- A Cappella Dreaming: 10 Voices, One Shot by MICKEY RAPKIN; October 3, 2008 The a cappella group Straight No Chaser has taken a not-so-straight path to aMessage 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2008View Source
A Cappella Dreaming: 10 Voices, One Shot by MICKEY RAPKIN; October 3, 2008
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 atIndiana University .
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.
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.
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 Totos Africa). Randy Stine, an original member, had uploaded the clip strictly for the groups own amusement, but it quickly went viral.
We thought the attention would die down after the New Year, said the groups 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.
Were at a time when were 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 groups 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 NBCs 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 ofAmerica , 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. Grobans Noël the top-selling album of 2007.
Perhaps the idea of a major-label a cappella Christmas hit isnt so far-fetched. Once in a while a fresh Christmas album breaks through and has a chance of becoming a perennial seller, said Jay Landers, senior vice president of A&R at Columbia Records, an Atlantic competitor. Josh Groban and Mannheim Steamroller will continue to sell for years. A cappella might be considered a niche signing, but if the repertoire is fresh and accessible, then it could work.
And so a Straight No Chaser album, Holiday Spirits, is due out Oct. 28 on Atlantic s Atco imprint. The album is a collection of 12 Christmas classics (and two original holiday tunes), including a live version of The 12 Days of Christmas. (Richard Gregory, 76, now a retired music teacher in Massachusetts , wrote the original comic arrangement of the traditional carol while serving in the Navy in the 1950s. It became a staple of the Princeton Nassoons, and Straight No Chaser added its own funny flavor.)
There may even be a reality show on the horizon. Mark Burnett of the Survivor franchise, Jesse Ignjatovic, the executive producer of this years MTV Video Music Awards, and Atlantic are shopping a competition show featuring Straight No Chaser that is tentatively titled A Cappella Nation.
Look at whats working in the reality space family-friendly entertainment, Mr. Burnett said. Theres no way this is not a big hit. Its great music. Its fun for the whole family.Skip to next paragraph
The Straight No Chaser 12 Days of Christmas video had a certain kitsch appeal, what with 10 men harmonizing to I Have a Little Dreidel. But the eight million people who clicked on it were also likely responding to the genuine, unironic enjoyment plastered across the members faces; the video begged to be forwarded.
But the trick was capturing that energy on disc. Straight No Chaser the name was inspired by the Thelonious Monk composition began album rehearsals in March, and the first day was surreal. It was like we were right back in the senior year of college, and we were going over music for a show at a sorority house, Mr. Itkoff said. It was like no time had passed.
Except time had passed nearly a decade. Mr. Itkoff, the medical-device salesman, was married now and had to convince his wife that frequent trips to New York (and whatever might come next) would not upend their life in Atlanta . Theyd recently had a baby, and his wife had stopped working. Her biggest worry was that Id leave her for months at a time, with no income and a child.
For a similar reason, one original member, Patrick Hachey a high school music teacher in New Jersey with three kids and a wife declined to join the reunion. (Another original member, who had fallen out with others in the group, was not asked to join, and the slots were filled with two younger alumni. The group has had several lineups at IndianaUniversity .)
Most of the album was recorded over two weeks in July in Bloomington, Ind. Steve Lunt of Atlantic, an industry A&R veteran who has worked with Britney Spears and N Sync, was brought on to produce.
Though they were recording for a major label, the budget was conservative. Not counting travel and other expenses, they spent roughly $20,000 on recording.
Mr. Lunt flew to Bloomington twice to put his stamp on the project. Collegiate a cappella is intentionally goofy and tongue-in-cheek and ironic, he said. But theres a thin line between goofy and stupid, and goofy and funny.
The members of Straight No Chaser understand Mr. Lunts concern, and they are in on the joke to a point. Its great to see a cappella lampooned on shows like 30 Rock, Mr. Stine said. We laugh at a cappella along with everyone else. Clearly it doesnt have the coolest reputation. Maybe we can change that.
Still, Mr. Lunt refers to the finished project as Beach Boyz II Men, a comment that highlights the inherent marketing challenge. This is a 10-piece, slightly overgrown college vocal band, he said. Were trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Were swimming upstream. There are a lot of mixed metaphors here. But the genuine enthusiasm you feel from these guys is infectious.
Despite the excitement of a major-label deal, most of the group members have kept quiet about it until now. We had to protect our jobs, Mr. Itkoff said. Were not 19 anymore. But it was like leading a double life.
With the albums release approaching, it is hard for the members not to daydream. To that end, Mr. Stine recently quit his day job, in part because he couldnt get two weeks off to record the album but also because he hopes the project will have legs. Mr. Roberts, the Manhattan finance guy, is more conservative. The economics in the group are tough, he said. There are 10+ mouths to feed here, and any money will be split 10 ways.
Mr. Kallman of Atlantic described the project as low risk. He signed Straight No Chaser to what is called a 360-degree deal, meaning Atlantic will share in potential revenue from merchandise, concert tours, even ring tones. The group was given a very small advance (basically just enough money to cover recording costs), and it will take a standard cut of net sales, according to Mr. Ponce. Were happy with the deal.
Theres a distinct possibility, all involved agree, that this excitement could disappear as suddenly as it arrived. Were talking about a cappella, Mr. Roberts said. Lets be honest.
But if the scene in Bloomington is any indication, perhaps there is hope for an a cappella Christmas hit. On one of the last nights of recording, the boys were out celebrating, playing a drinking game called Sink the Bismarck at an old haunt. There was a bachelorette party a few tables over. A member of Straight No Chaser was making small talk when one of the women an Indiana University alumnus interrupted him.
Are you the original members of Straight No Chaser? she asked. And then she screamed.