How Straight No Chaser Changed The Game

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2013-02-25

Straight No Chaser ... they're the funny Christmas song guys, right?

Yup. And they just sold out a 6,500 seat venue in Connecticut.

When you're looking at the a cappella landscape over the past decade, no group has changed the game more than Straight No Chaser.

Yes, they were incredibly lucky when Atlantic Records called, but for 99 out of 100 groups, the story ends there. A cute footnote for a few thirtysomethings that had a viral video from a concert that happened decade before.

But it didn't, because Straight No Chaser is group like no other, re-writing vocal music history year after year. What have they shown the world?

Ten Is Enough (and not too many)

Name a band with 10 people. I can't. Maybe when you add up background singers and the like, but that's not the band, that's the road show. SNC is ten guys, always ten guys. Rock bands are 4 people, and theatrical shows are 30 people. You just don't see 10 people on stage, and that kind of curiosity can be a deal breaker for promoters. They're a cappella already... and they also chose a format that's not done. And yet they made it work. Not only the number of guys was a risk, but...

Thirty Is Not Too Old To Start

Maroon 5 didn't have their first hit until they were about to throw in the towel, but they don't act or dress like they're 30, and they'd been performing for years, building a fan base and learning the ropes. Straight No Chaser's formula is not kids running around on stage like a band, it's more like the Rat Pack: classy gentlemen in suits singing songs you love and making you laugh between songs. Sit out your 20s, then start your career in popular music in your 30s? Not done. Impossible. Until now.

The Classic Collegiate A Cappella Sound Sells

Let's say Atlantic Records had called your college group a decade after you graduated. What would you do? I'll bet you'd start thinking about how to make your group more marketable. Someone would say "add instruments." Someone else would say "do a bunch of current songs." and another would say "let's update our sound." They said, nope, nope, nope, and kept the formula the way it was for them in the late 90s. Well-known pop songs from the past 40 years, lots of harmony, minimal vocal percussion and the like (at least initially). People ate it up with a spoon.

...And So Does Top Forty Pop Music

Michael Buble and Diana Krall can sing songs from the Great American Songbook, but that was an earlier time. So you make a career performing pop tunes from the past 40 or so years? Well, that makes you a party band, a wedding band, a tribute band. Perfect for small venues, but you'll never sell albums and people will never remember you. Perform "Africa" and at best Toto might have a few iTunes downloads the next day. Not anymore.

All You Need Is Guys

Once you move beyond a couple thousand seats, performers start augmenting their shows. Dancers. Flame pots. Video screens. You name it. Not SNC. Part of their charm is that the show is nothing but ten guys, so it wouldn't necessarily work to add a bunch of bells and whistles on stage... but can they hold 6,000 people's attention for two hours? Absolutely. The old-fashioned way: good music, humor and charisma.

And It's Here To Stay

Let's be honest: any one of the issues above could be a deal breaker for a group trying to make it in the modern music industry, but somehow these guys rewrote the rules. Fine, so they make an album, they do a couple tours, and then their popularity wanes, right? Nope. These guys are several years and several albums into their careers, and they're only growing in popularity and scope. I'll put money down that 2013 will be their biggest year yet, and then 2014 will be even bigger. They're not slowing down.

What's the result of all this?

The sky is the limit. If these guys can be as big as they are by playing by their own rules, you can't tell me there's no chance for you and your group. Yes, you'll have to work hard, but those guys work HARD. Very very hard. Example: they went past "loose" through "precise" to "seems loose but is actually very carefully polished." Not easy.

It might look obvious in hindsight, but I can tell you that it was anything but. I long expected that it would be a young group with a very modern appeal, like Pentatonix, that would be the first group blazing trails for contemporary a cappella, but it was Straight No Chaser a couple years before who did it with no television show, no movie, no book. Just a viral video, a phone call from a record label (that they initially thought was a prank), and the leadership of Dan Ponce, who, with a few words ("let's do this, guys!") made some history.

And their chapter is far from over yet.

[This week, DreamWorks announced that it would be producing a feature film about Straight No Chaser's remarkable story:]



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