Calling Out “Professional” Groups

Yesterday, Deke Sharon posted an article over at CASA entitled “Tough Love for a Tough Market,” featuring his plea/reprimand to “professional” a cappella groups. You can read that commentary here.

Today, Florian Staedtler at the Vocal Blog responded with his own post, “From Europe with (Tough) Love.” You can find that response here.

While I am not someone currently seeking a life as an a cappella professional (like Deke) nor am I someone who is involved with professional a cappella groups in any kind of business relationship (like Florian), I thought I’d weigh in briefly on this from the perspective of someone who sang a cappella in high school and college and considered, albeit briefly, trying to start a professional group immediately after college.  Moreover, I have a number of friends who are professional musicians in various contexts and genres and I am occasionally hired as a choral singer. I guess I am weighing in as someone on the bridge between full-on professional and complete layperson who wishes to see a cappella break through to the next level.

Let me begin by reminding you to read the aforementioned posts by Deke and Florian before proceeding, and by noting that Deke prefaced that this discussion does not apply to groups, such as those in the Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL), which are unabashedly amateurs in the best sense of the word.  In other words, if you work a regular day job and sing a cappella as your hobby, your love, or just an excuse to socialize, you are contributing to the a cappella (and greater music) community in a role, but it is not the role to which Deke was speaking in his post.

Ok, let’s jump right in… first of all, I have never met Deke, but the sense I have always gotten is that he is a genuine, gracious, intelligent person who cares deeply for this community which he has helped foster for many years (see an earlier post where I explained how he sent me a few of his own arrangements and offered advice back in 1998 when I wrote him an email asking questions about getting a professional or semi-professional off the ground). I am sure this was unremarkable to him, and that he has probably extended this type of courtesy dozens if not hundreds of times over the years, but it left an indelible mark on me and probably contributed in some intangible way to my being a fan of The House Jacks (though I was a fan of their music first, which led me to email him at that time). In any event, I bring this up because I believe he wrote this post to help our community, to inspire those groups who aspire to be professionals to work longer, harder, and more effectively at their craft.

In fact, I have no problem with Deke’s tough tone if it achieves that result. The truth is, despite what has grown to be a community of literally thousands (tens of thousands?) of current and former a cappella singers in the United States alone, there are VERY few groups which could credibly be called “professional” and could even conceivably have a shot at commercial success. And that, right there, may be the key to what Deke is saying, as his comments are geared towards the creation of a professional group achieving widespread success. Perhaps my only comment in response to that particular goal, and it is the “Big Q” referenced by Florian in his response, is that some groups may well be content to tour and perform occasionally and sell CD’s for our a cappella community and not the bigger populace. Those groups will achieve their own form of localized success, much like the Cat’s Pajamas explained on the Sing Off that they had a semi-permanent venue residency in Branson, Missouri.   While a group like that might never generate the type of interest among the general music audience, they are most certainly professionals, as they perform over a hundred days per year and clearly put a great deal of time into their musical and visual components of their performance.

But, while they achieve one of Deke’s edicts (work long and hard), they fail in other regards (their music may well be irrelevant). Far more groups, however, fall into a different category, and it is those groups to whom I suspect Deke was primarily speaking. There are far too many groups who hope or try to be “professional” who do not travel far and wide, do not put even 30 or 40 hours per week into their craft, much less 45-80 hours per week. These groups, even those with obvious talent, will never achieve the type of success which Deke suggests is out there to be had– they simply won’t. If you subtract a cappella from the equation, for example, there are hundreds if not thousands of supremely talented singers in the world who will never succeed commercially. For the vast majority of them, the reason is their inability to treat their craft as their job. This means not only learning music and working on performance, but learning sound reinforcement, creating promotion and marketing materials, studying and contacting possible venues, etc.  It means respecting your craft as you should respect your job. The same holds true for a cappella groups.

