Inside Pentatonix, 'Pitch Perfect' and the Pop Culture Phenomenon of A Cappella Music
"No record executive would ever [think], 'The biggest song from a movie in the past five years will be this old tune of a woman sitting onstage alone, flipping a plastic cup"
Alongside needle-moving, genre-defying priority releases on the RCA Records slate — Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear and "Weird Al" Yankovic's Mandatory Fun among them — is the new album by Pentatonix, highlighting one of the oldest musical forms: a cappella vocals.
But before you cry "Gregorian chant," don't call it a fad: Pentatonix — an electro-infused five-piece that formed for NBC's The Sing-Off in 2011 (and won) and cut its teeth on cover songs before graduating to instrument-less videos of Lorde and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hits, original songs and brand alignments with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Oreo — has collected more than 520 million cumulative YouTube views and boasts more subscribers than Avicii and Beyonce. So for the group's major-label debut, PTX Vol. 3, on Sept. 23, "we expect it to be a pull, not a push," says RCA president/COO Tom Corson. Industry sources predict an opening week of 50,000-plus units (the act has sold 475,000 albums and 1.5 million downloads to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan), which should be good for a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200.
Credit 2012's Pitch Perfect, the hit movie about competing collegiate a cappella groups — complete with campy choreography and eye-rolling ballads — for destigmatizing the sound. (Pitch Perfect 2 is due out in May 2015.) Starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, the $17 million Universal rom-com would gross $113 million worldwide, spawn the top-selling soundtrack of 2013 (1.1 million units to date) and land a hit with "Cups (When I'm Gone)" — Kendrick's rendition of the 1931 Carter Family bluegrass track — which rose to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"No record executive would ever [think], 'The biggest song from a movie in the past five years will be this old tune of a woman sitting onstage alone, flipping a plastic cup,' " jokes Deke Sharon, the film's vocal director, who also produces The Sing-Off. That show was rebooted in 2013 by Mark Burnett in the wake of Pitch Perfect's success and grew by 1.6 million total viewers after nearly two years off the air.
The numbers are undeniable, and it's why Pentatonix's holiday album, That's Christmas to Me (Oct. 21), will be accompanied by a "TV blitz," says Corson, that includes morning shows, prime-time programming, Christmas tree lightings and a long-form special. Also, "expect really gigantic retail plans, physical and digital [that] will push the Pentatonix brand into another stratosphere." However, warns bandmember Mitch Grassi, the vetting process can't be "too novelty ... We want to come across as universal and family-friendly, but viewed as an actual band that's serious about what we do."
Indeed, the seriousness with which Pentatonix hones its craft has made a cappella an attractive booking for promoters, too. "It was challenging at first," says manager Jonathan Kalter of handpicking seated and standing-room venues that could be calibrated to the act's sound needs. "Once promoters understood that anywhere Pentatonix went, they'd sell tickets — which is all promoters care about — it was a matter of finding the room."
The group just wrapped an international tour — including a North American leg that grossed $1.1 million (its top stop: New York's seated Beacon Theatre, with more than $186,000 in ticket sales) — with a 90-minute set that included choreography, storytelling and solo moments for the singers. But can that live showmanship translate into a hit? Pentatonix's Scott Hoying says it's a matter of making "an a cappella sound that's unique" without trying to emulate instruments. "It's just five people singing, and it works."