to his own greatness, I wondered what on earth could have possibly moved a man with everything to lose, and everything to hide, and everything to be ashamed of, to write a book about his life, but more specifically about his businesses, the vast majority of which were crooked and/or non-existent?
Why would you release a book promising to give aspiring moguls the secret to your success when your “success” is predicated on robbing investors and employees and family member out of hundreds of millions of dollars utilizing a seemingly endless series of bogus companies and fraudulent schemes, many blimp-related?
The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with Pearlman being a crazed narcissist but also a sociopath and relentless self-promoter. Pearlman simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend an entire book bragging about his wealth, success and generosity. Even better, he could charge wannabe moguls 24.95 for the privilege.
Besides, despite what Pearlman claims in the book, by 2003 Lou Pearlman had undeniably peaked as a musical force and was deep into a steep professional slide that would end with his arrest, imprisonment and death. Pearlman’s two cash cows—Backstreet Boys and *N’SYNC—sued to get out of their contracts. Diddy had taken over Making the Band after a first season where Lou Pearlman discovered O-Town. Pearlman’s 20 million dollar teen movie/vanity project Longshot had gone direct-to-video, a move he has the brass balls to depict here as a deliberate, savvy move to escape the tyranny of teenybopper-hating critics (who he holds single-handedly responsible for sinking movies like the Lance Bass vehicle On the Line, as if 12-year-old girls obsessed with Backstreet Boys were disproportionately influenced by reviews in The New Yorker or Time) and reach his audience directly.
Bands, Brands & Billions: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum afforded Pearlman an opportunity to try to change the narrative regarding his life as an unlikely musical mogul. He could portray himself not as he actually was—a career criminal desperately trying to recreate his earlier musical success and stay one step ahead of Johnny Law for his many, many, many, crimes, only some of them musical in nature—but as he wanted to be seen, as a big shot, a macher, a Jewish Berry Gordy Jr., beloved by his employees, investors and artists because of his Midas touch and Santa Claus-like generosity. In Bands, Brands & Billions, Pearlman isn’t just a great, great businessman. He’s also a great guy! Maybe the best!
Sure enough, the book opens on a note of supreme triumph for the beefy entrepreneur, or rather a note of faux-triumph. He’s at the 2001 Super Bowl and everywhere he looks he’s reminded of his incredible successes. As he writes at the beginning of his epic exercise in auto-fellatio, “The Bud blimp is now operated by another company, but that didn’t stop the boys from Budweiser at the Super Bowl from saying, “Look up! It’s Lou’s blimps! Look down! It’s Lou’s bands! He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”
Ah but it wasn’t just the blimps floating above the stadium that now belonged to someone else. That was equally true of “Lou’s” acts performing at the big game. The lawyers for Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC made sure of that. In fact, the biggest-selling album of 2000 was a giant fuck you to Lou Pearlman from *NSYNC called No Strings Attached (in case Lou didn’t get the message, the big single was the tellingly and pointedly titled “Bye, Bye, Bye”), yet Pearlman has the audacity to watch the bands with a paternal sense of pride, and even a sense of ownership despite knowing the true nature of their relationship, personal and professional.
Pearlman returns over and over again to the Super Bowl as a moment of ultimate victory, yet the truth of the matter is that Lou wasn’t anywhere. Those blimps floating above the stadium sure didn’t belong to Lou. Neither did the acts singing the National Anthem (Backstreet Boys) or performing the half-time show (*NSYNC and Britney Spears, who was briefly part of a Pearlman-managed girl group named Innosense).
Then again, Perlman was never one to let facts get in the way of a self-aggrandizing story. If you’re going to lie, you might as well lie big, and Bands, Brands & Billions: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum is full of doozies. A man who never actually owned many blimps brags about having “the world’s largest blimp business.” Later, Pearlman professes to have made “my first $1 million right after I turned 21” and “my first 400 million by the time I was 35.”
Neither is remotely true, of course, but boy does it look good on paper! A man who legitimately made nearly half a billion dollars before hitting his mid-thirties wouldn’t need to engage in fraud and embezzling on a historic scale, but Pearlman sure did.
Pearlman depicts himself as a born “helium head” (blimp aficionado) and lovable, endlessly enthusiastic dreamer with an innate genius for business who conquered the world of blimps and charter airlines at an early age before a group Pearlman had never heard of called New Kids on the Block rented one of his planes for 250,000 dollars in cash.