Deke also explains that the music being performed by many of these a cappella groups is “irrelevant,” and it is easy to see what he means. If you take a sampling of repertoire from most of the groups out there claiming to aspire to be professionals, you will indeed see an overabundance of the same popular tunes. Just as you see in collegiate groups, where there are certainly no less than 30 versions of “Fireflies” or “Rolling in the Deep” over the past year, professional groups tend to do the same kinds of “safe” popular standards.  But why should anyone remember any one version of those from any other? Why shouldn’t they all simply blend together in the listener’s mind? I completely agree that groups hoping to break through commercially need to find a niche and explode through it. For most, that should be songwriting and original tunes, because the greater music community sees a cappella music as karaoke, and if we can’t produce original music that captivates, that is what we frequently become (but see my thoughts on how to hopefully avoid that while doing covers  here).

Finally, Deke suggests that giving back to the a cappella community by working with students or offering arrangements will not make you a more popular musician, just a better person. I’d add that I think on a very small level it does make you a more likeable musician/group. There is no question that people who are personally touched by a gesture from a musician or group are far more likely to follow and possibly promote (on a micro level, but still) that group with more energy and vigor.  I have met or seen people online who are massive Straight No Chaser fans, and many if not all have a personal story about such a gesture from a member of that group. They are avid consumers and promoters of that group, and a large part of the reason seems to be the personal gestures. Another example would be the early days when Guster was still on a small label. I had a friend at NYU who had met them and been so impressed that she agreed, as did apparently many others, to help them by selling their CD’s for them. This was a small example of a band (with Tufts Beelzebubs connections, by the way) using that personal connection to their audience as a tool. So, I think I would simply make that addendum to Deke’s otherwise solid analysis.

Florian did not disagree with many of Deke’s points, though he did focus a bit on the idea that each community requires levels of commitment and contribution, and the a cappella community is no exception. I don’t think Deke disagreed with that, given his initial disclaimer about the CAL groups. I simply think Deke felt that it is hard to believe there are not more professional a cappella groups who are commercially viable or successful, and that perhaps the reason is that not enough groups who consider themselves professional are really living up to that title.

I worked at a company (Samson Technologies) for 18 months whose employment practices were built upon the idea that musicians play it safe, musicians need day jobs, musicians can’t survive on their music revenue alone.  For the most part, this was an astute business strategy. I worked with guys whose bands had been out there for 2 months, and guys whose bands had been out there for 20 years. The company knew that these people needed a safe, steady source of income and a flexible work environment, and that these employees would sacrifice better salaries for that type of comfort. One of my good friends there took his band out on a road trip in the midwest for 3 weeks, then came back and sat back at his desk and didn’t talk about the band for a month afterwards. As I’m sure you can guess, his band was never signed to any level, and never “made it.”

THIS is the problem Deke and Florian are addressing, and it is no different in the a cappella community. Seeking to be a professional musician, in any context, is indeed about perseverance and commitment as much as it is about talent and luck. There may well be 100 rock bands out there criss-crossing the country and playing dive bars, living out of their vans for 10 months each year- it’s been done that way for many years, and it’s practically a textbook rite of passage into the music industry. How many a cappella groups can say they’ve been doing the same?

While the tools available to modern musicians, such as YouTube and Facebook, have a greater global reach than any technology in history, they cannot be a substitute for groups actually making more personal connections with the music community. Deke did not suggest groups must perform more actively; in fact, he suggested that groups who seek an identity with YouTube or recording albums can do so as long as they are working very hard at it. I would say that such groups can only go so far. A cappella is still, ultimately, about the sound of people singing in a room. The general music-consuming public might be intrigued by a highly-produced multi-track recording of your a cappella group with killer effects (though they also might be skeptical), but the only way to get them hooked for life is by letting them see you do it up close and personal, live in a room.  So, I believe that groups  looking to succeed still have to provide fans that ultimate feeling of awe or pleasure from watching a vocal band or a cappella group live.

