Pentatonix Has Had Quite The Transformation

Over the past few decades, there have been a few a cappella singing groups that have experienced success in the music industry, including the likes of The Manhattan Transfer, Straight No Chaser, and Rockapella. Sitting at the top of that particular genre, however, is Pentatonix, arguably the most successful a cappella outfit in history. 

Since coming to fame by winning a TV singing competition, the vocal group has experienced a staggering degree of success — while also being subjected to the often extreme ups and downs typically associated with the cutthroat world of the music business. Through it all, though, Pentatonix has maintained its unique sound, blending five distinct voices to create some masterfully magical music. Initially consisting of singers Kirstin Maldonado, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Mitch Grassi, and Kevin Olusola, the group has performed in front of audiences throughout the world, selling more than 10 million albums as of March 2024. Pentatonix has also landed two albums at the No. 1 spot in Billboard's Top 200 — all while becoming legendary for instrumentation-free covers of hit songs that transform those familiar favorites into new aural sensations. 

It's been quite a journey and took a lot of hard work, ambition, and talent, but the group continues to coast on the wings of success, with bigger and better opportunities no doubt in store for the future. To find out more about the group's rise to the top, keep on reading as there will be no question that Pentatonix has had quite the transformation. 

The group's founding members have been friends since childhood

Growing up in Arlington, Texas, future Pentatonix founders Kirstin Maldonado and Scott Hoying got to know each other when they were just 9 years old. As kids, both were entranced by musical theater and got to become friends while participating in local theatrical productions. It was through theater that Hoying met Mitch Grassi when they were both cast in a production of the musical "Annie." All three wound up attending the same high school and became good friends, bound together by their shared love of music.

"I know Scott started really young, I started really young; Kirstie and I started doing musical theater when we were about nine or 10," Grassi told "Three of us grew up together, so we've been best friends our whole lives," added Hoying, referencing his childhood friends. During high school, the three gravitated toward choir, which was where the origin story of Pentatonix truly began. 

"Pentatonix started out as a trio with Kirstie, Scott, and me, because we had been in choir for most of our high school careers," Grassi told Go Pride. Singing together, the three became comfortable with creating harmonies while blending their voices — initially just for fun. It wasn't until a unique opportunity presented itself, however, that the music-mad pals would take the next step toward what would eventually become their shared musical destiny.

Pentatonix was born in high school to compete in a radio contest

The birth of Pentatonix can be traced back to a local radio contest in Arlington, Texas, in which aspiring singers were encouraged to submit a recording of a performance, with the winner getting to meet the cast of the Fox musical TV series "Glee." "Scott [Hoying], Mitch [Grassi] and I formed a little trio for a radio contest and put something together," said Kirstin Maldonado in an interview with Sweety High. While they didn't win, the trio refined that performance — an a cappella rendition of the Beyoncé-Lady Gaga collaboration "Telephone" — and decided to debut it live during a high school concert. "We ended up singing at a choir concert and it got a lot of attention so we just kept doing it," Maldonado added.

Video of that performance was posted on YouTube, featuring stunning three-part harmony, and came to become legendary with Pentatonix fans; initially posted back in 2010, the video has since racked up more than 1.4 million views.

After that overwhelming response, Hoying envisioned the potential of a small a cappella combo that boasted some big voices. "I thought it would be cool to have a little group where we could go and belt it out, unlike most groups that have around 16 people," Hoying told USC's Daily Trojan of laying the groundwork for what would eventually become their five-person a cappella act.

The trio expanded to five for a TV singing competition

After future Pentatonix singers Scott Hoying and Kristin Maldonado graduated, the friends went their separate ways: Maldonado to the University of Oklahoma, Hoying to the University of Southern California, and Mitch Grassi remained in high school. While attending USC in 2011, Hoying learned about "The Sing-Off," an NBC singing competition for a cappella singing groups. He reached out to Maldonado and Grassi, who agreed to reunite in Los Angeles to audition. 

There was, however, one pretty significant issue: They were two singers short of the five needed to compete. On a recommendation, Hoying enlisted Avi Kaplan, who sang bass. Eager to add a beatboxer to the mix, Hoying and the others discovered a video of Kevin Olusola that had been posted online, in which he effortlessly beatboxed while playing cello at the same time. "When we came across the video, we thought he was unbelievable," Hoying told the Daily Trojan. "His musicianship was unreal." After hearing their pitch, Olusola was in; the other four pooled their money and bought him a flight to L.A. — and then they were five. 

