Blink-182's Back on Top, 98 Degrees Is Hot Again: Behind the Booming Business of '90s Nostalgia

                   

Tara Jacoby

In late 2015, Salt-N-Pepa, still riding a wave of renewed ­attention thanks to a popular 2014 TV ad for Geico car insurance, agreed to do a few dates on the I Love the '90s Tour while juggling work on a planned biopic and a Laverne & Shirley-like sitcom. But the ­summer trek, which started in April with fellow hip-hop throwbacks Kid 'N Play, Vanilla Ice and Coolio, began selling out arenas almost as soon as it was announced, leaving little time for ancillary projects. "When we started doing it, the turnout was insane. It keeps getting more insane," Cheryl "Salt" James, 50, tells Billboard. With more shows added, the group quickly realized, "Everybody wants to go back to that time."

Indeed, it might be 2016, but audiences are pining for the days of AOL and Bill Clinton: Pokemon has returned, in the form of a "Go" smartphone app that suddenly has dominated popular culture; the Spice Girls are plotting a reunion tour and possible album; Bryan Cranston is playing Zordon in a 2017 Power Rangers reboot (reported budget: $120 million); the Guns N' Roses reunion is selling out ­stadiums (Billboard estimates a $100 million tour gross); Blink-182 reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, ­displacing Views by Drake, with 186,000 first-week sales ­(according to Nielsen Music); grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog -- featuring Soundgarden and Pearl Jam members Chris Cornell, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Matt Cameron -- is re-forming for a November tour; and boy bands 98 Degrees and O-Town are headlining the 39-date MY2K Tour, booking venues they only would have half-filled in their ­respective heydays. Says MY2K producer Jared Paul of Faculty Productions: "The shows are at near capacity with five proper sellouts. The response has been amazing."

"It's funny -- in 2005, a lot of these same groups were having a real hard time," offers Deckstar Management's Peter Katsis, who, through the years, has worked with Jane's Addiction, The Smashing Pumpkins, Korn and Backstreet Boys. "All of a sudden, the '90s are back; it's out of control. It is cyclical. It does take a while before people miss these things."

Salt n Pepa

The decade's comeback, in fact, has arrived exactly on time -- the two-decade separation a proven metric of the nostalgia business. "The fans who were 18 to 25 when these artists came out are now 38 to 45 with ­discretionary income wanting to have a good time," says Jeff Epstein, co-owner of Universal Attractions Agency, the New York-based booking agency that ­concocted the I Love the '90s Tour (and first put out its 70s Soul Jam trek 20 years ago).

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Similarly, over time, radio has modified the classic-rock format so Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains have replaced '60s chestnuts. Today, many rock stations tout all-'90s weekends -- Seattle's KISW plays four solid, ratings-spiking days of grunge, Metallica, Megadeth and the odd Sponge song every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. "If your parents thought Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were the loudest, hardest things they ever heard, the next generation thought Nirvana and Soundgarden were the loudest, hardest things they ever heard; over time these things soften up," says Dave Richards, KISW's ­program director and Entercom vp programming. "People fondly remember music and TV from the '90s and there's a great way to package that stuff."

Movie and TV producers along with Madison Avenue are onboard when it comes to ­reappropriating '90s rock. In recent years, Jane's Addiction's "Ocean Size" was the soundtrack to a major T-Mobile campaign, Geico had Wallflowers' "One Headlight,"  while CBS' Zoo spun Soundgarden's "Spoonman" and Orange Is the New Black attached Papa Roach's "Last Resort" to a pivotal scene of inmates hacking up a body and planting the pieces in a prison garden. ""Once 2015 came around, we started getting a lot of synch requests for movies, commercials and TV shows," says Katsis.

Rock's commercial heft, however, paled in comparison to '90s pop, which, thanks to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, broke album sales records with hit singles engineered to last forever. "Those songs are huge. 'I Want It That Way' -- co-written by Max Martin -- is never going to go away," says David McPherson, the former Sony and Jive executive who discovered the Backstreet Boys. "You could go into a dentist's office right now and hear 'Shape of My Heart.'"

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In fact, the year 2000 was the music industry's most profitable ever, and multiple genres were still booming in the era before Napster, MP3s and the Internet ravaged CD sales -- boy bands, hip-hop stars, pop divas and nu-metal bands were setting regular sales records. Max Martin, the Swedish super-producer who built his reputation during that period, continues to work with today's biggest pop stars, from Taylor Swift to Katy Perry, giving contemporary hits a built-in '90s feel. (In his career, Martin has written 64 Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and produced 55.)

Such sustained popularity makes for an easier return, but what of staying power beyond summer 2016? "It used to be, if you're a boy band and your moment ran out, you're done," says Dennis Arfa, agent for Metallica, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart. "It's not the case anymore. Spice Girls still have a career. Others can come back in the same way."

For Nick Lachey, 42, frontman for 98 Degrees, the resurgence is about nostalgia -- recalling a softer time, when "A denial! A denial!" had long since faded into Hootie and the Blowfish, boy bands crooned power ballads and 9/11 was still looming. Lachey's band, O-Town and Dream are headlining MY2K, an amphitheatre tour devoted to the late '90s and early 2000s. "The TRL era, before social media, before the Internet in a big way, [was] the last stand of the old-music regime," Lachey says from Tampa, Florida. "Music has changed so much since then -- MTV is no longer the go-to spot to watch videos. There was a certain innocence that existed then, which maybe we've lost a little bit of now, which is why it's cool to go back and remind ourselves of that time."

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Seasoned manager Janet Billig Rich says that her clients Lisa Loeb and Guided by Voices are going "pedal to the metal" taking advantage of throwback ­opportunities this summer -- Loeb will play the 90sFest with headliners Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Spin Doctors, while GBV tours all summer. "In 2016, 1994 feels like a long time ago," says Billig Rich. "People who were in their 20s in the '90s are grown-ups now, and grown-ups want entertainment."

       Tara Jacoby