I am an a cappella fan. An avid fan. I am constantly looking for new albums by any a cappella group I have ever heard or liked, and even by groups I’ve never heard before. But I get frustrated when I realize that although I live in a suburb of New York City, real “professional” a cappella groups only come to the NYC area a few times a year. Some never come here. Yet I can reliably count on seeing many of the rock bands that I like once a year, if not more frequently. As an avid a cappella fan, I desperately want more groups to work harder, in more creative ways, with more meaningful input to the larger music community, because I believe that such groups can achieve commercial success if they figure it all out.

And then I just might get to see them each and every year.

For what it’s worth, when I was finishing college, I thought about starting a professional group. I had met the guys from Ball in the House, who drove out to Potsdam, New York, probably 8 hours from where they lived, with no promise of payment. My group simply offered them a concert with potential customers, an opportunity to sell some CD’s, and a place to spend the night. My interaction with that group made me realize that a group hoping to be “professional” would need to be making trips like that constantly, without any promise of financial reward or hope of instant success. It seemed so obvious to me then that being an a cappella professional would require making a deep, unalterable commitment which was simply too intimidating for me.

It is now time for more groups who have coasted on social media and the internet to make that commitment and take their chances. As Deke said, the bounty is there for those who put it all together just right. But just as it doesn’t automatically come to rock, R&B, jazz, or any other musical artists who don’t put in the absolute highest level of effort and commitment, there is even less of a chance for widespread success for an a cappella group giving it only 50, 60, or even 90% effort.

Thanks, Deke, for the tough words. Let’s hope the “professionals” are listening.

[Editor’s Note, 1/19/12- Following what Florian did over at Vocal Blog, I’m going to link to all of the articles which have been posted on this topic.]

–      Jan 15 Vocal Blog – Florian Städtler „6 Lessons from LACF 2012“

http://www.vocal-blog.net/2012/01/6-lessons-from-lacf-2012/

–      Jan 16 CASA – Deke Sharon „Tough Love – Tough Market“

http://www.casa.org/content/tough-love-tough-market

including comments by Peter Hollens, Willy Eteson, Florian Städtler et.al.

–      Jan 17 Vocal Blog – Florian Städtler „From Europe with (Tough) Love“

http://www.vocal-blog.net/2012/01/from-europe-with-tough-love/

including comments by Mark Gregory, RJ Eckhart, Deke Sharon, Willy Etson et.al.

–      Jan 17 RJ A Cappella – Robert-Jon Eckhart „The Big Q“

http://a-cappella.robert-jon.nl/2012/01/17/the-big-q/

–      Jan 19 CASA – Deke Sharon „So What Can I Do?“

http://www.casa.org/content/so-what-can-i-do

Thanks all for the spirited conversation on this!

5 Comments

  1. Deke Sharon   •  

    Thanks, Dave, for the thoughtful commentary and kind words. You clearly understood what I was saying, who I was saying it to, and why. I’m hoping the recent wave of media attention will help the pro’s get a firm footing in 2012…

    • Dave Bernstein   •  

      Yeah, Deke, I figured your post was building on your earlier post (http://www.casa.org/content/next-steps) suggesting that 2012 is a year which will likely provide the biggest opportunity ever for a cappella to go mainstream, between the Pitch Perfect film release and the a cappella presence on television. I agree that there may not be a better time for a group to break through, and I hope your attempt to bring out the very best in those groups which have the potential to do just that does not fall on deaf ears. At the very least, perhaps it will instruct those who are just now beginning their efforts to be professional artists and musicians on how their predecessors have failed and what they can do to avoid those same pitfalls. While each blog post you publish makes me question my own ability to provide meaningful content, I am very glad indeed that you have been doing so on a more frequent basis in the past few months. Please please please keep blogging!

  2. Pingback: From Europe with (Tough) Love | Vocal Blog | The Vocal, A Cappella & Choral Music Online-Mag

  3. Pingback: 6 Lessons from LACF 2012 | Vocal Blog | The Vocal, A Cappella & Choral Music Online-Mag

What do you think?