Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris And Shawn Stockman, On Their Formula For Success

The following post originally appeared on Forbes | May 6, 2015

2004 saw the release of the music documentary Dig!, a film that follows and contrasts the careers of, and relationship between, two music bands. Though an interesting watch in and of itself, it also sheds some light (albeit anecdotal) on the rate of music band failure rates: 9 out of 10 bands that sign a record deal fail in their long term endeavors. Today, with the deluge of new artists popping up across a sea of media outlets, it’s a safe bet that the rate is higher.

While the music industry distributes entertainment, make no bones about it, it is an incredibly shrewd business. And artist or not, you are unshielded from the ruthless competition that prods it along. At the root of this high failure rate sits, no doubt, any number of destabilizing agents: Finicky fans, shifting goals among band members, group dynamics, power imbalances, and much more. With that in mind, the “greats”—those that have multiple hits and are multigenerationally relevant—are a rare breed, indeed, and no doubt have much to teach us.

Today I speak with Nathan Morris and Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men. With two decades in the business, 12 albums—three of them platinum and their most recent, Collide, having come out last fall—the longest stay at the top of the music charts—16 weeks—and a residency at the Terry Fator Theater at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas, they’ve figured out the formula for long-term success. See our exchange below:

On Keeping The Group Together

Parnell:  As history has shown, it can be difficult for groups to stay together, especially over the long haul. You guys are down one person at this point, but the majority of the group is still together. How did you guys do this?

Stockman:  I think it was God’s plan for us to stay together as long as we have. This is what I mean: There were moments where the group actually disbanded. Not for very long. But in some cases the best thing for us to do was to split, considering the climate of the industry, how things had changed, and how the industry in some sort of nuanced way left us feeling like it was done with us.

It just wasn’t part of the plan, though, right? It just didn’t work for us on that level. It didn’t feel the same. Not to mention, financially, it was a lot tougher.

We found that we were better together than apart. And we figured that if we sat down with each other and basically said, “We’re going to fight this out. We’re going to continue on as a group because it is all we know. This is what we dedicated our lives to. And we still believe that we have some sort of relevance in the industry.” Then our peers might not feel it or think it at the moment, but they would in time.

What’s funny is—and this is what kept us in, too—is that in the midst of us being, I guess, thrown away, thwarted by the industry at large, there were still so many television shows, and singing groups, and people that reminded us of how influential we were. Whatever you had—NSYNC, Justin Timberlake, or Justin Bieber, or One Direction, all these other guys—as they went on with their lives, they were saying that Boyz II Men was their inspiration. Not to mention every time The X Factor came on, or American Idol came on, someone would sing a Boyz II Men song, and it really reminded us and encouraged us that we still are in these people’s hearts.

Morris:  I will tell you two reasons. The philosophical reason, I believe, is that we love the music. We’re really good friends, and we love being together. We fight just like any other family does, and then we figure things out.

Also, what I believe is the most legitimate reason, and one that a lot of people are afraid to say because you really don’t want to look at things this way, but we got the finances right.

When we did our first album, some of us wrote on some songs, some of us didn’t, some of us wrote more than others, and when our publishing checks came in, and I notice that I wrote maybe seven or eight songs and my publishing check was a lot bigger than everybody else’s, I looked around at everybody else, and I thought that everyone was not so much disgruntled, because we’ve never had this happen before, but they were just like “hey man, that’s crazy.”

Now, I’m very big on equal share. That’s how I am; that’s what I’m about. If we all did it, then we all shared in it. So I looked at myself, and I’m like “You know what, we need, from this point on, to make sure that everybody in the group benefits off of everything that we do. If one guy writes it, we all get paid; if one guy sings it, we all get paid; because it’s our group and we have allowed everyone to be a part of it.

I just didn’t want anybody in the group to feel like their job was more important than anybody else’s. A lot of times you get groups, and, you know, it’s the lead singer, or the lead guitarist, or the drummer that is the leader of the band. Now, the fans can pick out whoever they believe that is, but if the internal nucleus believes that “I can’t get there without him, and he can’t get there without me,” then no matter what the fans believe, everyone should be paid accordingly.

So my point here is, once you can clear all the financial issues off the table, and no one is worried about that, you can stay together forever.

On Music Today

Parnell:  Take your song “I’ll Make Love To You”—this will most likely be around for a really long time. Now, I’m 41 years old, I grew up with you guys. Looking back to my younger days, there was music that came out, or was already out, that was very fundamental and metaphoric and I believe will remain relevant for many generations because of that.

Much of the newer music, in my opinion, often falls short on this. Without naming names, if you take some of the bigger songs that are out right now, I’m confident that they’ll be gone in another year or two, never to be thought of again. What are your thoughts on this? Looking at your music, what are the attributes that you believe make it durable?

