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Hit A Capella Group Pentatonix Talk About Their Rise to Success, New EP PTX Vol. 3, and Christmas Album
By Jonathan Widran
Published September 18, 2014
When the cleverly named 5-piece a capella group Pentatonix won the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011, they received prize money of $200,000 and a recording contract with Sony. Considering that lead vocalists Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado all dropped out of college to pursue their careers, the group—which also includes vocal bassist Avi Kaplan and beatboxer Kevin “K.O.” Olusola—quickly took the initiative to start creating and posting homegrown videos (starting with an iPad-created cover of “Moves Like Jagger”) and developing a hyperactive social media presence. Now an across-the-board YouTube, Billboard Chart and live performance sensation, Pentatonix is releasing two new recording projects in Fall 2014, the 7-track EP PTX Vol. 3 (follow-up to their first two bestselling EPs) and their second holiday album, That’s Christmas To Me.
According to Hoying, Pentatonix’ decision to supplement their recording projects with video presentations focusing on individual vocals and group interaction was based on their desire to build and connect with their growing fan base. Having recently eclipsed six million subscribers and over 560 million cumulative views, the PTXOfficial is currently the 13th most subscribed to music channel on YouTube, having surpassed the subscriber totals of both Avicii and Beyonce. Their most viewed single clips include a Daft Punk medley (90 million), “Somebody That I Used To Know” (30.5 million), “Royals” (40 million) and their dynamic “Evolution of Music,” a 4-minute, 36-snippet journey through the history of music that has tallied over 45 million views.
Pentatonix’ two previously released EPs, which feature both dynamic arrangements of contemporary pop hits and original songs penned by the group, have been equally successful. Released in 2013, PTX Vol. 2 debuted at #10 on Billboard’s Top 200, topping their debut PTX, Volume 1, which reached #14 on the Top 200 and #2 on the Independent Albums chart. Their first holiday set PTXMAS hit #7 on the Top 200 and #1 on the Digital Albums chart with sales of over 200,000. Their video for “The Little Drummer Boy” was a hit as well, racking up nearly 35 million views. After releasing their first three projects on Sony’s Madison Gate label, in May 2014 Pentatonics signed with Sony flagship label RCA.
“Video has been a great platform for us, and our fans have enjoyed seeing our mouths as we sing individually and as a unit, which is very unique,” says Hoying. “We joined the crowd-funding site Patreon and have enjoyed the support of our fans, who we reward with things like streams of unreleased music. That grass-roots approach has helped us reach our goal of $15,000 for each video so that we can shoot and edit with great equipment and work with a choreographer. Having the support of a major label has also helped. The key is to share an intimate look about how our songs, arrangements and vocals develop. I think in a pop music world where productions tend to be very produced and loud, a lot of people are looking for something simpler and organic to latch on to. Beyond the music, we think people appreciate our passion and the hard work we put into making and sharing our music.”
Considering the powerful musical chemistry that drives Pentatonix, perhaps the most incredible aspect of their rise to stardom is the fact that the five members didn’t all meet in person until the day before they auditioned for The Sing-Off. When Hoying was a freshman at USC, he decided to audition for the show and enlisted childhood friends (and fellow natives of Arlington, Texas) Maldonado and Grassi to join him. As a high school vocal trio, the three – who had done everything from community theatre to school choir together - had found success both locally and online with their cover of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” Hoping to add depth to the group, he added Kaplan, a well known Southern California bass vocalist, and found Olusola via his dynamic YouTube video for ”Julie-O,” which features his cello-boxing (simultaneously beatboxing and performing on cello).
Drawing from an array of diverse influences—pop, jazz, R&B, indie, folk, dubstep and electronica, among others—they performed covers of everyone from Kanye West and Steppenwolf to Florence and the Machine and even “Video Killed The Radio Star” on their way to the Season 3 championship. Since then, they have toured North America twice and Europe once. Pentatronix also performed for Quincy Jones at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and were a featured performer for Diana Ross at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl. They’ve continued to be a popular draw on TV as well, appearing on Ellen, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Talk, the American Music Awards Red Carpet Show and even Sesame Street.
With a similar balance of covers and originals as its predecessors, PTX Vol. 3 includes a new twist on Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” a cool mash-up of two Sam Smith features (collectively dubbed “La La Latch”), and a cover of the Belgian hit “Papaoutai” featuring violinist Lindsey Stirling. Group originals include “On My Way Home,” “See Through” and “Standing By.”
Explaining their unique arranging and composing processes, Hoying says, “In terms of covers, we pick any song that really inspires us, as well as songs that are super popular and people are already listening to non-stop. They love hearing them performed in a totally unexpected way, flipping it upside down. We’ll sit in a circle and jam, basically, starting with an attempt at the first verse. If we’re thinking funky, Kevin will start doing the beat and Avi will loop his bassline and one of us leads will sing solo over it and the others will do the harmonies. Mitch, Kirstie and I all have different ranges so it’s easy to determine who will get the lead based on the song.
“Originals are trickier, because it’s so hard to get them through to people,” he adds. “Everyone’s got a short attention span these days, so it’s crucial that the songs have instantly catchy hooks and lyrics people can relate to. A really great song is unique in some way, and that’s always what we strive for. With our own material, it’s a vulnerable thing so only a few of us will write it—it’s rarely as a full group effort. It can happen as organically as our new song ‘Standing By.’ Kevin came into our dressing room before a show saying he can’t get this melody out of his mind and singing it for the rest of us. We all heard the basic tune a bit differently. But we could hear Avi’s voice on it and it lent itself to a Mumford & Songs vibe. Then Avi and Kevin wrote lyrics to it and we all arranged it with a worldly tribal vibe. Our songs have different origins but vocal arrangements are the one thing we love to together.”