Zayn Malik's Solo Plans, One Direction's Future Course: Inside the Band's Sony Contract

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Zayn Malik leaves One Direction in March 2015.

Three days into a four-person tour, two hours after playing to a stadium of 43,000 fans in Jakarta and just eight minutes past ­midnight, One Direction made an announcement that would send millions of teenagers into hysterics. Zayn Malik was leaving the band "to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight," as the singer said in an official statement on March 25.

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Malik's departure didn't come as a complete surprise (he had announced a brief hiatus from the band's current tour on March 19 due to "stress"), nor is it unprecedented (the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys both had members exit at the height of their popularity). But it's a troubling sign that even 1D's record-breaking four-year run may soon come to an end after its current stadium tour (it wraps in the United Kingdom on Oct. 31) and upcoming fifth album (expected in the fourth quarter through Syco/Columbia). It also brings into question Malik's contractual status as one-fifth of the X Factor U.K.-born prefab group.

Richard Griffiths, One Direction's manager at London-based Modest Management, confirms to Billboard that "nothing changes on the tour," which will spend two months and 25 dates in North America starting July 9. That's good news for promoters Live Nation and Creative Artists Agency, as 1D finished 2014 as the top touring act in the world with total gross ticket sales of more than $290 million and attendance of 3,439,560 from 69 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore. Reps for the band and labels Columbia and Syco declined further comment.

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But while ticket sales remain sturdy, the group's chart momentum has slowed since the release of Four last November. Although the set debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (making 1D the only group in the chart's 59-year history to have its first four albums bow in the top slot), it has yet to generate a top 10 hit, with lead single "Steal My Girl" peaking at No. 13 and second single, "Night Changes," petering out at 31 (a label rep says no further single releases are planned at this time). In total, the group has sold 6.5 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music; 2012 debut Up All Night is its biggest at 2 million.

Still, that's a covetable track record -- and Billboard's forthcoming 2015 Money Makers list, an annual compilation of the top earners in U.S. recorded music and touring, will report One Direction at No. 1 for the first time, with a total take of $42 million. That's why Malik's label management team has already positioned him for a future as a solo act: Malik is signed to Syco as a group member and individually. A "leaving member clause" in the band's deal allows the act to continue as a foursome, and it also offers the label the option to pick up Malik's contract as a solo artist.

By Malik's own admission to U.K. newspaper The Sun, a solo career looks to be in the cards and the singer is currently working with British producer Naughty Boy in a London studio.

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The remaining 1D four-piece still owes two more albums to Sony as part of a three-album renewal inked in 2013. Beyond that, "the theory is, because there are fewer members in the group, the label should pay less [of an advance for future work] because they're likely to be less viable," explains attorney Doug Davis, principal at The Davis Firm, whose clients include Lil Jon and Swizz Beatz. "But if Zayn is properly represented, he will negotiate a more substantial solo deal than the percentage he's entitled to as part of a group."

Malik had been withdrawn from the band for months, suffering from what one source calls "terrible anxiety" (for which he allegedly took medication) and dropping out of a key promotional appearance for Four on NBC's Today in Orlando, Fla., in fall 2014. "There have been rumors of substance abuse," hinted Today host Matt Lauer of Malik's illness excuse. Indeed, another source contends, "Zayn wasn't sick when he missed Orlando ... he's had one foot out the door since then." Offers a third, well-placed insider: "He just didn't want to do it anymore."

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But for every short-lived post-boy band solo project (Jordan Knight, Nick Carter, Joe Jonas), there's plenty of success stories (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake) to bode well for Malik's next path. Johnny Wright, who currently manages Timberlake and has worked with Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, The Jonas Brothers and New Kids On The Block at various stages in their respective careers, says, "My advice to him would be always leave an open door with the band, so that there's a time in the future for him to develop and find himself but always leave that door open so that he can come back."

Jayne Collins, the creator and first manager of prefab British group The Wanted, adds, "I don't think Zayn is going to hide under a rock -- I think he'll do his own solo thing. I would imagine he just wants to be in control of his own destiny."

Contributing: Shirley Halperin, Jem Aswad, Richard Smirke

An edited version of the story originally appeared in the April 4th issue of Billboard.