Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 100 greatest songs of 2000, we’re writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we flash back to late March of that year, when one of the biggest groups in pop music released their much-anticipated sophomore album — and set a record-breaking mark for runaway success that stood for 15 years to come.
Twenty years ago, pop heartthrobs *NSYNC set an industry standard with their sophomore album, No Strings Attached. The LP sold a whopping 2.4 million copies in its first week in March 2000, doubling the record their boy band contemporaries the Backstreet Boys had set the year before with their own blockbuster sophomore effort, Millennium.
For *NSYNC, the timing of their second full-length release couldn’t have seemed more perfect: Big pop acts were beginning to take over the music industry, with the prior few years seeing the rise of boy bands, as well as teenage darlings Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. CD sales were at an all-time high, as artists of all genres (Dixie Chicks, Kid Rock, Santana) were reaching diamond status around the turn of the century; meanwhile, MTV’s Total Request Live was at its peak, giving those young stars a platform to connect with fans (and promote the hell out of whatever project was coming next).
But while the scene was set for *NSYNC, the new millennium marked a period of uncertainty for the group, as they were coming off of a highly publicized legal battle with their initial label, Trans Continental/RCA Records, and now-disgraced mogul Lou Pearlman. The fivesome — Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick and Justin Timberlake — sued Pearlman for defrauding, nearly losing their group name (and $150 million) before a judge ruled in their favor in November 1999. The decision allowed *NSYNC to sign with Jive Records, an independent label that was home to Spears and, ironically, the Backstreet Boys.
Though the signing may have felt risky to fans, it was actually the smartest move *NSYNC could’ve made. They were now with the label that knew exactly how to market a huge pop album in a landscape where the audience was clearly ready for more. The *NSYNC guys weren’t sure what their fan base was going to look like post-legal battle and signing with their “rival” label, but those at Jive knew the magic they had with No Strings Attached.
“It was a marketing dream come true,” Barry Weiss, who was running Jive at the time (he’s now co-founder of independent label RECORDS), says of NSA. “It set the course for word-of-mouth, fan engagement, direct-to-fan [marketing]. It was sort of like a social media explosion without social media, driven by mainstream news and brick-and-mortar publicity. It was the culmination of the pop explosion.”
No Strings Attached also marked the beginning of the downward spiral of album sales, though, as MP3-sharing website Napster ignited the early days of file-sharing and subsequently burst the big pop sales bubble. And while their fellow pop heavyweights came out strong in their first weeks over the next year (Spears’ Oops… I Did It Again sold 1.3 million; BSB’s Black & Blue earned 1.59 mil; Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP bested both with 1.76 mil), *NSYNC’s 2.4 million first-week feat proved untouchable, even by the group themselves — their third LP, 2001’s Celebrity, couldn’t quite crack the 2 million mark in its first week, selling 1.88 million units — until a one-of-a-kind pop phenom demolished it in 2015.
Below, Weiss and his former Jive colleagues Tom Carrabba (senior VP of sales and marketing and general manager) and Janet Kleinbaum (VP of artist marketing), *NSYNC’s former manager Johnny Wright, then-MTV News editor-in-chief Michael Alex, then-Trans World Entertainment buyer Mark Hudson and *NSYNC’s own JC Chasez break down how No Strings Attached landed such a historic sales week — one that only Adele could break.
“The marketing campaign was the lawsuit.”
Johnny Wright: One year before this album came out, we had recorded the song “Bye Bye Bye”; it was one of two songs that we had done with [Swedish pop superproducer] Max Martin and his team. At that point, Max and his team were kind of in a quagmire, because they didn’t know what was going to happen [with the lawsuit] and they really didn’t want to let us have songs [they had written for us].
We had an opportunity for a TV show called the Radio Music Awards, so I pleaded with Max and his team, like, “Look, this could be the final time that the fans see the group. If we lose this lawsuit, let us perform the song — no harm, no foul.” But in the back of my mind, I knew if we performed it, it would be etched in the fans minds as our song. So over the course of this court battle, people were replaying the performance. Fan base strength started growing, and this was kind of like the flagship song as everybody was getting news on the court battle from MTV.