Pearlman was blown away that these kids could afford something so expensive. Sensing a hole in the market that he could fill, Pearlman, set about creating a new, improved New Kids on the Block, first with Backstreet Boys, and then with *NSYNC and then an endless series of lesser copycats, including Natural, which Pearlman pimps relentlessly here because they were one of the only acts by that point that had not split acrimoniously from the notorious embezzler and star-maker.
Pearlman, with the assistance of ghostwriter Wes Smith, make Brands, Bands and Billions a deeply unearned book-length victory lap/literary infomercial for Pearlman’s various businesses (some of which actually existed!) written in an indefatigably peppy, upbeat manner festooned with terrible dad jokes, groaning pop culture references and lots of exclamation points to really drive home just how excited Pearlman is to be a fabulously successful, deeply moral, totally heterosexual (he even references having a girlfriend at one point) dream-maker and mogul.
It’s also full of observations about the music biz that would only make sense to people who know nothing about pop culture. One of the book’s most fascinatingly insane passages involves Pearlman delineating the characteristics of the four primary groups of teen consumers, Pearlman writes,
“After studying the teen consumer market—including reports from the US Census, the Gallup Poll, and newspaper accounts of research done on my target audience—I figured this market was one I could bank on. Our primary audience was teenaged girls between the ages of 12 and 19. Specifically, our strategic bull’s eye was those teen girls from a group I call the “Mainstreamers.” Researchers characterize these teens as mainstream kids who make up 49 percent of the teen market. They are profiled as “normal,” sociable teens who have large group of friends, love to shop at malls; participate in school activities; follow fashion trends; and wear Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy, Lee, Fila, Guess, American Eagle, I.E.I, and Gap clothing and Claire Accessories.”
This is in sharp contrast to a group Pearlman dubs “Individualists.” Here’s how Perlman describes their salient characteristics: “This group, which is said to represent about 21 percent of teens, a predominantly male group that includes brainier kids, the class clowns, artistic kids and others who are not as focused on socializing or following trends of any kind.”
Wow, that sounds pretty badass. What do these brainiacs, geeks, cut-ups and defiant rebels wear and listen to? How do they express their rugged individuality and belief in personal expression? Thankfully Poppa Lou’s got the scoop and is willing to share it: “They tend to wear fashions by Levi, Lee, Wrangler, Arizona, Nike, and Adidas. Their musical tastes to run to Janet Jackson, LeAnne Rimes, Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind and Barenaked Ladies. Some are also sports fans but not so much participants.”
Wow! It’s amazing that reports from the US Census, the Gallup Poll, and newspaper accounts of research done on Pearlman’s target audience could be so almost disconcertingly accurate. Of course, a Pearlman group could never be, should never be edgy and punk and in your face enough to appeal to the kind of radical individualists who listen to Matchbox Twenty, Leanne Rimes, Janet Jackson and Barenaked Ladies, but he could nevertheless tap into this lucrative and hard to understand market with a “more introspective” boy band member for the Individualists. It’s hard to believe that a man with this uncanny of a grasp on popular music could have experienced such a dramatic downfall.
Very late in the book we’re treated to another fascinatingly random combination of big, small and unlikely names when Pearlman dreams out loud about Church Street Station, a giant entertainment Mecca in Orlando he’s setting up as the headquarters of his business Trans Continental (how perfect that “Con” is literally in the middle of his company’s name) as well as a tourist attraction.
Pearlman writes, “My dream is to have my friends in the entertainment business serve as guest lecturers so that our visitors could get “real life” tips from people like Howie D and Justin Timberlake from *NSYNC, Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys, Mandy Moore, Kenny Rogers, Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, Carrot Top, Gilbert Gottfried, Jose Feliciano, the members of Natural, my “cuz” Art Garfunkel and others we work with.”
Sadly, Pearlman’s dream of a teenybopper utopia where “Professors” like Top, Gottfried and Starr would share their wisdom and life experiences with excited tourists never came to fruition, nor did most of the big plans and schemes he shamelessly promotes here.
Speaking of Timberlake, who later accused Perlman of “financial rape”, Pearlman doesn’t really address his falling out with Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC until the very end of the book. By that point, presumably, he imagines that readers will be so wowed not just by Pearlman’s uncanny business genius but also his boundless generosity and purity of spirit that they’ll believe any old line of hokum he has to offer.
