A July 29 post on Joey Fatone’s Facebook page said it all: “Who knew we had another album out today? I didn’t! Lol.” Indeed, the most surprised ’N Sync loyalists were the group’s own members: Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Lance Bass, Chris Kirkpatrick and Fatone.
“I was shocked,” Bass tells Billboard about learning Sony/Legacy had quietly released The Essential *NSYNC to Amazon, where the two-disc set — featuring hits “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “Bye Bye Bye” alongside cuts that even Bass “never heard” — swiftly sold out. It landed at No. 25 on the Billboard 200 dated Aug. 16 (and No. 10 on iTunes for the week ending Aug. 4). Bass congratulated his bandmates through texting and “immediately called Sony,” he says. “They were very apologetic: ‘We didn’t know there was a market.’ It surprised them as much as us how great it did.”
The label is under no obligation to inform the act that it’s issuing a best-of (the Essential series, Sony’s most successful product line, takes a deeper dive into an artist’s repertoire), but one might think that RCA would have the courtesy to inform one of its marquee acts. After all, ’N Sync broke records with 2000’s No Strings Attached, moving 2.4 million units in its first week. Of course, times have changed — even since 2005’s Greatest Hits (“I found out about that a couple of days before,” says Bass), which sold 325,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But Essential’s performance — 10,000 units sold — could tarnish a legacy that has been preserved ever so carefully, as witnessed by the group’s choreographed reunion at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
Bass made the most of the awkwardness on social media, tweeting thanks to fans and Instagramming photos of Essential climbing the iTunes charts. But the label isn’t laughing or cheering, it seems, because it turned down multiple requests by Billboard to discuss the compilation’s performance. Meanwhile, an ’N Sync source says Sony “didn’t do any promotion because it won’t lead to a tour or a new record. It’s the label looking for a quick money grab, nothing more.”
To that end, Bass, who expects to receive royalties, and Sony may be, er, in sync: “It’ll be a nice Christmas bonus.”
Billboard: What was your reaction when you saw The Essential *NSYNC had been released?
Lance Bass: I was shocked. That was the first thing: “Wow, okay, I didn’t know that this was happening.” I immediately called Sony/Legacy and they were very apologetic, saying, “Oh my gosh, we would have done this with you guys, we just didn’t know there was a market for this, really, at all.” It surprised them as much as it surprised us how great it did the first week.”
Why do you think they released it if there wasn’t a market for it?
Just like the last album released, the Greatest Hits album, I found out about that a couple of days before. It wasn’t promoted at all and didn’t do anything. I didn’t tweet about about it because I didn’t think people would care, but this time, I loved that they released two CDs. I loved the second CD of stuff we did such a long time ago. I love that they chose songs to showcase that we were a vocal group, which sometimes you forget, talking about a boy band — “Oh wow, they can sing too?” Some of the songs, I wish they would have spoken to us. Like, ugh, no. I wouldn’t have put that on the album.
What songs would you have chosen to leave off?
The number one song on the number one CD, “Here We Go.” That song has always bothered me [laughs]. I was just never in love with that song, and it’s one of the first songs we ever recorded. It’s so dated. I would have added “When You Wish Upon a Star.” We did that for Disney one year, and I love the way the vocals are arranged for the a cappella.
What would you have done differently in terms of the rollout?
We could’ve had so much more fun with our fans. Our fans have been so loyal to us for so long, and they’ve been desperately wanting something from us. After the VMAs last year it really wet their whistle to see ‘N Sync again. We still have a DVD of the Celebrity tour that we’ve never edited, and they’ve been asking for that for 10 years, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to get that done for them. It would’ve been fun to use social media to have fun with it and maybe roll out a few songs before it came out, just to tease it. And get the fans’ opinions on their favorite songs that they would like to see on a compilation.
How did it feel to be topping the iTunes chart with The Essential *NSYNC?
Obviously a lot of terrible things are happening in the world today, a lot of negativity out there — and with the Israel conflict that’s all anyone can talk about, to have some positive, fun thing happen in a week, just see those fans rally behind it and bring it back to their teenage years [was great]. It brought people back to a fun time, an innocent time. I love that we got to provide that for some people, even if it just lasted a week or two. At least it made some people happy.
Fans have been calling for a reunion if it hits No. 1. What are the chances of that happening?
I doubt we would do a tour or anything like that, but now that we see the fans are there, we want to make sure they’re happy. We could play around with some of our old stuff, like we did with this compilation — do some stuff with remixes. Any new material I definitely don’t see happening at all, especially with Justin [Timberlake]. I don’t think he would ever come back to the group.
Chris Kirkpatrick tweeted positively about the record — have you spoken with the other band members about the release?
I talked to everyone about it. We have this group text every other week. It was such a surprise to us. We were like, “Well, congratulations!” Everyone’s been having fun with it. It’s been really funny. It is quite unbelievable.
What did your management say about not being notified? Do you understand that it’s the label’s prerogative to issue a greatest hits collection?
We don’t even have managemnet! That’s probably why we didn’t hear about it. When the label needs to contact us, they contact us directly. We still have our same royalty rates, so it’ll be a nice Christmas bonus for us. I’m not mad at them at all for not telling us. It’s just business and they probably didn’t even think we would care if they released anything. But you know, we care about our fans.
It sold out on Amazon and is expected to debut in the Top 30 — a success, but not on the level of ‘N Sync success. Does that gnaw at you?
Back in the day, selling 2.4 million records in a week, it was a special time. Music history has changed so much with downloads and all that kind of stuff. No one gets physical downloads anymore. It’s still nice to know we can release stuff and that people want to hear it. It’s definitely encouraging to us if we wanted to do new music in the future.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense a year ago when you reunited on the VMAs?
The VMAs would have been great, and next year is our 20th anniversary. I really think record labels never thought there would be a market. They really did not believe people would care. On the flipside of that, it’s like, if you don’t think people care, why release something?
How does it feel to hear songs you’ve never heard before?
It’s so great! It was nice to be reminded of where we came from, and remind the fans of where we came from. Our fans in their 20s and 30s are having kids, and they’re introducing their kids to ‘N Sync, and I love seeing all these videos of little four- and five-year-olds doing the “Bye Bye Bye” dance because the older generation is teaching the younger generation. Pass it forward.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 16, 2014 issue of Billboard Magazine.