Barry Weiss: [The album] was delayed multiple times [because of the lawsuit]. The delays led to the build up of anticipation for the album. It was kind of gasoline on fire: They had come off a 10 million-selling album [1998’s N’Sync], and they had bumped this album for six to nine months — the release date was publicized and moved back numerous times, which actually heightened the anticipation for the album. Ultimately, the marketing campaign was the lawsuit. It was the best publicity we could have had.
Wright: As soon as they won the rights to their name and we said that we are signing with Jive and we’re going to put an album out, people wanted to see, “What are they going to do? What are they going to say? We already heard this ‘Bye Bye Bye’ record that we can’t buy right now, but we want that.”
JC Chasez: We literally thought our [career was] ending, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. We’d been given a second opportunity as a band. We were very enthusiastic, but also under an incredible amount of pressure to get this thing out, because we were afraid we were going to be forgotten. I know that sounds silly to some people, but at the time, when you’ve been told so many things by people who had status and positions of power — we were genuinely worried.
Wright: Our biggest fear was [that *NSYNC was] out of sight, out of mind. And that if we won our name and we were coming back, would they even care? Because [fans] had the opportunity to flip to the Backstreet Boys, and the Backstreet Boys had just come off of selling a million records in the first week.
“‘Backstreet Boys sold a million records in the first week… how do we do that?’”
Janet Kleinbaum: There was a lot of worry that there would be too much competition between Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and we wouldn’t be able to handle it. But in fact that wasn’t true — we knew exactly what needed to get done, and we were able to identify the uniqueness in each group and, and work with them that way.
Tom Carrabba: We had history with the Backstreet Boys, and we had our finger on the pulse on the pop audience. We anticipated we’d probably be doing the same as the Backstreet Boys’ [first week], like 1.2, 1.3 million. Retail knew that there was pent-up demand for a boy group, so it was a lot easier to pitch the project than it was initially with the Backstreet Boys. When it got to *NSYNC, all those roads were kind of paved already for a teen sensation pop project, so we were ahead of the game.
MTV embraced it, radio embraced it, retail embraced it. The velocity was a lot stronger going into *NSYNC’s No Strings, because the concept was proven with another group, and they saw that it could work. So our theory was, we had all the believers, we had the whole team pulling in the same direction — the question wasn’t, “Is it going to be big?” The question was, “How big?”
Weiss: They premiered “Bye Bye Bye” on the American Music Awards in early January. That was the fuse that lit [further anticipation for the album], because it was such a smash hit single, which was exactly what the audience was waiting for. The single exploded on impact — it exploded at radio, it exploded at retail, the video exploded, everything about it was firing on all cylinders. There was so much pent-up demand, that everything just kept stoking the fire.
Kleinbaum: [The American Music Awards] showed maturity and growth as performers and as a group. It wasn’t just another pop boy band getting together to sing. This was legitimate. This was real.
Wright: We knew we had a hit record. And with the response from the video — [MTV’s] TRL had the countdown to the number one video in the country, and we got that spot. So I think that we were very comfortable with knowing that we had a hit single. But they’re competitive guys, and in the back of their minds it’s like, “Backstreet Boys sold a million records in the first week — that was major. How do we do that? Can we do that?”
Kleinbaum: It was really just a matter of trying to stay focused on their audience and how to best get to them. MTV was one of our prime partners for that, but it was a lot of television and a lot of media opportunities. It was magazine covers [of publications] going to their core audience. Their promotional schedule was so hectic and so cram-packed with work to do to support the album. And at the same time, they were preparing for the tour. They worked so hard, they were busy every hour of every day. It was nonstop and they were willing, ready and able — and they always had a great attitude.
Michael Alex: *NSYNC really knew how to play it. They were media-friendly, and they didn’t get precious about it. They certainly are responsible for all the earned media they got. Their audience is rabid, and they made sure their audience had access.
Carrabba: We had fan lists — we accumulated hundreds of thousands of names and addresses. We were documenting everything and utilizing it. So everytime we went back to the market, we had an army of people we could contact.
Kleinbaum: We sent snippet cassettes and snippet CDs and other pieces of info [leading up to the release].