In this chapter, Papa Lou’s mask of guileless, child-like enthusiasm begins to slip and he grows uncharacteristically defensive and angry. Not at the members of *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys, of course. In Pearlman’s telling, they’re all deeply appreciative of everything he’s done to make them stars, but rather the evil, parasitic, and worst of all, greedy (the only thing Saint Pearlman hates more than greed here is dishonesty) lawyers and relatives out to break up Poppa Lou’s happy family by manipulating and tricking Pearlman’s “boys” into thinking they’ve somehow been treated unfairly.
Here’s Big Poppa on his professional “guilt”: “Yes I’m guilty of making a profit after taking a huge risk. And I’m guilty of making multimillionaires out of a bunch of young singers too! I don’t think that makes me a bad person, but it has made me the target of money-hungry people and their lawyers.”
Working himself up into a frothing fit of outrage over the ingratitude of his proteges and the evils of the, um, teenybopper press, he rages, “It’s crazy when you think about it. I’ve seen all sorts of nasty lies and terrible things written about me because of lawsuits. Yet I’ve never lost a major one and most have been settled amicably out of court. The teen fan magazines and the kids on the internet don’t do in-depth reporting, so they often don’t understand what lawsuits are really about. When the really serious journalism like those at 60 Minutes, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others, did stories about my dealings with Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, they found that I’m an ethical businessman who tries to do the right thing.”
Brands, Bands and Billions is full of advice that Pearlman himself should have taken to heart, like when he advises readers, “If you want to avoid public scrutiny and frequent lawsuits, stay out of the music business.”
Here’s another gem that could have kept Perlman out of trouble, had he only followed his own sage counsel: “My best advice to you is to know the law, stay within it, and treat people fairly.”
The surreally unself-conscious Pearlman pepper his rapturous ode to self with unintentionally hilarious whoppers like, “I value my reputation as a good and fair businessman”, “My associates often give me a hard time for being “too nice” in negotiations and deal-making because of my emphasis on relationships.” and, on the book’s final page, this surreal mischaracterization of his life’s work: “When you help people as a way of life, they tend to pass it on. That is the greatest thing about what I do.”
Pearlman, like Donald Trump, whose The Art of the Deal is clearly the template for Pearlman’s 252 page advertisement for himself and his various businesses, makes a big show of pretending not to care about money, writing, “You probably noticed that there is no mention of money in my top ten reasons for being an entrepreneur. Money isn’t the prize for entrepreneurs, it’s just a great way to keep score. Having money beats not having it, but that’s not what it’s about.”
Continuing upon this theme, he scolds readers, “If your goal as an entrepreneur is a 160,000 dollar Ferrari or a vacation house in Aspen,you have the wrong goal and your business ventures will probably fail until you change it.”
Pearlman’s bizarre vanity project is weirdly moralistic in its take on capitalism. The corpulent career criminal depicts the free market as an inherently moral and kind realm where pure-hearted dreamers with the right values like himself, who only want to help others achieve their dreams and bring joy and fun and excitement to the world are rewarded by the Great Gods of commerce with money and power and opportunities. But entrepreneurs who don’t have the moral purity of Pearlman, and who aren’t into business for the right reasons and allow greed and self-interest to cloud their judgment will undoubtedly fail, and fail hard, because capitalism has no place for amoral opportunists, just kindly, big-hearted dreamers like the author.
Pearlman inadvertently ends up damning himself when he writes, “My idea of hell would be to know that I’d have to face elderly aunts and uncles who’ve had to go on welfare because they believed in me and I let them down. I couldn’t live with that. I’d move to a remote desert island rather than face that.”
Alas, when the uncles and aunts whose life savings had been wiped out by Pearlman’s various criminal schemes angrily confronted Pearlman in court on his day of reckoning, he did not have the luxury of moving to a remote desert island. Nope, his next stop was jail, where he died a pariah, a scoundrel, a world-class thief, Bernie Madoff minus the class and with an unfortunate habit of fondling the abs of his teenaged proteges as a means of “aligning their auras.”
The next step after that, I would imagine, would be the fiery bowels of hell, where Perlman would undoubtedly immediately set about trying to negotiate a series of one-sided deals with the Anti-Christ. Not even death and damnation, I fear, could stop a force as ferocious and all-consuming as Pearlman’s hustle and bottomless capacity for self-delusion.
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Want to read more about Pearlman? Of course you do. So check out the first part in our two-part series on books chronicling the man's life and times/crimes, The Hit Charade: https://www.nathanrabin.com/happy-place/2018/2/21/literature-society-the-hit-charade-lou-pearlman-boy-bands-and-the-biggest-ponzi-scheme-in-us-history