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A Cappella Fans Cheer Return Of ‘The Sing-Off’

On Monday, NBC’s a cappella competition “The Sing-Off” returns for a fourth season on Monday, Dec. 9.

Ten teams (list below) will compete for a recording contract and a $100,000 prize.

Executive producer Sam Weisman and judge Ben Folds joined Here & Now’s Robin Young to preview what’s ahead, and to highlight a few of their favorite groups from previous seasons, including Beezlebubs from Tufts University, Afro Blues from Howard University and Pentatonix from Arlington, Texas.

“A cappella music is very team-oriented,” Folds said. “It’s almost not in an a cappella group’s nature to be extremely competitive, so the irony is that they are on a competition show, which ends up reading almost like a musical performance show.”

On a cappella’s commercial viability, Weisman cites the commercial and social media success of Pentatonix, a group that competed on “The Sing-Off.” They have had an album in the Billboard’s top ten records, and have over 200 million views on YouTube.

“Ultimately you’re talking about inventing a form,” Weisman said. “Moving forward, they have tremendous commercial appeal.”

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Lovers of a cappella music, rejoice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: Thank you. After a two-year absence, "The Sing-Off" returns to NBC on Monday night for its fourth season with the new producer Mark Burnett who brought us "Survivor" and "The Voice" with the same format: 10 singing groups competing over the course of two weeks for a $100,000 price and a Sony recording contract. Here's just a little of what viewers can expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SING-OFF")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Let's get it started hah, let's get it started in here. Let's get it started hah, let's get it started in here.

YOUNG: A mashup of a cappella groups from the fourth season of "The Sing-off" performing the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started," cannot wait. Joining us in the studio with more, executive producer Sam Weisman. Sam, good to see you again.

SAM WEISMAN: Nice to see you.

YOUNG: And joining us from the NPR studios in Culver City, California, Ben Folds, he of Ben Folds Five, also longtime judge on "The Sing-Off" and longtime supporter of a cappella music. Ben, welcome to you as well.

BEN FOLDS: Thank you. Good to be here.

YOUNG: What got you into this?

FOLDS: I was in an a cappella group in college. But after my band was out there, there was a lot of a cappella versions of my songs. And I thought they were really inventive, original, and sometimes I kind of regretted not having recorded them way. I thought they were better versions than what we did.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, you released an album in 2009, "Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella," college groups performing your songs. Let's listen to one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGIC")

VOICES IN YOUR HEAD: (Singing) From the back of your big brown eyes I knew you'd be gone as soon as you could. And I hoped you would.

YOUNG: Sam, the show is - it's a competition, but it feels like it's more than that. How would you characterize the show?

WEISMAN: I would say it's a music show. And, you know, the competition aspect is really just secondary.

FOLDS: A cappella music is very team-oriented, you know? I mean, it's people working together. And it's almost like it's just not in an a cappella group's nature to be extremely competitive. So the irony is they're on a competition show, which ends up reading a lot more like a performance, musical performance show, because the main thrust of the show is the performance. That's why I'm there. Then every once in a while, I have to talk. I'm, like, oops, I've got to talk. I love to hear the music.

YOUNG: Because you love to hear it. Well, so do we all. Let's listen to one of your favorites from past shows, Ben. You were a big fan of the group Afro Blue. This is an a cappella group from Howard University in D.C. You said of their performance of "A Change is Gonna Come" in season three that they could release it as a record, you know, that second. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

AFRO BLUE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. And just like that river I've been running ever since. It's been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

YOUNG: I'm hearing it sound great. But you're a musician. What are you hearing?

FOLDS: Well, I'm hearing a completely confident, relaxed, impassioned, perfect performance. I mean, the relationship between the singer and her rhythm section is just so old school. That's a very separate item for us in the modern age. You know, there's the singer and they're on one side of things. And then there is the invisible band with the invisible wall between them. And in this case, you're just hearing the whole thing connected.

YOUNG: And, Sam, one of your favorites from past seasons is the Beezlebubs from Tufts University here in Massachusetts. Let's hear a little of them performing the Boston Red Sox favorite, "Sweet Caroline."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CAROLINE")

BEEZLEBUBS: (Singing) Sweet Caroline. Good times never seemed so good. Oh, I've been inclined to believe they never would. Oh, no, no.

YOUNG: And the Beezlebubs, of course, the voices of the Warblers on the Fox TV show "Glee." How far can these groups go, though, Sam? Regular pop groups can't get on - there's so little play on radio. So how far can these groups go?

