The Guy Who's Making A Cappella Cool
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because apparently a cappella isn’t just for nerds.
By Taylor Mayol
Show choir. A cappella. Havens for nerds, right? Not so fast. If box-office earnings and the wild success of productions like Glee and Pitch Perfect are any indication, this sort of singing has made a giant leap from nerd niche to mainstream. We might even call it … cool.
Some considered these harmonizing hits sleepers, but there’s one guy who isn’t surprised at all. Ben Bram is a music arranger for the Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix, and he’s worked on TV’s The Sing-Off and the Pitch Perfect movies too. The 28-year-old is one of just a handful of people — literally, just three or four — who run the a cappella scene in L.A. You could call him a musical wizard. We talked to him about the “magical synergy” of a cappella, how his music family is bucking industry trends and about connecting with fans. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
OZY: What has made a cappella go mainstream?
Ben Bram: You know, Glee happened. It’s mostly about show choir, but it has the Warblers a cappella group, and people really connected with that. It helped people get on board with group singing as a thing. You can portray a cappella as a kitschy nerdy thing, like in Glee, or something serious and indie. There’s really something for everyone.
OZY: This year Pentatonix — and you — won a Grammy for the medley “Daft Punk,” a first for an a cappella group.
B.B.: It’s crazy that we got a Grammy before we made any big, successful original music, but it really legitimized Pentatonix as an act and made it much easier for them to make their own original music. My hope is that we have more groups like Pentatonix with different configurations and lots more singers in the space. Even though it’s a lot more popular now, groups are still a novelty. There’s the country group Home Free and a Filipino-American boy band called The Filharmonic and they’re doing their thing, but they have much smaller audiences. The thing is, it’s really difficult to find and organize the right people. You need a group of extremely talented people who get along and can come up with their own sound.
OZY: What you’re doing is so different. How does the music industry react to that? Is there a place for a cappella?
B.B.: Fans aren’t an issue at all. It’s convincing traditional media like radio or festivals or TV bookers, who kind of have to be like, “Is this an actual thing now?” A cappella is a lot friendlier than other parts of the industry. We’re like a big singing family — very warm and welcoming — and I think that’s in contrast to a lot of the industry. We’re just a bunch of nerds who sang in college and are doing something with it. It’s the whole message of what we do. It’s literal and figurative harmony.
OZY: What’s with the a cappella camp you run?
B.B.: A Cappella Academy started three years ago with Avi (from Pentatonix) and my friend Rob Dietz, who is one of the other guys in the industry. We basically had a dream to create an elite a capella camp to teach kids the best practices because there are so many ways to do it wrong. There is so much we have to offer to young, up-and-coming talent, and these are the kids who will be responsible for the future of a cappella in five to 10 years. The first year we received 800 video auditions from 34 countries and we accepted 66 kids. They come in with all sorts of plans, but a lot of them get the courage to pursue music after the camp. Last year, we had a camper who was going to study nursing in North Dakota, but after the program, he worked up the nerve to apply to the University of Southern California’s pop-music program, and now he’s there and in the SoCal Vocals, where I got my start.