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October 5, 2008

A cappella Dreaming: 10 Voices, One Shot

New York Times:

Ten years ago, the founding members of Straight No Chaser — an undergraduate a cappella group from Indiana University — performed at Carnegie Hall. They sang the national anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. They took road trips, ensnared female fans and created a lasting tradition on campus. And then they graduated.

The a cappella group Straight No Chaser has taken a not-so-straight path to a five-album recording contract. The members, now mostly in their 30s, began singing in the act while undergraduates at Indiana University.

Save for the odd wedding or college reunion, these men had not sung together with any regularity since. Until 2008, when Craig Kallman, the chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records, offered the 10-man group a five-album record deal.

This may be the year’s most unlikely major-label story.

David Roberts, 31, a project manager for a Midtown bank, was sitting in his cubicle in January when he got the call. Michael Itkoff, also 31, a sales rep for a medical-device company, was at home in Atlanta. Jerome Collins, 32, was in Hong Kong starring as Simba in a theme-park production of “The Lion King.”

“We thought it was a joke,” Mr. Itkoff said. “But Atlantic flew us to New York and put us up at the Dream hotel. There was a fruit plate in my hotel room. They were talking about a tour with Josh Groban or Michael Bublé. I thought, Are you kidding me?”

Mr. Kallman — like nearly eight million others — discovered Straight No Chaser on YouTube in December, through a 1998 video of the group performing an unlikely riff on “The 12 Days of Christmas” (a riff that incorporated snippets of everything from “I Have a Little Dreidel” to Toto’s “Africa”). Randy Stine, an original member, had uploaded the clip strictly for the group’s own amusement, but it quickly went viral.

“We thought the attention would die down after the New Year,” said the group’s founder, Dan Ponce, 31, now a reporter for ABC News in Chicago.

But Mr. Kallman smelled a potential holiday crossover hit in the vein of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a metal band famous for playing Christmas music in large, sold-out arenas. That band has sold more than five million albums, and last year it played a 90-city tour that grossed more than $45 million.

“We’re at a time when we’re entertained by air-guitar video games and reality competitions about hairstyling, dressmaking and grocery bagging,” Mr. Kallman said in a telephone interview. “Straight No Chaser was this organic YouTube sensation. The idea is to develop an act with real resonance for the holiday season and build a brand in the a cappella arena.”

Major labels have flirted with a cappella groups before. R&B acts like the Persuasions had been signed to the majors in the 1970s before moving to smaller labels in recent years. In 2005, Tonic Sol-fa, an a cappella quartet out of Minneapolis, was briefly signed to Vivaton Records (a division of Sony), but the label folded a week before the group’s album hit shelves. At the height of the 1990s boy-band boom, an a cappella group called 4:2:Five (featuring a young Scott Porter of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”) met with Sony, but when the executives suggested adding backing tracks and choreography, the members walked.

That kind of tinkering is perhaps understandable. While there are more than 1,200 collegiate a cappella groups in the United States, according to estimates from the Contemporary a Cappella Society of America, mainstream attitudes toward the genre are not kind. A cappella is regularly mocked on screen, notably on the NBC comedy “The Office” and recently in the Will Ferrell film “Step Brothers.” Still, Mr. Kallman was not deterred. He did not want to hide that these men were an a cappella group. Rather, he hoped to embrace it.

“Group harmony is in the air,” he said. “ ‘Jersey Boys’ is a worldwide phenomenon. The ‘Mamma Mia!’ soundtrack is Number 1.” With Straight No Chaser, Atlantic is aiming for the mass audience that made Mr. Groban’s “Noël” the top-selling album of 2007.

Read the rest of the lengthy article here.

Posted by acapnews at October 5, 2008 4:39 PM


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