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Five little rich girls

The Spice Girls are a modern marketing phenomenon, put together, passed around, and merchandised like soap
  • @c_blackhurst
Ten days ago the Spice Girls made a monkey of the Prince of Wales, plastering him with kisses and patting his bottom, a performance that was captured and lingered over by the television evening news. Their first album has already sold 10 million copies, and the single "Wannabe" (suitably titled) has topped the charts in 31 countries.

There are five of them, named Victoria, Emma, Mel B, Mel C and Geri, and their rise and rise is becoming an epic in the recent history of popular music.

Over lunch on the day of the Queen's Speech last Wednesday, in the second week of Tony Blair's great project, a member of the Government ignored the programme of reform in the welfare state because he would rather know which of the five I fancied. He volunteered that he himselfhad the hots for Mel B, otherwise known as Scary Spice.

At home that evening, my eight-year-old daughter badgered me for money. All her friends at school, she said, were collecting Spice Girl pictures. They cost 99p for a set of eight from newsagents and there are 120 in total. That is pounds 15 for the lot, I calculated. "Well, you won't let me join the fan club. Natalie's a member, and that only costs pounds 10," she replied.

That night in New York, the Spice Girls went on David Letterman's Late Show to publicise their debut album which has gone to No 1 in America - outperforming the Beatles. They treated Letterman like a prince, singing and dancing for him before smothering him in lipstick and cuddles.

The Sun took the performance no less seriously than the Queen's Speech. But there were some phrases in its report that made the whole thing sound more like a marketing exercise than show business. The girls, it said, "were also aware that the show would be their first ever live performance shown in Britain - it was on Sky 2 last night" (Sky 2 is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which also owns the Sun). Their clothes were "carefully chosen - Victoria in a sophisticated slinky black number, Emma in a baby-pink dress, Mel B in her leopard-skin trousers, Geri in red hot pants, top and bra, and Mel C in her favourite Liverpool shirt and tracksuit bottoms ... Each girl took a turn at the mike and each proved they can sing live - and sing well." Under a picture of them (the Sky logo prominently displayed) was the caption: "American TV viewers were wowed as the girls proved they really are talented singers."

Here was a case of exclusive product placement with Sky: carefully chosen clothes, all in different styles, and a need to prove themselves as singers. It begins to explain why the Spice Girls are like no successful band there has ever been.

Another clue to the nature of this phenomenon is the joint statement they issued before going on Letterman. "Pop is back by Girl Power demand, and we're thrilled," it read. "This proves that with hard work and determination you can do anything. The encouragement of our fans has helped us in our mission to conquer America."

It has nothing to do with music, but the making of the Spice Girls shows that music is less important than marketing. In fact, they are an ersatz ensemble put together with the over-riding purpose of making money for them and their backers. Behind those pouting poses, cheeky grins, and Girl Power salutes, there is a programme of cynical media manipulation and calculating exploitation.

THE GIRLS' press manager is called Muff and he has an assistant called Duff. Duff is harrassed and busy, and lets you know it. He is not rude but firm. He thinks an interview about their marketing strategy is unlikely. The girls are going into the studio to record their second album, to be released at the end of the year, so interviews are restricted.

"Let's get this right, you really, really want to talk to the Spice Girls about their finances?" asks another associate of the girls (really, really echoes the lyrics of "wannabe"). "I really, really do," I say and suggest that if they are not available, perhaps I could speak to Simon Fuller, their manager. "Mr Fuller does not give interviews, not to anyone, ever."

There are three men behind the Spice Girls. The first two are Chris Herbert and his father, Bob Herbert. The third is Simon Fuller.

Every soaraway band seems to have a manager it sacked, the man who first found it and then lost it. In the Spice Girls' case, it is Chris Herbert. He had created Bros, the Eighties chart-topping duet marketed to record industry executives as an "image group".

In 1994, Herbert spotted a gap in the market, which was then dominated by boys' groups, like Take That, East 17 and New Kids On The Block. Herbert placed an advertisement in the Stage, the trade paper, and distributed a flyer around the pubs and clubs of London, asking girls if they were "streetwise, ambitious, dedicated?"

If so, they were asked to turn up for auditions for a new group. Over 400 arrived at Danceworks Studios, near Oxford Street in London. Herbert knew what he wanted was five girls, not intimidatingly pretty, with person- ality; the qualifications did not include the ability to sing and dance.

Once selected, they were installed in a rented Wimpey house in Maidenhead. For almost a year, Herbert and his team taught them to sing and dance at a recording studio called Trinity in Woking (Herbert comes from Woking). At first they were called Touch, changing their name to Spice Girls, when a song was written for them called Sugar and Spice.

For all his incisiveness and experience, Herbert did not have a carefully written business plan for the girls. They were not paid, though they received free accommodation and travel expenses. (They drove around in Geri's car.) In contrast to the boys' bands topping the charts, Herbert wanted them to be a sophisticated group. He scoured the industry for material and once he had found some decent songs, his intention was that they would then sign a binding contract.

They never did. The feisty, ambitious wannabes, grew bored and restless. Egged on by Geri or Ginger Spice, a former nude model, and Mel B, the spiciest of the five, they grew in self-confidence, and in April 1995 they left the Herberts and joined Simon Fuller and his company, 19 Management. The girls say they resented the control exerted by the Herberts and won their freedom. But this Girl Power explanation for the split fails to mention that, rather like professional footballers, they were sold by one management to another, for a sum that neither side will disclose.

Mr Fuller, who is 36, works in an office in Chiswick Mall, west London. He is one of the great entrepreneurs of popular music. He made his name by managing Paul Hardcastle, who had a huge hit with the song 19 - hence Fuller's company, car and address are all numbered 19. He also has a track record of managing women, notably Annie Lennox.

Virgin Records was so impressed by Mr Fuller's concept and the fiery performance of the girls on a showcase reel that they paid an estimated pounds 2m advance on royalties when they signed them. And, in a deal that is rare in the industry, the record label supplies the marketing and promotion but Mr Fuller and the group retain the final say in their direction.

Although they are constantly compared to the Beatles - in terms of records sold, at this stage in their careers they are outselling the Fab Four - none of them is a Lennon nor a McCartney. But they do help write their lyrics, although Mr Fuller has commissioned three separate teams of writers to help them.

At Companies House, Mr Fuller is listed as one of two directors of Spice Girls Limited. The other is his business partner, Richard Harris. Three of the girls are given as shareholders: Mel B, Mel C and Victoria. The company was registered in December 1996 and has yet to file any accounts to give an accurate indication of their earning power. It is estimated, however, that to date they have earned over pounds 11m from album and single sales. Royalties from the songs they have co-written, have netted them another pounds 4m.

WHERE THE Spice Girls really, really come into their own is in marketing and merchandising. Unlike other groups, they do not tour. So Mr Fuller is exploiting other income streams. Their video has earned them an estimated pounds 5m; they were paid around pounds 500,000 to launch Channel 5; they are making a film with Richard E Grant; and there are the book and the pictures. A personal appearance by the girls would cost upwards of pounds 50,000.

Then there is the pounds 1m marketing deal with Pepsi. In the first ever deal of its kind in the industry, the next Spice Girls single called "Step To Me" will be available only through a Pepsi promotion, and not through record shops. Tickets for their only concert this year, in Istanbul in October, will be tied to Pepsi. They have shot two 30-second television and cinema advertisements for the drinks giant, to be shown worldwide.

At the moment, my daughter favours Coke. In the summer, I suspect she will change to Pepsi.

Oh and by the way, I prefer the Posh one. That's Victoria.