A Jew in a blizzard of a cappella Christmas recordings

Ok, so… I’m Jewish. I know, shocking that someone with such a non-ethnic name would be a dreidel-spinner, but I wanted to put that out there in the interest of full disclosure.  When I was young, despite having a few other “chosen people” in my class, this was an awkward time of year. Yes, we got 8 nights of presents for Hanukkah, but when 2 of those nights yielded socks or other utilitarian but not-exactly-fun presents, the excitement was dampened as compared to my friends celebrating Christmas.  Moreover, the sheer volume of Christmas music in our classes drowned out the lone mandatory recantation of “I have a little dreidel” each year.

Singing in the chorus in public schools, I became well-versed in Christmas music, despising much of it until I reached college. There, in a small town, the biggest concert of the year for the community was the annual (Christmas) “Candlelight Concert.”  This, despite the fact that we were a music school that has produced world-class opera singers as well as the best music teachers in the state! When I realized just how much this concert meant to the local community, my view softened on my lifelong choral frustration with singing Christmas concerts. I realized that for many people, including my best friend (an AVID Christmas music fan), the music was often not about celebration of religious principles inapplicable to my life, but rather a symbol of a time of year where family gets together for longstanding traditions. And I respect that. I left my animus behind, accepting that we live in a country where my brand of religion comprises a whopping 1% of the American population (We are the 1%!) and I shouldn’t be overly sensitive if music which addresses a joyous occasion celebrated by 3/4 of the country is pervasive for 6 weeks each year.

It is thus a little surprising to me that, in recent years, I have felt a bit of the old bridling rise up over the proliferation of a cappella Christmas records. As someone who purchased the first 2 Rockapella Christmas albums years ago, I certainly did not mind putting those CD’s on around this time of year for a little communal holiday spirit. Then Straight No Chaser came out with not 1, but 2 Christmas albums. Last year, there was a virtual explosion of a cappella Christmas albums, featuring fantastic groups like Take 6, Sonos, Nota, Naturally 7, the first Sing Off Christmas album, and many more.

I have no real problem with groups making Christmas albums– they are free to do whatever they choose, and those albums are certainly big sellers and major crowd-pleasers (I’ve seen Rockapella’s holiday show 2 or 3 times, and the audience absolutely LOVES it).

But if last year was an explosion of Christmas albums, this year was…what’s bigger than an explosion? A supernova? I don’t know, but a THIRD Rockapella holiday album seemed excessive, followed by Cadence, Swingle Singers, Rajaton, Eclipse, Sing Off Holidays 2, and quite a few more.  Now, don’t get me wrong- I LOVE the Cadence album and I love all of these groups, but I cannot fathom shelling out my hard-earned money for 10 more albums comprised of all holiday tunes, and here’s the point of this post.

Even my aforementioned friend, Pat, who LOVES Christmas music, listens to it for approximately 2-3 months each year (once or twice a year he’ll try in the summertime, and when his wife finds out, forget about it…). These albums, while great, have a limited shelf-life for most people each year. Moreover, what is a person supposed to do with an iPod that already contains 5 versions of “I Saw Three Ships”? Clear out room for a 6th version?

I love the new Cadence album, which I obtained by supporting them on Kickstarter, because it is infected with their unique style and virtually unmatchable vocal horns.  And while I know it was their first entry in this category and I know it is a great album, I would have preferred an album of new music that I could listen to year-round. I love the Swingle Singers too, who absolutely blew me away at voCALnation this past March. While I’m sure their new EP is terrific, I really wish they had put the time they spent on arranging, recording, and mixing it towards a brand new album which would appeal to all fans, year-round. (Yes, I know both of these groups put out new albums in 2010, so they aren’t slacking in the album department, but if they put out new albums every year I would buy them!)

I hope this does not come across as grinch-like, because I don’t feel that way. I don’t begrudge these groups for making these albums or the fans for sopping them up. But when even my friend, Pat, can’t keep up with the sheer volume, maybe the marketplace is a little saturated for this particular niche of our particular niche musical community at the moment.

And, like I said, I can’t wait to hear any new recorded material from groups like Cadence, the Swingle Singers, Rajaton, Cluster, Naturally 7, and all of these groups. I just wish it was material that had a little longer staying-power throughout the year and a little more broad appeal. Because, while even the most cynical of Jews might get a total kick out of Cadence’s remix of “Sleigh Ride” in the brisk, cold air on a December morning (I do!), there’s very little chance I’m listening to that song on a beautiful, warm June afternoon in New York City. But their version of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” will jolt my day into another gear year-round without regard for the weather or date.

So groups, while I completely understand your desire to sell a few more albums at this time of year and your understanding of the marketplace during the holidays, I promise you this: If you put the same time each year into arranging 8 or 10 original songs or compelling covers and recording those songs, you will sell that album too. You’ll have less competition- the volume of professional or semi-professional groups putting out quality albums each year is, at least now, not overwhelming.  The proliferation of a cappella onto iTunes, Amazon, and all the other internet music marketplaces will give you the opportunities to sell which were previously unavailable, and the recent explosion of a cappella blogs, websites, and Twitterphiles will only help promote your product (as has happened with Peter Hollens’s releases).  And this fan, for one, will purchase that album and be grooving to it year-round.

What do you think?