Wright: We had a deal with Verizon Wireless, and one of the things that we wanted to make sure of was the date of the album [March 21] would be locked in people’s minds. Whether there was a pop-up display or a poster that was on the front of every store front at Verizon, [we made sure] that our date was locked in. And when the guys did interviews, they constantly talked about the date.
That became very key, because no matter where you turned around, if you heard anything or saw anything on *NSYNC, you saw the [release] date. We also had a big deal with Chili’s; we did the Baby Back Ribs commercial and at the end of that commercial they tagged the date. That was our big plan: We were going to drive this date in your head, for you to know that’s the date you need to purchase our album.
“It was just *NSYNC mania that day.”
Wright: Two days before the album release, we started hearing [that] stans from across the country were lining up outside of their record stores — Times Square, Chicago, LA — to buy the album. We started to get that feeling, “Oh wow, they still love us.” But still never to the effect of, “We’re going to sell a million records in a day.”
In the first hour that we started [our appearances on release day], Tom [Carrabba] says to me, “Hey, we’re at 150,000 records.” Three hours later, we’d crossed the half a million mark, and I’m like, “Oh my God, maybe we’ll be able to match or beat the Backstreet Boys’ record.” Then at like 6 o’clock, he says to me, “We’re over a million records in the first day.” So not only do we tie Backstreet Boys for the week, we got that number in one day, and of course we had the whole rest of the week to go. So no one really knew where it was going to get.
Weiss: I was with my family at Beaver Creek [Resort in Colorado] when the album came out, and my phone was going crazy with what was going on back in New York with the album release. I remember running into Strauss Zelnick, who was the head of BMG Music at the time, and I started extolling how amazing the sales orders were coming in because he was our distributor — but I forgot that he was part of BMG, who had lost the group to us. I was like, “Strauss, you can’t believe it, the *NSYNC sales are going crazy!” And he’s looking at me like, “You f–king a–hole.”
Kleinbaum: It was just *NSYNC mania that day. Every, every city, every town, every fan went to their local place to get that album. I was getting calls and notes from every, all my colleagues at all different record labels. It was incredible. Nobody has seen anything like that before.
Weiss: What we came to find as well was people were buying multiple copies. Families were going and buying the CD in duplicate and triplicate. It was just a phenomenon.
Carrabba: Once we were looking at the first day trends, everything escalated immediately. I was with Johnny with the boys as they’re doing their MTV promotion, and my phone’s ringing off the hook. Everybody’s calling me saying, “Tom, Target just ordered another 75,000. Walmart’s coming in for another 60,000.” I said, “Johnny, I don’t believe what’s going on here.” Johnny always said this was going to be bigger than the Backstreet Boys, and he was right.
Wright: We were at the Virgin Megastore, and I was telling the [*NSYNC] guys the numbers, and they were shaking their heads like, “Okay” — in the midst of that, they had a thousand signatures they needed to sign. So, it was like, “Oh cool, cool, yay, yay.” It probably wasn’t until the next morning when everybody was eating breakfast, and we reflected on the day before, that it all really started to sink in.
Chasez: We were pushing hard to put this record together, and the day it came out it was a relief at first. Then it became a matter of every hour somebody saying, “Hey you guys have sold a hundred thousand [copies], amazing!” Then it was 200,000, and by the end of the day we hit a million. We just never expected anything like that. We were just blown away by the whole thing.
Alex: You know the expression, “Don’t believe the hype?” The hype happened. When the album dropped, it just sort of supercharged everything that was already going on. Everything was, “Okay, it’s NSYNC’s world and we just live in it.”
“I felt like we re-ignited the music world a little bit.”
Carrabba: Back in the day, you’d usually do 50% [sales] on your first day. So when we saw the 1.2 million after the first day of sales, I said, “This is gonna hit 2.” Unless there was a product/inventory issue, which I knew there wasn’t going to be one. After days two and three, there was already indication that 2 million was gonna be in our grasp. The reorders kept coming in.
Mark Hudson: We were working around the clock. We’d be coming in around 6:00 in the morning and staying until 8:00, 9:00 at night, doing whatever to make sure and then consistently hassling the distribution to fill the orders.