Dubbing themselves Pentatonix (the name lifted from music's five-note pentatonic scale) they had little time to rehearse before performing their audition song, "Telephone." "The day before the audition we all got down and were able to sing through the song and it honestly was just amazing how well it flowed together," Maldonado told Sweety High. "We had no idea, it could have been horrible."

Winning The Sing-Off was a game-changing experience

Their audition was strong enough to land them a spot on "The Sing-Off." As the competition progressed, the five members of Pentatonix began to jell, both musically and personally. As they made it through round after round, the idea that they might actually win the whole thing — which included a record deal with Epic Records and a $200,000 prize — was becoming increasingly less far-fetched. 

Of course, there was plenty of drama along the way by the time they made it to the semifinals. "In the week leading up [to] the performance, we literally felt like we were at the end of our ropes," Hoying told the Daily Trojan of their performance of Florence + The Machine's "The Dog Days Are Over." "Our dress rehearsal was a total disaster, but in the actual performance, everything came together and it was the most magical moment." The more Pentatonix performed, the better they sounded, and by the time they hit the stage, the group was firing on all cylinders. "I'll never forget it — it was our best performance on the show, the audience went wild and I knew we were going to the finale," Hoying said.

Pentatonix was ultimately declared the winner of that season of "The Sing-Off." Sara Bareilles, one of the show's judges, offered high praise for the group in an interview with Billboard. "I think they're innovators, pushing boundaries in the right ways," she declared. "They have an incredible chemistry."

Pentatonix starred in the first of many TV Christmas specials

Immediately after winning "The Sing-Off" in 2011, Pentatonix starred in an NBC TV Christmas special. "We're performing with past season winners," said Scott Hoying of the special during a post-victory press conference (as reported by Reality Wanted), revealing there would also be some special guests and an accompanying holiday CD.

That was the first of what would become numerous Pentatonix-starring Christmas specials over the years, leading the group to be continually associated with the Yuletide season. Pentatonix returned to NBC for "A Pentatonix Christmas Special" in 2016, joined by a heavy-hitter roster of musical guests that included "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire, and Dolly Parton. In 2017, the group hosted "A Very Pentatonix Christmas," which featured Jennifer Hudson and Kermit the Frog. In 2018, the group completed their hat trick with their third NBC holiday special, "Pentatonix: A Not So Silent Night," the first to feature new Pentatonix member Matt Sallee (more about him later).

Pentatonix was not done with Christmas, as demonstrated when the group became one of the performers on the 2021 special "Christmas Under the Stars" — which didn't air on NBC, but BYUtv, the television outlet launched by Utah's Brigham Young University. Pentatonix returned in 2022 to headline a new special for streaming service Disney+, "Pentatonix: Around the World for the Holidays," in which the group explored Christmas traditions in far-flung corners of the world. 

Pentatonix moved to L.A. to focus on music

Winning "The Sing-Off" was a seminal moment for Pentatonix, placing them on what they all assumed would be the cusp of a successful music career. During a press conference after their win, the group was asked about what was on the horizon. "Next for us, we're going to just do some gigs and do press. And hopefully put an album together. And just become recording artists," said Scott Hoying, as reported by Reality Wanted. "Hopefully we can make our music transfer over to the mainstream and be the first mainstream a cappella group."

Signed to Epic Records, with $200,000 in their collective pocket, the five group members decided the smartest move would be to strike while the iron was hot and get that career launched as soon as possible. For founding members Kirstin Maldonado and Scotty Hoying, that meant quitting college, with all the members relocating to Los Angeles. While this period should have been one of triumph and happiness, it didn't actually work out that way — at least for Maldonado. "It was so hard, and I wasn't at all ready," she told Civilian of her early months in L.A. "All of a sudden, it was like, a whirlwind of things were happening."

Meanwhile, the success that the members of Pentatonix felt they had in their grasp would ultimately prove to be more ephemeral than they imagined.

Pentatonix shifted to YouTube after being dropped by their record label

While preparing to record their debut album for Epic, the members of Pentatonix received some unfortunate news: the label had decided to drop them, reportedly because the group wasn't a good fit for the direction the label was heading. (Then again, Epic execs may have based the decision on the careers of the previous two winners of "The Sing-Off," Nota and Committed, neither of which saw much success after the show.) 

