Outselling Michael Jackson, One Direction set for Singapore gig

(From left) Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles and Niall Horan make up One Direction, the top British act for the third year running. -- PHOTO: SONY MUSIC
(From left) Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles and Niall Horan make up One Direction, the top British act for the third year running. -- PHOTO: SONY MUSIC

One Direction may have failed as solo singers on The X Factor but they have won an immense number of fans as a boyband

When British-Irish boyband One Direction play their first Singapore show at the National Stadium next month, it will be the biggest Western pop concert here in recent times.

In fact, the quintet have outsold even Michael Jackson's 1996 concert at the old National Stadium, which drew an audience of 26,000 (although the late King Of Pop's two-night gig here in 1993 sold a total of 80,000 tickets).

More than 30,000 tickets to One Direction's show on March 11 have been snapped up since they went on sale in June last year. The fact that tickets went on sale nine months ago - a rare occurrence for gigs held here - is a sign of how popular the band are. For the biggest pop acts such as Jay Chou, tickets are usually released for sale about seven months before the performance date.

Tickets for the upcoming One Direction concert, ranging from $88 to $388 each, are still available. The Singapore show is part of the group's worldwide On The Road Again Tour to promote their fourth album, Four, released in November last year.

The gig, with a production budget of $2.2 million, is also one of the biggest single-act shows staged by concert scene veteran Michael Roche, managing director of Live Nation Lushington. He declines to reveal the group's artist fees, but says that it is the most the company has paid.

He says: "There's a lot of planning and we put the tickets on sale in June, but it's been in the works for almost 12 months before that. It's an enormous amount of work."

The One Direction set-up will be massive, with two main stages and an extended runway that allows the five members to get closer to more of their fans among the audience. In anticipation of younger fans and their chaperones, the standing area will also have special areas for families.

Last month, concert trade industry publication Pollstar ranked One Direction as the most successful live act in the world last year, based on ticket sales. Their tour sold 3.4 million tickets, more than double that of their nearest competitor, American singer Justin Timberlake, and made US$282 million (S$382 million) in gross ticket sales.

Earlier this week, the band collected another award cap when the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (IFPI) named them the top British act for the third year running. Globally, they rank second behind American singer Taylor Swift.

Boybands have been a staple almost from the beginning of the pop music history and, right now, the five who make up One Direction - Niall Horan, 21, Zayn Malik, 22, Liam Payne, 21, Harry Styles, 21, and Louis Tomlinson, 23 - are sitting pretty as the most successful one. With album sales plummeting everywhere, their dominance in the live circuit worldwide is an important marker in an act's success in the current music industry climate.

Another important barometer of a music act's popularity today is the volume registered on streaming services such as Spotify, where One Direction are the only British band besides Coldplay to achieve more than one billion listens. They rank as the fifth most popular group overall.

Not surprisingly, there was a spike in One Direction streams among local listeners after the Singapore concert was announced.

The managing director for Spotify Asia, Ms Sunita Kaur, says: "When they announced their Singapore concert last May, we saw spikes in their streaming figures on the service by as much as 50 per cent. The growth in streams shows that One Direction are a hit among local music fans."

The group have also broken album record sales by being the first band in history to have their first four albums chart at No. 1 on Billboard.

For the five lads from England and Ireland who are barely in their 20s, their combination of looks and performing abilities is arguably little different from what other record labels have tried to peddle at some point.

So how did they rise to become a music industry juggernaut in just 41/2 years?

Music industry players Life! spoke to say that One Direction cross off all the boxes on the checklist for pop success, including possessing charisma and individuality. But Sony Music marketing executive Alfred Tan says there is one other crucial element.

"Despite their immense popularity, fans still feel personally close to the boys as they offer glimpses into their lives on their social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which they are very active on and make use of to engage their fans," he says.

Another important factor for One Direction's success might be the expert string-pulling of music svengali Simon Cowell.

The five had their beginnings as failed individual contestants on the 2010 season of British reality show The X Factor. At the behest of the judges, which include Cowell, they banded together and eventually made it to the finals.

Despite ending up third behind runner-up Rebecca Ferguson and eventual champion Matt Cardle, Cowell was canny enough to sign them on to his label, Syco Records. The pay-off was almost immediate - debut single What Makes You Beautiful topped the British charts in 2011 and holds the record as distributor Sony Music Entertainment's most pre-ordered single ever.

Debut album Up All Night, released in 2011, went to No. 1 in 16 countries worldwide and earned them the distinction of being the first British group to have their first album debut at the top of the American charts.

More than just chart toppers, One Direction have also racked up more than a few awards.

Among these are five American Music Awards, including Favorite Pop/Rock Album for Take Me Home (2013) and Midnight Memories (2014), three Best International Artist Arias in a row, from 2012 to last year, and three Brit Awards, including for British Single of the Year for What Makes You Beautiful.

Mr Roche adds that boybands such as One Direction have appeal among one of the most important demographics in the music business - young women.

"Typically, the boyband isn't only for girls but fans are predominantly young ladies and I think they can relate to the boys and identify with the lyrics and the songs. It's a real marking of time through their important teen years."

Fans such as Meroshini M, who started listening to the group when she was in her teens, are still fiercely loyal to the group.

The 22-year-old fan, who co-runs 1DAsiaCrew, a Twitter account for One Direction fans throughout Asia, says: "It's more than just about the music. All five of them have this common trait which makes them come across as friendly, normal and playful guys and not just famous stars. They make fans feel closer to them."

Of course, One Direction are not the first boyband to be charming and relatable, possess a fair amount of singing talent and are active on social media.

Nor can their success be overly credited to the machinations of Cowell, who has had his share of failed acts, including 1990s boyband Worlds Apart and The X Factor 2004 winner Steve Brookstein.

There are a lot more factors that come into play when it comes to a group becoming mega-successful, says the marketing director of record label Universal Music Singapore, Mr Lim Teck Kheng.

"There is no single formula to guarantee success. At the end of the day, it is also about timing, opportunities and having all the stars align."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg