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Pentatonix: Can A Cappella's Superstars Finally Break Pop's Ceiling?
Vocal group has conquered reality TV and gone platinum, but the next frontier is an original hit
By Sarah Grant May 14, 2015
This weekend, Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson return to the screen as two members of the Bellas, a projectile-vomiting, wardrobe-malfunctioning crew of a cappella underdogs. The original Pitch Perfect – a Bring It On for theater kids – found the Bellas competing against teams from other universities, but the sequel provides them with a new challenge: international competition. Eventually, they come face-to-face with a Canadian group played by real-life a cappella all-stars Pentatonix, the fivesome whose recent That's Christmas to Me became the fourth best-selling album of 2014 – trailing only Taylor Swift, Frozen and Sam Smith.
For Pentatonix's Scott Hoying, the role was a step back in time: The blonde singer – who identifies as the group's requisite "over-riffer" – was once a member of USC's SoCal VoCals, the only squad ever to win four first-place trophies at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
"Pitch Perfect is exaggerated," Hoying explains backstage at Madison Square Garden's theater. "But there are a lot of things that are similar: competing in ICCA's is the biggest deal, the drama, the choreography. My group did backflips." Backflips? "There is a definitely a competitive nature," he says. "It's kind of like a sport."
The original Pitch Perfect hit theaters in 2012, but even then a cappella was well into its recent resurgence. Only a few years after new hire Andy Bernard was first mocked for his "Here Comes Treble" days on NBC's The Office, the network debuted a new reality competition called The Sing-Off devoted solely to similar real-life crews. It was here that Pentatonix got their start. The group convened just before auditioning for the show's third season and went on to win $200,000 and a recording contract.
The longer origin story, which they recite onstage at every concert, goes back to Arlington, Texas, where Hoying went to high school with Kirstin Maldonado and Mitch Grassi. He then met opera bass Avi Kaplan through a mutual friend, and they linked up with Kevin Olusola when the Yale grad's beat-boxing videos began to go viral. Olusola chose Pentatonix over medical school, a choice his parents, Nigerian immigrants, didn't quite understand.
"I'll never forget that conversation," he says, laughing. "The reason immigrants come to America is to provide their kids with opportunities, but when they say 'opportunity,' they mean a prestigious job and career. When I had the epiphany that I could do music and sustain myself, they were like, 'OK, son, we need to talk to you.'"
The group was dropped from Epic Records, but they found a new audience with their YouTube covers of Top 40 hits like Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" and Nicki Minaj's "Starships." With $400, they made a futuristic video for their five-minute, seven-song Daft Punk medley. The track went on to win the 2015 Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella, and the Pentatonix YouTube channel now has more than 8 million subscribers – more than Gaga, Daft Punk or even Beyoncé.
Those more attuned to traditional metrics took notice last December, when That's Christmas to Me reached Number Two on the U.S. album chart, landing ahead of Eminem's ShadyXV comp and outselling every album short of Taylor Swift's unstoppable 1989. A few weeks earlier, it even briefly dethroned Swift from the top of the iTunes' list of most downloaded LPs. "That was a moment," says Olusola. "We had just done the Macy's Day Parade, we were in a private jet to Atlanta, and found out that it passed her. That's [when we knew] the days of covers were over for us."
Still, both the group and their new label acknowledge that transitioning to original material will be a challenge. "Finding an a cappella hit song is like a needle in a haystack," says RCA president Tom Corson. "It hasn't been done since, like, Bobby McFerrin's 'Don't Worry Be Happy.' A true and pure a cappella record is a unicorn."
Pentatonix will be studying under Kelly Clarkson when they open her summer tour, but they've already earned a valuable education from their years spent dissecting and rearranging the Top 40. "It revealed the formula of pop songs and why they work and what doesn't work," says Grassi, the Iggy Azalea to Hoying's Ariana Grande when they sing "Problem." "The artists who can play to their brand, like Taylor Swift, are artists who know their artistry so well to be able to connect to so many people. I think we've figured that out to an extent, but we haven't fine-tuned it yet."
Scoring a radio hit might seem out of order – or even anachronistic – for a group that has already gone platinum, won a Grammy and sold out the Theater at Madison Square Garden. But getting airplay remains a personal goal for all its members. "We're competing against the stigma that a cappella can't be successful," says Hoying. "Major labels and radio would be like, 'A cappella is gimmicky, it will never be a real thing.' Now we're like, 'It's going to be a real thing – watch!'"