Meet the Next Wave of Boy Bands: PRETTYMUCH, Why Don't We and CNCO

Eric Michael Roy
Clockwise from top: PRETTYMUCH's Austin Porter, Zion Kuwonu, Nick Mara, Brandon Arreaga and Edwin Honoret photographed on Aug. 14, 2017 at E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles.

During its first televised performance at the Teen Choice Awards on Aug. 13, PRETTYMUCH made a convincing case to be one of the leaders of the next boy band wave. Clad in casual streetwear and exhibiting boyish charm, the quintet glided across the stage in sync, hitting choreographed dance moves to its debut single, “Would You Mind.” The rhythmic pop track wouldn't sound out of place on an early New Kids on the Block album; meanwhile, the homemade signs and excited shrieks from the crowd of teenage girls recalled the fandom captured in the Backstreet Boys’ classic “I Want It That Way” music video.

“The world’s ready for another boy band,” declares PRETTYMUCH’s Edwin Honoret a few days after the performance, relaxing on the rooftop of Los Angeles restaurant E.P. & L.P. next to fellow members Austin Porter, Zion Kuwonu, Nick Mara and Brandon Arreaga. At a moment when solo male artists like Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran are ruling the charts, the late-teens members of PRETTYMUCH -- assembled from across North America, from Ottawa, Ontario, to Corinth, Texas -- are hoping that a group mentality works in their favor. “Think about the teen girl,” Arreaga chimes in. “What’s better than one guy who can sing and dance? Five guys!”

That vocals-plus-choreography combination hasn’t been seen in mainstream pop since the turn of the millennium, when ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys would shimmy toward 1 million-plus albums sold in their first weeks of release. One Direction, which debuted in 2011, remains one of the best-selling acts of this decade, but did so with a more rock-based sound and rejection of stylized dance moves. Following the announcement of 1D’s hiatus in early 2016, however, a gap has opened in the pop landscape for new boy bands to fill -- and groups like PRETTYMUCH, L.A.-based quintet Why Don’t We and Latin group CNCO are each hoping to capitalize with a vintage aesthetic.

“My idea was to go back to different grooves that aren’t on the radio,” says producer-songwriter Savan Kotecha (Ariana Grande, Maroon 5), who is executive-producing PRETTYMUCH’s Columbia debut. A hip-hop-influenced follow-up to “Would You Mind” boasts a French Montana guest spot; another retro-leaning song features a writing credit from Sheeran. “A throwback ’90s sound feels fresh to the kids,” adds Kotecha, “because they weren’t around during that time. But to the parents, it’s like, ‘Wait, I used to listen to that; I like that.’”

Of course, this concept isn’t entirely new. Boy bands have sprouted up every half-decade or so since the rise of groups like New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men in the early ’90s. Because a majority of their fan bases consist of young teens who often outgrow their sound, boy bands tend to reach astronomic heights, own the spotlight for a compressed period, burn out and move on to other endeavors (as the members of One Direction are currently doing).

During the past year, different factions have prepared for the next generation. PRETTYMUCH assembled with oversight from Simon Cowell (who signed 1D to his Syco imprint in 2011) and former Syco president Sonny Takhar; Why Don’t We formed in 2016 and is backed by former AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, partner David Loeffler and Atlantic Records chairman/CEO Craig Kallman; and CNCO came together in December 2015 on reality competition La Banda, which was created by Cowell and produced by Ricky Martin.

“The One Direction era was over, and it was time for the next wave,” says Phillips. “And I wanted to be on top of that.”

Why Don’t We -- which consists of Jonah Marais, Corbyn Besson, Daniel Seavey, Jack Avery and Zach Herron, all solo artists before linking up -- embody a boy band for the vlogger generation, regularly posting videos from the studio and of recorded mashups. YouTube star Logan Paul featured the act on his single “Help Me Help You”; the clip has garnered over 100 million views.

“If you’re just constantly dropping content, the fans love it,” says the group’s Besson. Thus far, Why Don’t We has taken a more-is-more approach to proper releases, with three EPs in the past nine months (the most recent, Why Don’t We Just, peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart). Kallman adds, “When an artist delivers a consistent reveal of who they are, that has its own magnetic appeal.”

Although none of these groups are heard on top 40 radio in the United States, their respective journeys to mainstream success have been steady. With “Would You Mind,” PRETTYMUCH earned 840,000 on-demand streams since July, according to Nielsen Music, while Why Don’t We recently wrapped its first U.S. headlining tour. And CNCO’s debut album, Primera Cita, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart in 2016; single “Reggaetón Lento (Bailemos)” became a Spanish-language smash with over 1 billion YouTube views. The Sony Latin group has yet to hit the Billboard Hot 100, but recently joined forces with U.K. girl group Little Mix for a “Reggaetón Lento” remix.

The boy band industry can be competitive -- five years ago, One Direction battled The Wanted for pop supremacy -- but none of these new groups seem anxious to establish dominance. “The world’s big enough for two boy bands!” exclaims PRETTYMUCH’s Arreaga. “We have our own little lane, and we’re going to cruise.”

This article originally appeared in the Sep. 2 issue of Billboard.