UK acoUstiKats take a cappella performances to TikTok

Senior vocal performance major Ben Boutell is filmed by doctoral candi- date Will Chandler for a TikTok during an acoUstiKats practice on Wednes- day, Oct. 7, 2020, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb.

Lauren Campbell

AcoUstiKats, UK’s premier male a cappella group, has grown into a viral account on the video-sharing social network TikTok, a platform that has given them the opportunity to virtually perform during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben Boutell, acoUstiKats’ social media manager, came up with the idea for the group to join TikTok while the group was at an a cappella competition in February of this year. For their first video, the acoUstiKats copied the “Fli Fla Flo” video trend.

“We were all at our hotel room hanging out, and I said, ‘Why don’t we try this call and response TikTok?’ We tried it and it worked out, so we decided to record it,” said Boutell.

That video gained almost 7 million views and thousands of comments.

Eight months later, acoUstiKats’ TikTok account has over 171,00 followers and over two million likes on the platform.

The acoUstiKats dedicate at least 30 minutes a week to creating TikToks; while some of the recordings are done spontaneously, others are arranged and crafted with a variety of different voice parts. Some take place at events like DanceBlue or basketball games.

“Normally, an hour or two before a rehearsal, I’ll sit down at my computer and I’ll mess around with some ideas. I’ll record each part with my own voice onto Logic, and from there I’m able to teach the guys the arrangement I’ve come up with,” said Boutell. “I’ll sing it and they’ll sing it back to me. It’s super quick.”

Even with multiple takes, the recording process for TikTok is pretty quick because each video is less than a minute long.

“We normally do at least four takes because I like to have options to choose from, and they’re not that long – less than a minute, so it doesn’t take that long,” said Boutell. “But there are points where we cut takes and redo things, but that’s what the delete button is for.”

The group is meeting twice-a-week in-person as safely as possible, singing six feet apart and wearing masks.

“We’ve been meeting on Monday and Wednesdays for an hour and a half, socially distanced with masks. We’ll meet for 30 minutes inside, leave for 30 minutes to let the air in the room ventilate, and then come back for 30 minutes,” Boutell said. “Sometimes we’ll rehearse outside.”

Due to COVID-19, the group has limited opportunities for in-person performances this year, so they dedicate rehearsal time to trying new ideas and different ways to perform, including virtually.

“My favorite part of the rehearsal process is when we get to do the TikToks. Essentially it’s a chance for us to perform again,” Boutell said.

Their online presence has not only given the acoUstiKats an extended fanbase, but also brought new life to the group.

Boutell said the pandemic has been really tough for the group because they are gig-based, but that their following on the app gives them something to push for.

“We normally have two gigs a week signing at events around campus, and it’s been hard to not have that. In rehearsals we haven’t had much to work towards but having this platform on TikTok has lit a fire under us and given us a chance to do something and keep pushing,” Boutell said.

AcoUstiKats member Ethan Mooney said he enjoys making the TikToks. Mooney also said he thinks the platform is a way for the UK community to see acoUstiKats members on an individual level.

“TikTok is a more viral platform that’s more predicated on goofiness and humor which is a brand Kats fully embraces,” Mooney said. “We pride ourselves on creating engaging, professional performances singing live, but TikTok allows us to showcase the wealth of humor and personality in the group that people don’t otherwise get to see: singing jingles, improvising, and generally goofing off in our rehearsal process. People have always been fans of the acoUstiKats as a group but now they get a peek at each member as individual musicians.”

Boutell can attest to this experience; now that students are back on campus, he is getting recognized in real life from his appearances on the acoUstiKats’ TikTok account.

“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘Hey, I recognize you, you’re the guy from the Kats’ TikTok,’ and I’m kind of embarrassed, but also flattered, and I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s me’,” Boutell said.

In addition to creating TikToks, the acoUstiKats plan to use their time away from live performances to record an album.

“Our plan is to get it out by January, but we don’t want to be held down to that timeline, but we are shooting for the January, February, March area,” Boutell said.

Mooney, who is heading the album project, said many of the members have used their quarantine to learn record engineering skills that will be helpful to this project.

“Coming back to school, it only seemed fitting to use the skills we gained during the quarantine to maximize Kats’ momentum as the pandemic unfolds,” said Mooney. “We’re currently in the process of health-consciously tracking each individual member of Kats and imbuing each track on the album with the style and flavor of our live sound.”

AcoUstiKats plans to grow their social media presence to YouTube when the album comes out by recording music videos for the album songs.

“With social media and nowadays it’s always a hit-or-miss, there’s a lot of good things that happen with it as well as bad, but I’m very thankful my group has been given this platform to be able to perform again while COVID is going on,” Boutell said.

Keep up with the acoUstiKats on TikTok by following them @ukacoustikats.