The a capella group that could
Being in Nashville, we all know how tough the music industry can be. The lengths one must go to get a recording contract are great, and are even greater still if one wishes to keep it. With so many artists trying to penetrate the market, so many amazing talents get lost in the shuffle.
This is especially true for contestants on reality show singing competitions. Shows like American Idol and The Voice are all over the place. To make a mark, musicians have to be not only talented, but also incredibly driven, well connected, and very lucky.
Such is the case of rock-star a cappella group Pentatonix. Most recently, you’ve seen them on film with a cameo in Pitch Perfect 2, singing at this year’s Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder, and on YouTube with their incredibly successful videos.
The group came to fame by way of Season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off. They are now a household name. Recently, I spoke with one of the openly gay members of the group, Mitch Grassi, on the group’s rise to success, which wasn’t as seamless as it looked.
The group was born as a trio out of Arlington, Texas. Having grown up together in a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, Kirstie Maldondo, Scott Hoying, and Mitch Grassi were the best of friends. Self-professed choir nerds, the three were in the choir at Martin High School in Arlington. A local radio show held a contest for local talent, and the grand prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles to meet the cast of Glee.
The three of them decided to combine their talents and make a go of it. “The competition was for an a cappella group, so Kirstie, Scott, and I were all close at the time. Obviously we were obsessed with music and singing, so we just put it together at the last minute,” Mitch said in our exclusive interview.
They composed an a cappella version of the song, “Telephone,” a collaboration of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Even though they didn’t win the competition, the three stuck together as friends. They kept performing around school and gained some attention locally. The three of them also went on to win local competitions in solo performances and kept honing their musical craft. They knew they had something even then, they just weren’t quite sure what to do with it.
A year later, Kirstie and Scott graduated high school and were at college. Scott went to the University of Southern California and joined the school’s a cappella group, The SoCal VoCals. One of his friends in the group, Ben Bram, encouraged Scott to try out for NBC’s The Sing Off. Scott knew then what he had to do. He called up Kirstie, who was in school at the University of Oklahoma, and Mitch, who would end up missing his high school graduation, and talked them into dropping everything to make the audition. The only problem? The show required a minimum of five people to be considered.
Avriel “Avi” Kaplan and Scott Hoying met through mutual friends. Avi’s bass sound was well known throughout the a cappella community, as he had been in numerous groups. When he was a member of Fermata Nowhere, the group became the first community college choir to ever to win the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. When Avi was shown the “Telephone” video on YouTube, he was impressed and knew he had to join in.
Kevin Osoula is a cello-playing, beat-boxing machine from just up the road in Owensboro, Kentucky. Born to parents from Nigeria and Grenada, Kevin’s musical talents were fostered from a very early age. He attended Yale University, where he majored in East Asian studies, even spending eighteen months in Beijing. His interests in music won out, though, in the end.
Kevin developed what he called “celloboxing,” a style of music where he would play his cello and beat box along with it. He won several awards and was featured on NPR, CBS, AOL, Huffington Post, and several others. Scott and the gang found him on YouTube and decided to bring him on as well.
The five of them met for the first time the day before the audition. They had no idea whether it would work or not, obviously a scary proposition. “I feel like we all took a really big risk,” Mitch said. “It was scary enough going into it, since we’d all just met the day before. So we were all ‘Is this going to work?’ But luckily, everything just meshed musically. It made the experience that much sweeter, and then after that, we realized how special it really was. We just put everything on hold and made it happen. And it worked out, thank God!”
Made it happen, indeed. Pentatonix dominated Season 3 of The Sing Off. They were noted on the show for their ability to “sing, dance, harmonize, and put together a respectable arrangement in just minutes.” They covered songs like “E.T.” by Katy Perry, “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin, and “Stuck Like Glue” by Sugarland, as well as many more popular hit singles of the time.
The Sing Off also offered Pentatonix a platform to raise awareness for issues facing LGBT youth—a cause important to all of the group’s members, but of special significance to Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying, who were both openly members of the LGBT community. During the show, the group visited the offices of The Trevor Project and filmed a public service announcement with the organization.
During the finale, in which Pentatonix went head to head against the Dartmouth Aires and Urban Method, both very talented groups, a segment about The Trevor Project aired on network television. This generated a great deal of controversy as the network edited the clip, eliminating references to LGBT specific issues and to Grassi’s and Hoying’s sexual orientation.
LGBT controversy aside, Pentatonix prevailed over their competitors and won the competition. The prize was a recording contract with Sony and a check for $200,000.
As with every success story, there are bound to be hiccups. Reality shows are well known for not always supporting their winners after the show ends. It takes a lot of hard work, determination, and immense amounts of creativity to keep going once the show is over. This was the case with Pentatonix, as well. Once Sony had the recording contract, the studio didn’t quite know what to do with them.