Morris:  I think it’s really simple: it starts with good music. Before Boyz II Men came out, the Motown sound was around for over 20 years. Why? Because it was good music. So now, in 2015, the Motown sound is around today; maybe not the artists, but the music is around. Why? Because it’s good. It came in at a time where people believed in music. And people had the attention span to deal with what good music is.

I’m not sure if it’s just because of the artists themselves—it could be the artist or it could be the music—but I’m a very big believer in that the reason why these artists won’t sustain is not just the music and the artists themselves, but the times that we live in. Our audiences today have a very short attention span. They have no patients for anything that takes time to grow. And once they’re done with something, they move onto something else. So, we talk about it pretty often: There will probably never be any legends made ever again in the music business, because our society doesn’t have the attention span to build them.

On Humility

Parnell:  When you guys ran into challenges in the industry, what are some of the things that kept you going? A lot of artists, I’m sure, run into the same thing at some point, and they don’t actually turn it around. They’re not able to really swallow that humility pill and start over again. What was some of the internal dialogue that kept you going on through that?

Stockman:  This might sound generic, but it’s true, so I’m going to say it first: The support of the fans and the people is what honestly motivated us to continue to do it. No matter how many people were in the crowd, they made us feel good. They made us feel like this is the best thing that happened to them in that moment, and we took that to heart.

Second is our love for performing with each other. When we had those moments of performing in clubs that might’ve held 500 people and only 200 showed up, we still went out there and did what we had to do. We looked at each other because that was all we had, and we found the joy in it.

On Remaining Multigenerationally Relevant

Parnell:  You touched on this a little bit already, but to remain multigenerationally relevant is, as I’m sure you would agree, very difficult. You guys have done that. Can you talk to me about this? What are some of the things that you’ve done that have allowed you to accomplish this?

Stockman:  (Pause)

Parnell:  It’s a big question, I know.

Stockman:  Yeah. Cause it has a lot of layers. But, I’d say it is really our stubbornness. We realized just how short people’s memories are. But instead of complaining, we were like “Oh, cool. We’ll just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and do what we have to do. You will see us again.”

That’s the funny thing about life, right. People can get caught up in facts and figures and numbers and business plans, and things of that nature. We understand how those are important, but you cannot overlook how life can change things. Like how amazing circumstances can flip a group, or flip an artist, or flip a human being.

Morris:  I think it starts from the beginning when we were able to break the mold of the genre that we were put in. As black artists we are put in the genre of being an R&B group, but we made, and still make, songs that appeal to all walks of life. So, in the early stages of our career, we had a mass audience; not just black, but black and white, and Chinese, and Puerto Rican, and so many others around the world. So, by the grace of God we were able to cultivate those markets throughout the years, and where some artists would fall in love with their U.S. success and forget about the rest of the world, they really wouldn’t take the time to cultivate those markets. We didn’t do that. We diversified our fan base, and that helped us to keep pushing on.

On Their Creativity And The Audience’s Attention

Parnell:  So, putting myself in the position of an artist, it must be incredibly difficult trying to get an audience’s attention. Has this dynamic affected the way that you guys create your music? The way that you guys perform today?

Morris:  Without a doubt. We really created for our fan base. But now we more so create for ourselves. 20 years ago, you couldn’t always create for yourself because you had to make a song for the masses, and the people had to like the songs so the records would sell, which made sense back then. But now, in our case, we don’t feel that as a group we’re in the record selling business, per se. Now, we consider ourselves more of a performing act, considering the circumstances that have been presented to us (laughing).

Now we make records more so because we like them. We’re not really concerned about how many records sell, we’re just concerned about having fun and making great music. And if people love them, then they will buy them.

The tough part is now the record labels realize that the money comes from the touring, and they don’t make a lot of money on the record sales portion. So when they sign a new artist, they sign them into what they call “360 deals,” where they want a part of their publishing, and they want a part of their touring as well as the record sales, and they won’t sign an artist any other way, which is slavery to the 10,000th power.

On How They Are Producing Their Music Today

Parnell:  So how are you guys producing your music now? Are you with a label or are you doing this on your own?

Morris:  The last album we did, we did with BMG. We let them handle everything as far as the rights and the producers are concerned. We were just like “Bring us great songs, and we’ll go and sing them and just have a great time.” And that’s pretty much how we approached that album.

If we were to go and do another album, we would do some work and produce it ourselves. We’re in the process right now of working on something really special; something that we think is extremely historical for the music-value of it. The value really comes in the history of the type of music that we’re going to do. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, yet, but we’re in the process of building an album and a documentary about one of the strongest genres of music that has been forgotten, and we are making an album in dedication to that.

