Mention TV singing contests, and American Idol and The Voice would probably come to mind. Or closer to home, I am a Singer, where canto-pop star G.E.M. performed to audiences bawling their eyes out. Less well-known is The Sing-Off, an American competition featuring a cappella groups, which led to the formation of Pentatonix.
Scott Hoying, 23, a self-labeled “choir nerd”, became obsessed with a capella during university. In 2011, he gathered his childhood friends Mitch Grassi and Kirstie Maldonado, both now 22, to join The Sing-Off. The show required them to have at least five people to form a team, so the trio went looking for two more members. A friend introduced them to bass singer Avi Kaplan, 25, and a short time later they saw a YouTube video of Kevin Olusola, 26, beat-boxing and playing cello at the same time.
Believe it or not, the group all met for the first time just one day before the audition. With Kaplan’s booming bass lines and Olusola’s slick beats pulsing along to impeccable harmonies and creative music arrangements, the group took home the crown.
They went on to perform on the Chinese version of The Sing-Off, where locals were blown away by Olusola’s fluent Mandarin and Kaplan’s overtone singing, where he sings in two pitches (a low hum in harmony with a soft whistle) at the same time.
Their victory earned them a recording contract, but they were soon dropped from their label. Undaunted, they continued uploading a cappella covers and medleys onto their YouTube channel. “Winning really solidified in our minds that this is something special and we could make a name for ourselves in the music industry,” Grassi tells Young Post. “As many ‘no’s as we got, we just kept pushing forward.”
Persistence paid off: last May they released their fourth EP PTX Vol. III. Then, on Christmas Eve, their second holiday album, That’s Christmas to Me, went platinum.
And this year the success continues: they’ve snagged a Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella, and will appear in the upcoming musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2. They’re also working on a full-length album with more originals.
With over 7.3 million subscribers, the PTXofficial channel is the 12th most subscribed-to music channel on YouTube, above the likes of Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Demi Lovato. Grassi, who also has a separate YouTube channel with Hoying called Superfruit, says that in social media it’s essential to show that you’re a positive influence with a great personality. “It’s really important to be careful what you say because a lot of people are impressionable, and you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or offend anyone.”
One key to their online success is that the band is very in touch with their audience. For example, they invited people to upload covers of their original song That’s Christmas to Me, and tag them #ThatsChristmasToMe. The group then retweeted the videos, interacting with fans and promoting their song at the same time.
Although they don’t always cover the most popular songs, it would be safe to say that Pentatonix has made a cappella cool again. Ditching the black suits of typical vocal groups, the quintet presents their songs with flair in artistically produced music videos, such as their Daft Punk medley, which attracted more than 113 million views.
Even celebrities endorse their musical efforts. Beyoncé shared Grassi and Hoying’s medley of her latest album on her Facebook page, describing them as “flawless”.
Their upcoming album is sure to be full of surprises, because as Grassi says: “[A cappella music] is a lot more organic and different than just the processed stuff you hear on the radio these days. We do a lot of different styles. I think all different types of music can make people happy, and that’s what we like to do in Pentatonix.”