WEISMAN: Well, our season three winners, Pentatonix, have actually broken the mold. I mean, they actually cracked the Billboard Top 10 with their new album just a few weeks ago. And they have something like a million, two, followers on their YouTube channel - subscribers on their YouTube channel. And they...

FOLDS: How many views is that - they have?

WEISMAN: Well, they've actually accumulated since they've been on "The Sing-Off" over 200 million views on YouTube.

FOLDS: There. There you go.

WEISMAN: And ultimately, you're talking about inventing a form. It isn't just, you know, for geeks or people that have crawled out of toy chests.

FOLDS: But if you crawl out of a toy chest, that's for you too.

WEISMAN: Yeah. I mean, they really are an exciting group. So the question is, moving forward, they have tremendous commercial appeal.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, the Pentatonix from Arlington, Texas, won a YouTube Music Award with their cover of "Radioactive." This is with Lindsey Stirling. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIOACTIVE")

PENTATONIX: (Singing) I'm waking up...

LINDSEY STIRLING: (Singing) I feel it in my bones to make my systems blow.

PENTATONIX: (Singing) Welcome to the new age, to the new age. Welcome to the new age, to the new age. Whoa...

YOUNG: I'm looking at some of the groups that are in the new season. You have Element, New York City; Street Corner Renaissance from Los Angeles; Ten from Dallas. Tell me a little bit, Sam, about the groups in general. They're not all college singing groups.

WEISMAN: No. Actually, of the 10 groups this year, we only have two college groups: the Acoustickats from the University of Kentucky and The Princeton Footnotes from Princeton University. We have a Filipino boy band from California. We have a country group, Home Free, from Minneapolis. We haven't really had country represented in the show. And we have this fantastic high school group, Vocal Rush, from the Oakland School of the Arts, and really, an extraordinary group of kids. And if there ever was a poster for arts in the schools, it's this group.

YOUNG: Well, we have just a taste of Oakland's Vocal Rush. This is the from the 2013 L.A. A Cappella Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTOM OF THE RIVER")

VOCAL RUSH: (Singing) ...or if you get none. The cock's going to call in the morning, baby. Check your cupboard for your daddy's gun. Red sun rises like an early warning. The Lord's...

YOUNG: Ben, what does this tell us about the program - is you're so nice to these people.

FOLDS: Thanks.

YOUNG: You're obviously so supportive of them. Is sort of the Simon Cowell approach to these competitions over?

FOLDS: Hmm. Well, I mean, I don't - couldn't speak to the trend at all. I mean, to me, I'm watching a musical performance by extremely talented human beings right in front of me. And I want the next time that they go out and do it to be even better. And I don't think that you achieve that by telling them what they can't do or, really, overemphasizing what they did wrong. I have sort of a formula, and that's to say here's what went right, here's what went wrong and here's what I'd like to see for you.

YOUNG: Give us a sense of what might be constructive criticism that you've given.

FOLDS: Sometimes it's you're rushing, you know? If I hear them rushing, I know that they're tense. If I hear them going sharp, I know other things about what's going on.

WEISMAN: The thing about our show is these groups are naked. They're out there for one moment, one performance.

FOLDS: Naked on prime time, which is their first time (unintelligible) ever done that.

WEISMAN: Meaning it's - there's no artifice. It's one shot, and it's all on them. There's no band. There's not...

FOLDS: It is one shot.

WEISMAN: And Ben and the other judges are just great at just zeroing in and saying, you know, deliver your best self. And also, it's also the community of the show. The people do really love each other. I mean, it's actually quite extraordinary.

YOUNG: We're talking about the return of the a cappella competition "The Sing-Off." Executive producer Sam Weisman and one of the three judges, Ben Folds. The show debuts on Monday night on NBC. Ben, Sam, thanks and best to you both.

WEISMAN: Thank you.

FOLDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR")

PENTATONIX: (Singing) They took the credit for your second symphony, rewritten by machine and new technology.

YOUNG: And so for a complete list of who's competing this year, go to hearandnow.org. And we review with more of "Sing-Off" season three eventual winners Pentatonix. Jeremy, do not call me when "The Sing-Off" is on.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

You know, I have to say, I now want to really go and re-watch "Pitch Perfect," the hilarious movie, "Pitch Perfect."

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Take off on it. Well, there's that. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.