Why Peter Hollens & Pentatonix are the future of a cappella
Deft with YouTube, Available on iTunes, and breaking all the rules
I sang in what I would call a prototypical all-male collegiate a cappella group, and yes, it was exactly like what you have in your head. We shamelessly serenaded sorority girls, we threw massive off-campus parties while hosting hundreds of traveling singers, and we drank a lot—read: a lot—of beer. And yet, we were always on the red side of broke and even though we were best friends, it took way more effort than it should have to keep that group alive.
I spent the better half of a decade singing with those guys. I acted as the business manager for several of those years, working closely with the music director to coordinate the professional recording of an album of cover songs, and then aggressively promoting the group in order to sell enough copies to pay for it all. I lined up gigs all around town and even had us travel at times, all to pay for our recording, competition, and…let’s be honest…our parties.
But truth be told, the market for a cappella was basically non-existent. Sure, people were always intrigued by the novelty, and they all had an aunt who would “love to have us sing in her backyard at her daughter’s wedding reception,” but when it came time to talk money it was like we were on different planets. You see, non-famous music has a very interesting economic model: tour or die. You need several shows per week, 48 weeks out of the year, if you want to make enough to pay for your food and equipment. And that’s with a band of four. Singing once every couple weeks in some very nice lady’s backyard…that’s just not going to cut it for a group of 14 guys who eat—and drink—more than an army of wildlings.
So when I threw out a price of $5,000 for us to sing 8 covers…well, let’s just say I would immediately pretend like I was joking and go with the usual, “how does $50 per song sound?”
This brings me to Peter Hollens and Pentatonix. Both earned their fame on NBC’s The Sing Off, though Peter spent years prior to the show working harder than most in the world of collegiate a cappella, flying coast-to-coast recording pitchy, overconfident groups like ours for their cover albums (thanks Peter!). Though Hollens and Pentatonix are very different, they are both following what I would call the first real path to using a cappella as the sole vehicle to fund a lifestyle.
Let’s explore the new model: Hear a hit song early in its lifecycle. Outsource the arrangement and record yourself singing all or most of the parts. Team up with a separate rising YouTube star with a similar but different subscriber base. Get a good videographer to film a video of you singing it with said YouTube personality. Work your fanbase to prep them for the release. Release it, and plug the places to buy the song & past songs or your next tour date. Rinse and repeat.
Now let me break it down. First, Hollens hears a song and has an ear for whether it will be a top-50 hit in a month. He tweets to his adoring fanbase to prime them for a new release. He might post a teaser video on YouTube to build the anticipation. He outsources or collaborates on the arrangement with a genius arranger like Tom Anderson. He finds a rising YouTube star and gets in touch with them about producing a mutually-beneficial YouTube video that will increase the subscribers for both parties. They agree, because Peter is really nice and truly has a great fanbase. Peter lines up a professional videographer to shoot the music video. He scouts a location and writes a script of sorts. He receives the arrangement from Tom and records it himself in his home studio, perfecting each waveform with the seasoned mouse control of a man with 4,000+ hours of audio engineering experience earned recording cover albums for collegiate a cappella groups. Perhaps he sends it to a friend to mix & master (UPDATE: Peter wanted to recognize the awesome work of Ed Boyer and Bill Hare in mixing his songs), perhaps he does it himself. Either way, he waits for the perfect time to release the song when his audience is primed and the song is hitting the mainstream listener base. He releases the YouTube video and the iTunes single at the same time, then plugs like crazy to rake in the views and downloads. When it hits the 90,000 views mark, it’s time to start searching for the next early-stage hit. Meanwhile, the views will consistently tick up as the cross-pollenation between YouTube subscriber bases pays off. In time, it will break 1,000,000 views if Hollens chose the right song at the right time.
Pentatonix have an even simpler model, but because they have more group members to pay for it requires travel and touring. They have some serious in-house talent, both in the vocal sense and in business savvy. They understand that for them, touring pays the bills, so they release all of their videos for free on YouTube without singles on iTunes attached to them (usually). Then they tour and sell out small venues across the country. Life on the road isn’t easy, but they’ve successfully transitioned from the TV audience to a fanbase of music lovers who will pay to see them sing. It sounds more traditional, and it is, but it’s also still 100% contemporary a cappella. And making real money singing a cappella is anything but traditional.
Yes, collegiate a cappella is still alive and well. It’s not dying, nor am I saying that it’s about to. Groups will continue to bring in measly revenues of $500 per gig, a couple gigs per month, for the foreseeable future. And turnover in those groups will make it hard to pull a real revolution together. But the new model is growing, and we can expect to see a dozen new Pentatonix and Peter Hollens in the next few years. If they continue to prove that it is possible to make money singing a cappella, then there’s no telling what the future will hold for the genre.
Until then, keep up the good work Peter & PTX. You’re breaking the rules, clearing a path for the rest of us to follow. Thank you for your music, and know that you are inspiring a new generation of a cappella singers with each and every video.