While that development was certainly discouraging, the singers decided to soldier on with a new plan, recording a cappella cover versions of popular songs and posting them on YouTube. That gambit proved to be a successful one, with their creative arrangements attracting legions of viewers to their YouTube channel. Some of those videos went viral in a big way — such as the group's cover of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," with that single video viewed more than 75 million times. Clearly, the music they were making connected with a vast audience as Pentatonix utilized the power of YouTube to reach fans and take the group's career to its next level.

"It's still such a new concept to my brain," Mitch Grassi told the Las Vegas Review-Journal of the power of YouTube, "but the proof is in the pudding." That pudding, as of early 2024, consists of more than 20 million subscribers, with the group's videos receiving more than 6 billion views.

YouTube success led to a new (and better!) record deal

The massive following that Pentatonix garnered on YouTube was impossible to ignore — and did not go unnoticed by the music industry. That social media success spurred the release of the first Pentatonix EP, "PTX Vol. 1." Then came "PTX Vol. 2," which was followed by a holiday album, "PTXmas," all of which were released through a small label, Madison Gate Records.

Those releases proved to be so successful that executives at Sony — the parent company of Epic Records, the label that dropped them — decided to take another look at the group they decided to let go. As a result, Pentatonix was signed to RCA, Sony's flagship record label. This time, the group was able to negotiate much better terms than those afforded to winners of a TV singing competition. "We had leverage too, so we had a much better deal than we had from winning a reality show," Scott Hoyer told Cincinnati Magazine. "Honestly, it was the best possible scenario."

"We're really excited to start this new chapter of our career with RCA," said the group in a statement to Billboard. "We feel like we've found a home where we can truly develop our artistry with the best in the industry."

Grammy wins, concert tours, hit albums and more mainstream success

One of the factors that led Sony to re-sign Pentatonix after previously dropping the group was its 2014 Grammy win for "Daft Punk," from the "PTX Vol. II" EP, winning the award in the best arrangement: instrumental or a cappella category. The group quickly recorded its first major-label release, their self-titled debut album, which hit number one. Since then, the group has won three Grammys, out of five nominations. The first full-fledged album took a while to come to fruition, something that Mitch Grassi feels worked out in the group's favor. "An original album was always a goal for us," Grassi told Time in 2015, "but I think we just wanted to garner a fan base and work up to it slowly because it's not an easy thing to tackle."

While the group had been touring since 2012, in 2016 Pentatonix embarked on its first worldwide tour. Since then, the group has embarked on numerous tours and released several successful albums.

The soaring success has flown in the face of conventional logic, given that a cappella groups haven't traditionally made much of a splash on the music scene. "We're competing against the stigma that a cappella can't be successful," Scott Hoying told Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview. "Major labels and radio would be like, 'A cappella is gimmicky, it will never be a real thing.' Now we're like, 'It's going to be a real thing — watch!'"

Pentatonix collaborated with some of music's biggest stars

The enduring popularity and ongoing success of Pentatonix have presented opportunities to work with other artists, including many that are far more well-established. Over the years, Pentatonix has collaborated with a staggering array of singers, including Miley Cyrus, Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Hudson, Maren Morris, Kelly Clarkson, Tori Kelly, Jason Derulo, and Reba McEntire. In addition, Pentatonix joined Stevie Wonder to perform "That's the Way of the World" — paying homage to Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White — during the 2016 Grammy Awards, and even recorded with country icon Dolly Parton. The latter contributed to Pentatonix winning the group's third Grammy in 2017, when she joined them on their cover of her classic country hit "Jolene." 

"It's really, really cool that we've been able to have these opportunities to surround ourselves with these people because they're brilliant," Kirstine Maldonado told The Oklahoman of working with all those big stars, happily reporting that their experiences with those music legends had been overwhelmingly positive. 

"The people we work with — like Dolly and Reba and Kelly — everyone has always just been so gracious and so genuine and wonderful," Maldonado added. "Like Dolly Parton is legendary and she's maybe the nicest person I've ever met in my entire life and, like, amazing. So we've been really, really blessed."

Pentatonix appeared on the big screen

There was no more sure a sign that Pentatonix had entered the mainstream than the group's cameo appearance in "Pitch Perfect 2." Appearing in the 2015 sequel to the hit comedy about an a cappella singing group, the members of Pentatonix are featured in a brief scene from the movie, playing a Canadian singing group who puts an a cappella spin on the Journey hit "Any Way You Want It." 