They were assigned to a smaller recording label, Madison Gate Records, which is owned by Sony but is normally used for smaller projects. Madison Gate is more known for its work with movie soundtracks and Broadway musical recordings. The label had only produced two artist albums: a joint project of Kevin Costner and Modern West, as well as one by The Backbeats, also Sing Off alums. Pentatonix was by far this small label’s most popular production, and it didn’t really make sense for the group to be on this label.
“I think, at the time, there wasn’t really a market for what we do,” Mitch said. “It’s very niche. They weren’t really prepared to put as much work into such a project. There really was no guarantee that we were going to be able to sell records, or sell tours, or anything like that. They were just like, ‘Yeah, you guys are great, but no thanks.’”
For most people, this would have marked the end of the story. But these five are not most people. Even with such a big blow to the group, it didn’t even come close to putting a stop to their plans. “Honestly, I mean, we were so naïve at this point in time,” Mitch explained. “We were just like, ‘Oh! I mean that’s ok, let’s just do it ourselves.’ And I feel like that was a good thing because we handled everything. We had creative control over what content we put out and when we put it out. So, in a way, it was sort of a blessing. It never really jarred us or upset us too much, surprisingly.”
They found their way forward in a medium they’ve used before—YouTube. “This was at a time when YouTube users were getting a lot of traction, especially musicians. And it was a great way to get your name out there. Scott was just like, ‘Hey, you know things are a little slow right now, but maybe if we do what we do best and put it out there, maybe something good can come from it.’ And, sure enough, it did.” And with their first video, a Daft Punk mashup, Pentatonix was on fire. It has led to a huge career.
Of course, along the way there were other problems. Some Christian groups are upset with Pentatonix for releasing a Christmas album, That’s Christmas to Me. Some in the homophobic Christian right have told their followers to be wary. One religious blogger on bereanresearch.com wrote, “Two of the male members of this group are openly homosexual, and actively promoting LGBTQ initiatives. That breaks my heart, because I know it breaks God’s.”
The religious, anti-gay blogosphere is crawling with exhortations about what “good Christians” should do. Another blogger on Delight in Truth writes, “Dear Christians, if you find the Word of God as inspired and authoritative, please stop buying, promoting, liking, posting, and applauding these Pentatonix videos. Would you listen daily to an openly gay pastor who promotes the LGBTQ lifestyle and preaches ‘really good?’ If no, then why promote Pentatonix?”
How do such criticisms affect the group? “You know, it’s really easy to ignore for me. We have a lot more supporters than we do opposition,” Mitch said, “so it doesn’t really bother me. I think it’s an unfair argument because we’re not marketing ourselves as a Christian group or religious group, we’re marketing ourselves as a family group, and, at the end of the day, we make music that we want people to enjoy. That’s really all it’s about. It’s not about preaching a message or anything like that necessarily. I think that argument is pretty invalid.”
The argument is not only invalid, it also went unheeded: that Christmas album went on to be certified double platinum, meaning it sold over two-million copies. It was, in fact, the most successful Christmas album for any group since 1962, even surpassing Mannheim Steamroller.
Pentatonix has gone on to win multiple Grammys, tour with Kelly Clarkson, and headline sold out world tours of their own. They have now sold a combined 2.8 million records in the U.S. alone. Now on the RCA record label, they have really become the first a cappella group to achieve mainstream success in the modern market.
“I still feel like a completely nerdy kid who’s just singing in an a cappella group with his friends,” Mitch said. “It’s still so weird, but maybe it’s because I’m just so young.”
They really are living the proverbial dream. In their recent movie, On My Way Home, the group documented their previous national tour. The chemistry they have with one another is visible. They know each move the other is going to make and are synched so well, it becomes obvious how they work so well together: sharing talent and charisma, they’re the absolute best of friends whom have truly become each other’s family. That family also includes their friend, Ben Bram, who told Scott to try out for The Sing Off: He’s now their producer and a co-arranger.
When Pentatonix comes to town this May, they are going to be bringing a big show. “Omigosh! We’re bringing a lot more new songs,” Mitch promised. “We’re doing almost the entire new album, which is awesome! I’m so excited that we have original music that we can perform all the time and our fans can sing along to. We’re bringing a humongous show, production wise. And… a couple of surprises. And that’s all I’m going to say!”
For a group that is known for what they can come up with in a moment’s notice, it’s surely going to be a show that is full of surprises and fun to watch.
If you would like to learn more about Pentatonix, you can explore their website, amazing YouTube videos, or the full length documentary, Pentatonix: On My Way Home, on Netflix. Tickets to the Nashville Bridgestone Arena show on May 10 are available through ticketmaster.com and all Ticket Master outlets.