Carrabba: Since we’d had the Backstreet Boys experience, we kind of knew percentages of how much [certain retailers would] take, so we were kind of ahead of the game there. Whatever we initially built in for physical copies, we made sure we had a lot more at the depots in the right places and the right distribution centers.
We also made sure we had enough paper, booklets, cases, CDs — so if we had to turn on a dime to a manufacturer, we could do that. We were prepared to get the product out there when the buzz was there. The good news with the Jive team was that we were independently owned, and we had our own financial guidelines internally. Major labels maybe would’ve had restrictions, because they didn’t want to over-invest [and make too many albums]. For us, there was no hesitation.
Hudson: Pop music wasn’t really our wheelhouse. We did much better with things like metal, hardcore rap, extreme music. We ended up selling over 200,000 units [of No Strings Attached] in that first week. That was a very healthy market share of right around 9%. Normally we wouldn’t be that kind of market share on a pop record — we were usually about 4 or 5%.
Carrabba: There was a magical guy at Jive at the time, his name’s Gerry Kuster, he was head of production. Drop-shipping was one of Gerry’s tricks, [which] is pretty much going from the manufacturer right to the store. We were drop-shipping directly to stores and other distribution areas — so they could move quicker on us, they didn’t have to wait.
Alex: I mistakenly thought, “Here’s this group, and they’re going to imitate and try to ride on the Backstreet Boys’ coattails.” I had no expectation that they were going to blow them away. It was a great wake up call. It raised the numerical bar and changed everyone’s opinions. Anyone who poo-pooed boy bands, forget it. They were running the show.
Carrabba: We didn’t go out to break a record, we just wanted to do the best we could do. It made me feel like there’s a real market out there, and there was a real untapped audience out there that we could kind of go back to. I felt like we re-ignited the music world a little bit.
Kleinbaum: We had a champagne toast in our marketing meeting [after the 2.4 million became official]. It lasted about five minutes, and then we got back to business.
Weiss: We had to focus on getting “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the next single, prepared and ready to go and the next video ready. I think we were just like, “Business as usual, keep our heads down and make sure we maximize this.”
Chasez: Those [2.4] million albums come with a responsibility. It’s like, now the pressure is really setting in. The pressure before was “Would we ever get to sing again?” In a matter of seven days we’d created an expectation — we did it, but now we have to deliver on another level. It’s always work. [Laughs.]
“We beat Goliath.”
Wright: God bless Adele — she smashed our record with 3.4 million in the first week [with 25 in 2015]. I spoke to Justin and Joey [after she broke the record], and Justin was like, “Yo, she’s the s–t. She deserves it.” It was refreshing to know that there was still a fan base out there that would buy great music. But no one will ever be able to replace the energy and how the whole thing went down with [No Strings Attached].
Weiss: It’s kind of like a baseball player who tips his hat to the person who wins the championship in career home runs. I remember sending [Sony Music Group CEO] Rob Stringer a text saying, “Congratulations” because it was amazing. Who would’ve ever thought — it was even harder to do 3.4 million Adele albums than it was to do 2.4 million *NSYNC, because nobody was buying physical anymore. Maybe that would’ve been 5 million back in the day, who the hell knows.
Kleinbaum: [No Strings Attached] made everybody understand what was possible. It also proved that boy bands were not just boy bands — they were real, legitimate artists that could sing great songs and perform the heck out of those songs.
Hudson: It was just one of those indefinable things. They were talented, they were personable — but there are lots of bands that are talented and personable that don’t sell records like that. They had a record company that worked very hard; they had a distributor that worked very hard; great publicity; they made great videos and great records. Everything came together for them, and they certainly took advantage of it.
Wright: The biggest thing we did is, we beat Goliath. Goliath wasn’t just Lou — [*NSYNC] fought against RCA Records and Sony, which was the big Goliath. We all can look back on those days and say “Man, this is great.”
It’s a beautiful ride, and it’s not over. I don’t know when the “to be continued” will be, but there’s just too much love for the group out there for them not to fully give the fans something in the future. If the five of them decided to get back together and announce a tour or a release of a record tomorrow, I can tell you with confidence that it would be successful, and people are ready and would want to see it happen — more confidence than I could tell you about what was going to happen with No Strings Attached.
Additional reporting from Bianca Gracie.