Back to Pentatonix Bands from reality TV go from small screen to big stage

Marketing-savvy bands are bringing their live acts to Milwaukee

By Piet Levy of the Journal Sentinel

Pentatonix, Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony can be categorized as "As Seen on TV" bands.

But compared with scores of other artists introduced on reality shows, the three acts — all coming to Milwaukee soon — weren't seen on TV by that many people.

"The Voice" has the ratings, "American Idol," a long-standing reputation.

Yet Pentatonix, Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony emerged from the stepchildren of the U.S. singing competition reality TV world: Simon Cowell's "The X Factor" on Fox and NBC's a cappella competition "The Sing-Off."

"Factor" has lost more than half of its audience in just three years, and the network has yet to determine whether it will be renewed. "Sing-Off" was all but canceled after its 2011 season; it was resurrected for a shortened season in December with TV hitmaker Mark Burnett as executive producer — but the season finale ratings were its worst yet.

Yet the "Sing-Off" Season 3 champion, Pentatonix, has sold out its entire U.S. tour through April, including Tuesday's show at the Riverside Theater.

"The Sing-Off" itself is even going on tour for the first time, featuring performers from the last season. The 8 p.m. show March 20 at the Pabst Theater sold out, so a second, late-afternoon show was added.

Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony, teen-pop groups that appeared on "Factor" in 2012, saw their first releases debut in the top 10 of the Billboard charts. Harmony is headlining the Pabst on March 19, a day off from a Demi Lovato arena tour; Emblem3 is playing one of the larger rooms in town, the 3,500-capacity Eagles Ballroom at the Rave, on Valentine's Day.

Mixing singing

and social media

So how are these acts achieving success never attained by the "Voice" champions or our next "American Idol"? It's because they all offer something different and fresh and have honed in on lucrative niche markets with marketing savvy and strong social media skills. It's because they're not just the same old reality TV contestants.

"These shows, even the small ones, can give their artists a tremendous platform," said Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a senior editor for Forbes who covers the business of music. "And there's not just people watching the shows, they're tweeting and sharing. That allows these bands to keep a following."

And, with stand-out content, expand it. "The Sing-Off" Season 3 finale with Pentatonix (which officially assembled to audition for the show) was watched by 6.7 million people, according to Nielsen ratings. But all 31 of Pentatonix's music videos — colorfully arranged a cappella covers spanning from Lorde to Macklemore, Imagine Dragons to "Little Drummer Boy" — have been seen at least a million times each on YouTube, in many cases tens of millions of times. A tightly edited, cinematic Daft Punk medley video, the quintet's most popular video on its channel with more than 46 million views, is unreal: an uncanny re-creation of the DJ duo's famed electronic grooves, conveyed through voices alone.

Once the season on 'The Sing-Off' ended, "we didn't want to be another flash in the pan," Pentatonix vocalist Mitchell C. Grassi said, prompting the YouTube strategy. "We worked diligently and carefully to carve out our niche in the industry, and I'd say it's going fairly well."

Pentatonix is also benefiting from the ongoing, perhaps even increased, interest in a cappella. It started with Fox's musical dramedy "Glee" and the first season of "Sing-Off," in 2009, followed by the hit film "Pitch Perfect" and its hit soundtrack in 2012; a sequel is in the works.

"People just want something different," Grassi said. "We're all getting tired of the noisy, recyclable, vapid music on the radio, and a cappella really brings music back to its roots. It's refreshing, honest and very entertaining."

Sam Weisman, executive producer of "The Sing-Off," credits the success of "Pitch Perfect" for getting his show back on the air.

"Our show is sort of the little engine that could," he said.

And the success of the tour, headlined by country-leaning Season 4 winner Home Free, is even more surprising, Weisman said.

"This tour came out with really short notice, in December, right before Christmas," he said. "At least three cities have shows that sold out. We've sold 1,600 VIP tickets, which is extraordinary."

Even if the TV audience for "Sing-Off" isn't massive, the fan base is loyal, Weisman said.

"The appetite for this sort of thing just keeps getting bigger and bigger," he said. "You can't underestimate the number of people who participate in singing groups. And (a cappella organizations) have taken the place of fraternities at some schools. It's unbelievable."

"The X Factor," as a more straightforward singing show, doesn't appear to have the same sort of niche audience.

But Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony have targeted a largely young female audience by filling a void in today's teen-pop climate.

Reggae, girl groups

stand out

Emblem3 is another boy band in a crowded market, with catchier songs than some. But its sound is different, strongly influenced by reggae. So when its debut album, "Nothing to Lose," came out in July, seven months after its final "X-Factor" performance, it opened at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.

"We lived in Long Beach, Calif., for a long time, and reggae is a big part of the scene," said 17-year-old bassist and vocalist Keaton Stromberg. "Before 'The X-Factor' we were a band. The three of us grew up together and know each other really well, and we know the things we like. And the fact that we play instruments, the fact that we write our songs, that shows a realness factor."

Fifth Harmony doesn't have the benefit of that history; the group was assembled on "The X-Factor." But being a five-piece girl group in a music scene void of many women has helped with its success.

So have a series of popular YouTube covers and a savvy decision to rerelease its 2013 EP, "Better Together," in Spanish as "Juntos," and also an acoustic version of "Juntos."

"There are three Latinas in the group, the music translates very well, plus we have a lot of Latin fans," said Fifth Harmony singer Normani Hamilton. "We wanted to give back to them."

And when it comes to growing its fan base, decisions like that are paying off for Fifth Harmony in return.




Who: Pentatonix

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Tickets: Sold out.

Who: Emblem3 with MKTO and Jackson Guthy

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 14

Where: Eagles Ballroom, the Rave, 2401 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Tickets:$29 to $39 at the box office, (414) 342-7283 and

Who: Fifth Harmony with


When: 8 p.m. March 19

Where: Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St.

Tickets:$20 at the Pabst and Riverside box offices, (414) 286-3663 and

What: The Sing-Off Live Tour with Home Free, The FilHarmonic, Voice Play and the Fannin Family

When: 5:30 and 8 p.m. March 20

Where: Pabst Theater

Tickets:$35.50 for the 5:30 p.m. show; 8 p.m. show sold out.