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Inside the race to find the next One Direction

While ABC searches for the next top male vocal group, some record labels think they’ve already found it

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A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now and available to buy here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Last year, Savan Kotecha — the songwriter behind One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and numerous hits for Ellie Goulding and Demi Lovato — got a call from Simon Cowell about another boy band. Cowell, who helped assemble 1D on the 2010 season of his U.K. show The X Factor, had long been thinking about forming a singing, dancing, jack-of-all-trades group in the vein of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, and he had finally found the right guys for the job. (1D famously eschewed the splashy choreography and matching outfits of their predecessors.)

Kotecha wasn’t exactly excited by the news: He had been busy working with Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life writing songs for boy bands. “It does have a stigma to it,” he says. Kotecha agreed to meet with the guys at his house but remembers telling his wife that he was just being polite and planned to turn them down. “Then they walked in, and under my breath I was just like, ‘Oh, f—,'” Kotecha recalls. “Because they just had it. They were so charismatic. And when they sang for me? It reminded me of why I got into music.”

Kotecha cleared his schedule to work with the L.A.-based fivesome — eventually christened PRETTYMUCH — and co-wrote their debut single, “Would You Mind,” which was released last month. But Kotecha’s not the only one falling back in love with boy bands. Between ABC’s Boy Band, which pulls in nearly 3 million viewers a week, and a slew of major-label groups that have launched in the past year, including Why Don’t We and Saving Forever, it’s clear we’re entering another boy-band renaissance.

Part of this is simply timing: Now that the reigning kings of One Direction are on an indefinite hiatus, the princes in waiting have a chance to step up. “Certainly it went through my mind that there really is an opening out there,” says Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman, who was so taken with five-piece Why Don’t We that he signed them on the spot after meeting them. “I started thinking beyond just the One Direction category — Boyz II Men, 98 Degrees, Color Me Badd. It was an interesting opportunity to make some really soulful pop records and do something a little different [from what] has been done in recent times.”

Yet labels aren’t just scooping up groups for the sake of filling a void. “It’s really looking under every rock to see what talent is there, whether it’s in the marketplace or not,” says Joey Arbagey, executive vice president of A&R at Epic Records, which launched boy band/rock band Saving Forever this summer.

Besides, audiences can sniff out when a label is just trying to cash in. (And oh, is there cash: Within a year of releasing their first single, 1D were reportedly worth $50 million.) One Direction may have been assembled on a TV talent competition after its members failed as solo artists, but thanks to their early embrace of social media — in 2012 this magazine declared them “the first boy-band phenomenon created entirely by the internet” — fans could see they had genuine chemistry and an active hand in their careers. In their wake, Arbagey says, “I don’t feel like people want to see the typical ‘these guys were put together and given songs.'” Adds Kotecha, “Fans are too smart. They see through anything that’s super manufactured.”

In the case of Boy Band, harkening back to a bygone era is just as important as finding the next big thing. “All those gals growing up as teenagers [at] the height of boy bands, like ’96 to 2000, those gals are moms now,” executive producer Todd Lubin says. “So from ABC’s perspective, [the show] was an opportunity to connect moms and daughters.” (Case in point: Nick Carter, whose group, the Backstreet Boys, recently signed a new record deal with RCA, is one of the show’s mentor-judges, called “architects.”)

While a large, loyal female audience can mean dollar signs for some companies — “We wanted the Bachelor audience,” Lubin says — experts note that the culture around boy bands is also just rewarding to be involved in. Whether it’s Beatlemania or the One Direction infection, the passion and devotion these fans have is like no other. “It’s bigger than just music,” Kotecha says. “It’s something that creates a community for girls and teenagers during that awkward time in their lives. I think that helps them get through it…. It’s so inspiring when you’re a part of that.”

Why Don’t We

The lineup: Daniel Seavey (18), Corbyn Besson (18), Jonah Marais (19), Zach Herron (16), Jack Avery (18)
Why they rule: They’re quite prolific, having released their first three EPs in a span of just seven months. Their latest even dethroned Harry Styles’ debut LP from the top spot of iTunes’ pop-albums chart thanks to its Justin Bieber-meets-Chainsmokers brand of urban pop, showcased on standouts like “We the Party.”

Saving Forever

The lineup: Kavah Harris (16), Khaden Harris (14), Kye Harris (15)
Why they rule: Like Hanson and the Jonas Brothers before them, this trio of siblings from Chicago all play instruments on stage. You can hear their genre-bending approach — the group cites Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Prince as some of their most important influences — on their debut single, “Twenty 1.”

PRETTYMUCH

The lineup: Nick Mara (19), Brandon Arreaga (17), Edwin Honoret (18), Zion Kuwonu (18), Austin Porter (19)
Why they rule: The group has a clear thing for the ’90s. They channel the decade’s new-jack-swing sound on their heart-pumping, Bell Biv DeVoe-esque single “Would You Mind,” and they posted an impressive cover of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” on Instagram.