It is astounding how five singular voices blended together, without a single instrument other than that, can be Internet sensations and household names in just three years from the group’s formation. It was not only their victory the NBC reality show The Sing Off that made contemporary pop a cappella group Pentatonix famous, but the culture of music composition and remixing that exists on the Internet, specifically on Youtube, where the group boasts millions of hits per video within a short time of release, that solidified its fame. The popularity of Pentatonix’s hit covers and original songs is magnified with the distribution of their music via various social networks. This chain of hype surrounding this up-and-coming a cappella group, boosted by the ethic of sharing on the Internet, has helped revive the excitement about a cappella music and has added yet another interesting facet to our current digital music scene.
The eclectic group members of Pentatonix: Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi, Kevin Olusula, and Avi Kaplan, were at various stages in their life when they decided to band together and audition for NBC’s a cappella competition reality show, The Sing Off. Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie met in school in their hometown of Arlington, Texas, but Scott found the other members of the group, by scouting out the best singers in the Los Angeles area, where he attended college and met Avi, and later scouring Youtube to find outstanding beat-boxer and cellist Kevin, to complete the five. They entered the third season of The Sing Off and ended up winning the competition because of their likability, their group dynamic, their fresh, unique image, and of course their natural, captivating vocal talent, all of which are things that transition well from television to the Internet. Following the show, the group released two EP albums in L.A., selling more than 125,000 copies, reaching the Billboard Top 200, and has done two nationwide tours since then. Pentatonix is currently the “it” group in the a cappella realm, recognized for their inventive covers of influential artists including Daft Punk, Beyonce, and Macklemore. What sets this group’s music apart from much of what is produced today is that their sound is purely organic; all sounds that are audible in their songs are made by members of the group themselves, including bass drums and beat-boxing. They stay faithful to the traditions of a cappella as it was in its early twentieth century Barbershop days, especially in this age of music where most arstists’ sound is digitally remastered, but add a modern, electronic dance twist on the typical pop music we hear on the radio or on our Spotify accounts.
Most of the group’s popularity stems from the millions of Youtube views they get on each video they produce on their on their channel, “PTX Official” . Their biggest most recent videos include a medley of Daft Punk covers, with almost 62 million views, along with their own “Evolution of Music”, with over 36 million views, and a cover of Lorde’s hit song “Royals”, with more than 32 million views. Many of their videos have gone viral, skyrocketing them to immediate Internet popularity, especially through entertainment sites such as Reddit and Buzzfeed. They are also wildly popular on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, with 1,250,000 Facebook followers, and 278,000 Twitter followers. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the group discusses their secret to viral Internet success: bringing something original to huge pop hits that people have heard before, but would love to hear performed in a new, interesting way. One Pentatonix video in particular, the “Evolution of Beyonce”, a mashup of the pop diva’s greatest hits, evoked an enormous social media response, including a share and shoutout to the group from “Queen B” herself on her Facebook page, delighting self-proclaimed Beyonce superfan Scott Hoying.
Another monumental success for the group was a collaboration with renowned violinist and Youtube sensation Lindsey Stirling on a cover of Imagine Dragons’ Billboard Hot 100 song, “Radioactive”, which gained over 64 million total views between Sterling’s channel and the PTX Official Channel. In addition to the group’s accomplishments, two of the original members of Pentatonix, Scott and Mitch, have also created their own Youtube channel, “Superfruit”, in which they celebrate remix culture with performances such as a medley of songs from Disney’s feature film, Frozen, taking part in the viral Internet trend for months following the film’s release of covering songs from the animated musical.
The most recent video featuring the entire group of Pentatonix is a powerful cover of A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something”, which was just published February 24, 2014, went “mega-viral” in less than a week of its release, and is still currently a big hit, with 13 million views. Fans have been moved by this performance in particular, but also by all of Pentatonix’s honest, heartfelt covers; one fan commented on the Youtube page, “How does music get any better than this?”. Another Youtuber praised the group’s originality, commenting, “What I really love about this group is that every new song I hear takes me back to the first time I listened to them”. This inventiveness in musical arrangements and presentation is what keeps viewers returning to Pentatonix’s channel, video after video.
A cappella music has been put back on the map thanks to the ease of sharing and enjoying it online. The recording industry has not been the same since the age of digital distribution of music. Natalie Butz, Arts and Entertainment correspondent for PolicyMic, addresses this change in respect to Pentatonix’s increasing fame:
“You’ve heard it a million times: the music industry has gone through a tectonic shift. iTunes, YouTube, Bandcamp, Spotify, Pandora, Nimbit, all of these online tools and more are not only making music more accessible than ever before, they’re making it easier for amateur artists to record and distribute their work…Some may believe it’s the death of the music industry. But it also means groups like Pentatonix can record amazing songs and get the recognition they deserve. “
The Internet has helped perpetuate this resurgence of a cappella in pop culture, especially with the help of television viewers of The Sing Off and fans of the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect. The Sing Off finished its fourth season in 2013, provoking a positive response on social networks, and Pitch Perfect released a music video six months after the movie for Anna Kendrick’s song “Cups” because of its explosion of fame, radio remixes, and surplus of imitating videos on Youtube.
A cappella music’s online presence tends to excite a new generation of musicians to create their own interpretations of popular songs and artists and bring those unique versions into the mainstream via the Internet. Pearse Corcoran for Sabotage Times calls a cappella music the emerging “anthem of the hipster”, and “this generation’s rock and roll”. “It’s the only way you can survive in history, by making your mark on where you are in life,” he says, affirming that the digital age is the perfect time for a cappella music to be shared and celebrated.
“Aca-blogs” such as The A Cappella Blog, A Cappella News, A Cappella Zone Vocal Blog, and even ACA Blog, a blog guiding other a cappella blogs, are how a cappella communities form online, to get their news out, hear about the newest covers and arrangements being worked on, as well as about the latest competitions such as the ICCA, the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. A cappella nerds are able to meet and communicate in a way that they never could before to exchange ideas thanks to the digital universe. I am a member of one of the a cappella groups here on campus, the Fordham b-Sides, and we get much of our inspiration from a cappella music we find on the Internet, whether it comes from other collegiate groups, from groups that have become popular because of The Sing Off, or from groups such as Pentatonix, who have brought a cappella into the mainstream of pop music. The world of a cappella is so much wider with the help of digital sharing and remixing of music, and it makes the music we hear, without any instruments besides the human voice, that much sweeter.