HARVARD LEADERSHIP MAGAZINE

Back to Pentatonix Pentatonix: The Collision of Business and Passion

David Coletti

The lights die down, and suddenly, a group is plunged into utter darkness. The audience, eager for the group to begin, sits impatiently and glares at the stage, at the performers, not yet noticing the sweat already forming on the their foreheads. The other performers, sitting to the sides of the stage, look on uneasily. If this performance is stellar, and they were anticipating that it would be, they knew that their chances of success became less and less of a reality. And then, one member lifts his head, puts the microphone to his lips, and begins emitting a low vocal bass that descends quickly, giving the signal for the rest of the group to begin beat-boxing, humming, belting, falsettoing, and whatever else they must do in order to produce one thing: music. The show? NBC’s The Sing Off. The group? Pentatonix. Their dream? Establishing careers in performance arts. But unfortunately in the United States, their dream of making a career in the performing arts is becoming less of a reality. Music, fine arts, and performance arts have a stigma attached to them in 21st century America. This stigma suggests that pursuing careers in the arts is not a practical goal in life, which discourages hopeful and young artists from doing things that they love. Yet, very few people seem to be addressing this, which is why I do have to explain how American society is contributing to the “arts stigma.” A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go back to my high school in Boston, Massachusetts. Talking to a few students there, the topic of majoring in musical theater in college came up. “Yeah, you might as well burn $200,000,” said one student, with the other students nodding their heads in agreement. Standing next to me was a friend of mine who is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Of course it hurt to hear that he was basically wasting his life away, according to these students. But, he assured me this was not the first time he had heard such a claim. He sometimes feels ashamed when he meets new people and has to pit his music major against the likes of economics, microbiology, or international affairs. We live in a world of competition, and in America, the music major comes in last. In 2012, Newsweek posted an article listing the “Top 13 Most Useless College Degrees,” claiming that the top four “useless degrees” are 1) Fine Arts, 2) Theatre Arts, 3) Film and Photographic Arts, and 4) Graphic Design. The ironic thing about the article, however, is one of the topics under which the article is tagged, “But don’t let this article deter you from following your dreams.” For students who want to pursue arts in the United States, the societal pressure to pursue something “legitimate” rather than something “useless” does hinder them from even trying to reach their dreams. But Pentatonix, through it all, is proving something otherwise. Pentatonix is a five person a capella group and the 2012 winners of NBC’s The Sing Off, an a capella performance-based television show. With the oldest member being only 24, the group is providing innovation to the music industry and leadership that so many hopeful musicians in the country needs. In the midst of the competitive atmosphere in which they work, members of Pentatonix use careful and creative approaches in the realms of social media. Pentatonix recognizes the innovative importance of social media in regards to connecting with fans and making sure that they are recognized in the music industry. Nearly less than a year after their win on NBC, Pentatonix’s first album ranked #14 on Billboard’s Top 200, and on Youtube, Pentatonix currently has almost two million subscribers and over 140 million views. “In today’s society, everyone goes to the internet, especially in America,” says Avi, Pentatonix’s bass singer, “Looking things up on websites such as Youtube is the most effective way of seeing what you want.” But the group does not just use social media as a means of demonstrating its talent; it connects to fans, says Kevin, and often, learns how it helps fans pursue their dreams. The group reflects to me about how so many fans send them emails or Facebook messages relating personal issues and dreams of becoming musicians. Because of this, Pentatonix is aware of how they must be careful in their relations with fans and the music they produce: “Music is tied to emotion; it is such an integral part of the world,” says Avi. “But, not all music is pure or for the better. Music is just as powerful to make a negative impact. You have to make sure that you are not only making music about money or materialism. There is no doubt that Pentatonix is talented. But it is also clear that success on a show does not necessarily translate to success in the working world. There are a number of reality performance shows, such as American Idol, The X-Factor, America’s Got Talent, and countless others. But these shows merely depict an illusion for young, hopeful musicians. There are very few contestants on these shows who “make it big,” and even so, there is no answer to how long they will remain in the eyes of the public. “A lot of artists do well on television shows, but what happens afterwards? We do love music, but we have to make sure we are approaching it as a business. And an important way to do this is keeping up with fans through social media.” America is a society built upon economic success, and careers in the arts is becoming less a part of this culture. Hopeful musicians and artists need innovative leaders in these fields that are able to keep up with America’s competitiveness and to preserve the art for the sake of art: Pentatonix is an example of such leader. By utilizing the growing importance of social media, Pentatonix is competing in a field that is severely undermined and looked down upon so long as the people in question are not elevated celebrities. And does this discourage the group? Not according to Kevin: “Yes, the beginning was rocky. But we’re a family. And we’re doing something that we love to do.” Think you can tell them that they are wasting their lives away? I didn’t think so.