Filming that cameo didn't demand much of the group's time — just a single day — but producers were keen to ensure the involvement of Pentatonix due to continual pleas from fans. "When we were talking to the producers about being in it, they said they kept incessantly getting tweets from fans saying we should be in the movie," Pentatonix beatboxer Kevin Olusola told Entertainment Weekly. "That was really cool to know that our fanbase was right behind us supporting it along the way."

As the film's vocal producer, Deke Sharon, explained in a behind-the-scenes featurette posted on YouTube, involving Pentatonix in a movie centered around an a cappella competition was a no-brainer. "I think it's really important for a lot of fans of a cappella because as one of the groups at the forefront of the modern a cappella movement, says we're not just paying homage to what's going on in a cappella right now, we're incorporating it into the movie," he said.

Pentatonix was the focus of a 2015 documentary

"Pitch Perfect 2" wasn't the only movie featuring a Pentatonix appearance. In 2015, a documentary was released that focused entirely on the group. Titled "Pentatonix: On My Way Home," they filmed chronicled their 2015 world tour — which had been, at the time, the group's biggest tour to date.

"Our manager told us, 'What you do is so interesting and unique; it would be cool to document your tour because you'll also be doing your first original album at the same time,'" Scott Hoying told Billboard of how Pentatonix came to become the subjects of a documentary concert film.

According to Avi Kaplan, "Pentatonix: On My Way Home" offered fans a rare and entirely authentic of what life on the road was like for him and his fellow singers. "I think it really gives people the inside look on what we do and who we are," he said, also praising the film's directors for showcasing the lighter side of their personalities. "I love how it shows the silly part of all of us," Kaplan added. "Each person has a moment of showing that aspect of themselves."

Founding member Avi Kaplan quit the group

A major shift in the Pentatonix-verse occurred in 2017 when a big announcement that the group made in a post on Facebook shook up fans. In that video, bass singer Avi Kaplan announced his plans to leave the group, declaring that the increasing demands of being in such a successful act had become much for him. "I've struggled with this decision a lot," he said in a written statement accompanying the video. "It has been the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life."

Just weeks before the announcement, Kaplan released his first solo single, credited to Avriel and the Sequoias; his debut EP arrived not too long after. In 2019, Kaplan announced his first solo tour, and in 2022 released his first full-fledged solo album.

Pentatonix moved on by recruiting a new member to replace Kaplan. In October 2017, Scott Hoying announced that Matt Sallee would be joining the group as the new bass singer. As fans will attest, Sallee fit in instantly and continued to contribute to the ongoing success of Pentatonix. Six years after joining Pentatonix, Sallee admitted that becoming part of the group was a dream come true. "I'm still pinching myself," Sallee said in a 2023 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, revealing that he wasn't officially hired until he received Kaplan's blessing after they met in person. "It felt like a true passing of the torch," he recalled of that meeting.

The members of Pentatonix have launched solo careers

While Avi Kaplan embarked on a solo career after exiting Pentatonix, the other members of the group have remained in the fold while also branching out on their own. Pentatonix beatboxer Kevin Olusola was the first member of the group to dabble in solo work. The result was "The Renegade," a five-song EP that combined his two musical loves, beatboxing and classical cello. "I don't want people to say it's beautiful; I want them to say, 'Wow, it's artistic, interesting and it doesn't cheapen the instrument,'" he told The Hollywood Reporter of the EP.

Kristin Maldonado released her debut solo single, "Break a Little," in 2017, followed by her first solo EP, titled "Love." The following year, she fulfilled a long-held dream when she made her debut on Broadway, starring in the musical "Kinky Boots."  In 2023, Maldonado's fellow Pentatonix co-founder Mitch Grassi went solo with "Roses," his foray into indie/electronic music under his extracurricular musical persona, Messer.

Scott Hoying launched his solo musical career in 2023 with the release of "Parallel," his seven-track debut album. "I have always been a little bit scared to be vulnerable and kind of put myself out there as a solo act," Hoying told The Associated Press. "And I feel like this timing is just so perfect because I'm entering this very beautiful era of my life, like producing and making music and being more motivated than ever." It seems that together or solo, the members of Pentatonix have plenty of musical talent to showcase.