On Staying Out Of Trouble

Parnell:  Now, no one has gotten into any trouble over the years, at least not anything big, nothing dramatic. What was it that really kept you guys out of trouble? Was it philosophical? Religious?

Morris:  (laughing) No, nothing big. You know, we’re like any other artists: We’re not perfect, we make our mistakes. But we try not to make mistakes that we can’t recover from. And the ones that we can’t recover from, we just man up and deal with it. It’s that simple. You just have to try not to be stupid.

Back then, we had people around us that taught us how to be artists. Record labels used to have what they called “A&R people,” “artist development.” People who brought in the artists, created the records, and develop the artists into being artists. Record labels don’t have them anymore because they can’t afford them. So they’re literally just grabbing a kid off the street, getting the record, and throwing them out into the world and seeing what happens. That kid has never done that before; the kid has never been exposed to that audience; the kid has never known how to conduct himself in the proper manner in a public place. So he’s on the news every week.

Stockman:  Also, I think it was that we just weren’t those dudes. You know what I mean? I wish I had more of a prolific answer, but we just weren’t those guys. We argued, sure. We had girlfriends, sure. We did our thing, of course, but we didn’t do drugs or anything like that. I think the point is that we knew how to do it.

There’s a way to have fun. There’s a way to enjoy yourself. There’s a way to drink. There’s a limit to drinking. There’s a way to go out to the club and still do your thing without looking ridiculous. And I think that’s what it was.

Parnell:  Agreed. I have Justin Bieber in mind as I am listening to you talk. A ton of money, a ton of fame, and he has had his struggles with it.

Morris:  I will say about Justin that I know he did have the right people in place. He had people telling him the right things to do—from his parents to his managers, and people like that—because I know them personally. In Justin’s case, he’s growing up in a society where the money is more important than the knowledge. And if he’s making the money, no one’s going to tell him what to do. So it doesn’t matter if [younger artists today] get that knowledge; if they control the money, then they can just do whatever they want.

On Managing Their Money

Parnell:  I did a piece a while back about NFL players, and about 80% of them are financially destitute or bankrupt within two years of retirement. The issue is that most of these guys don’t come from an understanding of wealth, because, well, statistically speaking, most people just don’t. So they aren’t prepared to deal with the sports fame and the money. So it’s interesting to hear that you guys had someone that was working directly with you to prepare you for some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Morris:  Yeah. We had people sit us down early in our career and teach us public relations, for instance. You know, answer questions in 20 seconds or less. We really got drilled from early on. So, as kids, we were like robots: We did exactly as we were told. And as human beings, we are creatures of habit, and over the years these lessons turned into habits. I believe a lot of kids these days just don’t have the access to being taught the way that they should be taught.

Stockman:  Wealth is not a status to me. It’s a mentality. And when you have the type of money that these athletes and these entertainers have, and you’re not taught how to value and appreciate it—not from a consumption standpoint, but from the perspective of knowing exactly what it means to have this type of wealth, outside of the wealth itself—then you’ll just waste it away.

So, to whom much is given, much is required. There’s a responsibility to having lots and lots of money. It has nothing to do with just being able to take care of your homeys and making sure you drive a nice car. But if you have the means, then you need to teach others who may not have that type of understanding on how to be.

On Lessons Learned Over The Years

Parnell:  This is an important question, I think. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself at the start of it all, what would you tell yourself? What are the top lessons or points that you would really want to impress upon yourself when you were younger?

Stockman:  One thing I would have said to myself back in the day was to create more relationships. I was a recluse. Going back to what we talked about before, as far as partying and all the other stuff, I didn’t know how to instill and create relationships, and to not feel like “Oh my gosh, what am I doing with these people?”

Relationships in business are important. Relationships are important. And if you want to prosper and you want to do anything in business, it’s not necessarily about what you know, or even who you know, it’s how you know them. It’s one of those things where I wish I had more of a relationship with certain people for what I felt were natural progressions for my group and myself to actually come to fruition.

I think that the three of us as individuals, because of our history and our pedigree and what we’ve done, would be great executives with record labels: To find talent, to manage the talent, and things of that nature. Those positions are based upon relationships, and having the right ones with the right people. That’s one thing that I would’ve told myself.

Morris:  My very first lesson would be—and especially in today’s society—to never give too much weight to what people say or think about you, because you have to be a very strong individual with very strong self-esteem to survive in this world today. I believe that self-esteem is the key point in any person’s life. If you do not have the self-esteem that you need to govern your life, you will be destroyed. It’s really that simple.

Once you obtain that self-esteem, my next lesson would be to really be a sponge for knowledge, because knowledge is more powerful than money. Every drop of money usually starts with a person being knowledgeable on how to get it. Whether it’s creating or coming up with an idea, whether it’s putting together a business plan, that knowledge is what makes the finances come in.