I just had to write to celebrate the fact that in last week’s Billboard 200 charts, Sing-Off Season 3 champions Pentatonix debuted at No. 14 with over 18,000 copies sold. Sure, 18,000 seems to be a small amount but there are several things you need to consider:
- The record industry is currently a singles-oriented market, and with the rare exception of, say, Adele, it is difficult for any act to achieve platinum (selling 1 million copies) status.
- Non-American Idol reality singing competition champions rarely enjoy album sales levels at this level. As noted in an Entertainment Weekly article, Pentatonix outsold The Voice Season 1 champion Javier Colon by almost doubling Javier’s debut tally. Moreover, the albums by previous seasons’ champions Nota and Committed didn’t even debut in the upper half of the Billboard 200. And considering the aforementioned champions’ seasons’ TV ratings significantly exceed that of Pentatonix’s season of the Sing-Off.
- An interesting ironic note from above–Nota and Committed were signed to the major labels Sony and Epic respectively, while Pentatonix ended up having their EP distributed by indie label Madison Gate Records (though actually they were not really dropped by Sony, as was widely believed, as Madison Gate is actually under the Sony umbrella–this label tends to specialize in movie soundtracks).
- With the exception of Bobby McFerrin back in 1988, when he had the major zeitgeist hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime craze for monks chanting Gregorian chants in the early 1990s, it is rare for an a cappella album to chart within the Top 20. The best showing for an a cappella act in recent years was the Indiana University alumni group Straight No Chaser, who garnered major buzz on YouTube with their funny-and-innovative reinterpretation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (fusing it with other Christmas carols, a Hanukkah ditty, along with Toto’s “Africa”), leading to be signed to Atlantic Records and charting three albums in the top 50 of the Billboard 200 (two of them being holiday-themed releases, but their highest charting entry was their non-Christmas album With a Twist at No. 29).
Despite being a champion in what was considered to be a “flop” season (in terms of audience ratings which led to NBC deciding to cancel the show altogether, not in terms of the program’s quality which was actually of a very high standard), how did this group achieve the relative success it did?
First, it helped that the group made an effort to maintain a prominent profile post-victory. Lead member Scott Hoying had been posting YouTube videos of his performances over the past few years, and the same approach, buoyed by the exposure afforded by The Sing-Off (yes, even with the lower ratings), helped Pentatonix sustain its momentum in the public eye, as they keep their devoted fans happy with almost regular YouTube postings of fresh renditions of various songs. This is on top of fans taping their live performances in a huge majority of their concert appearances, further stoking the devotion of their fiercely loyal fanbase.
But a very important factor why this group managed to sustain the loyalty and devotion of its fans is the quality of their output. I have already posted their cover versions of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “You Da One”, but they also created further buzz with their cover versions of fun’s “We Are Young” and Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (which serves as their “single” to promote the EP, with a “produced” music video to boot). Several fan message postings prior to the announcement of the release of their EP were in the line of “You are so phenomenally wonderful that I want to buy your music–when are you going to release a record?” Such sentiments reflect the high caliber of their talents and performances. Wonder why YouTube sensations like Sam Tsui, Mike Tompkins, and Walk Off the Earth have not yet translated their million hits and followings into record sales?
Though they have yet to achieve widespread radio airplay, this development is a good start on what promises to be a stellar and groundbreaking career for this trailblazing quintet. Let’s hope that down the line they will get the widespread radio airplay, consistent and continuous critical acclaim, validation by their peers (how about a Best New Artist nomination, Grammy committee?), and growing record sales.
I’ll end this essay by embedding their brilliant rendition of fun’s “We Are Young” (a stellar cross-genre trip, from an updated Bo Diddley beat to pop to Latin Caribbean merengue to dubstep until slowing down to close the tune), their cheesy-but-fun video to Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”, and their recently posted live performance with American Idol Season 6 champion Jordin Sparks, backing her up on her Top 40 hit “Battlefield”.