Designations for A Cappella Groups?

In light of the recent discussions resulting from Deke Sharon’s blog posts directed towards a cappella “professionals,” there has been some question, most notably earlier today by Robert-Jon Eckhardt right here, about whether there is any point to classifying or identifying a cappella groups by categories such as “amateur,” “semi-professional,” and “professional.”  As usual, I thought I’d add my two cents.

The strongest point against such designations is the argument that people don’t state an intention to start an “amateur” rock band versus a “professional” rock band, they simply wish to start a rock band. In other words- if you’re in a band, you’re in a band. Additionally, every band has some members who are very dedicated and some who are not, and if there is a designation to be made, it should be made as it applies to each individually as opposed to the group as a whole.  But does this logic really translate to the a cappella community?

If we look first at the “amateur” groups, which we would typically assume are the high school and college groups, I think it is entirely fair and credible to identify them as amateurs. People identify themselves as “amateur golfers,” “amateur actors,” and plenty of other fields. It is a description which conveys a fact, often that the person is untrained, has little experience, or is unable to spend the vast majority of their time on that particular activity. This is a perfectly reasonable description of high school or college a cappella groups, and I don’t think there are more than a handful of super-intense college groups (Beelzebubs?) who could suggest otherwise. Even still, those groups experience the same types of member turnover and intrinsic limitations (university and campus restrictions, etc.) which suggest, without any condescension, amateurism. I compare this to the band who came into a recording studio where I used to work 2 or 3 times a year, typically with a case of beer, and just enjoyed making music with each other. They performed only at friends’ parties (and even that was sporadic at best), and they wanted to have an album to distribute to friends, but they didn’t have a manager and they weren’t looking to “make it big” or make a living from that band. They were looking to have fun. And more importantly, they never suggested to an audience that they were anything more than a group of guys with that very goal.

The next category is one which I have often heard questioned- that of the “semi-pro” group. While Robert-Jon makes a fine point that professionalism is ingrained in the people who inhabit a group, I think it is fair to apply it to the group as well. A group which meets once a week, performs a handful of times a year, and consists of people looking to have fun but not to make music their life is certainly not a professional group, no matter how much an individual member or two considers it a professional commitment. In fact, if I am not mistaken, this was the very reason the Contemporary A Cappella League was started– so that people who enjoy singing but don’t wish or expect to make a major commitment could still have that opportunity. I have tried to start such groups before the CAL existed, and at no time did I feel that we were “professionals.” We were not looking to make money (other than perhaps to buy equipment to allow us to perform) and we were not looking to make a career from it. Moreover, we did not possess the skills (singing, performing, arranging) necessary to consider ourselves “professionals.” Is it better to say that we were an “amateur” group? Perhaps, but for people who sang in high school and/or college groups already, generating at least a small degree of performing experience, perhaps that designation stings a bit. Over the past 15 years, I have seen at least 4 or 5 a cappella groups in the New York City area perform, many of them falling into this gray area. While they surely enjoyed performing and probably bragged to their families and friends that they would be singing at the “X” club/bar, I doubt they considered themselves true professionals. But what’s the harm in saying “semi-professional group?” As in, we have some experience, some knowledge, we might even get paid to perform once in a while, but this is not our mission or our profession.

And that leaves the final category, the group to whom Deke was speaking in his original post. These are people who are trying to make a career from a cappella music, and I think that they are people who, if they work hard enough, earn the right to call themselves professionals in that field. They are people who practice many more hours per week than those in either of the other categories, who spend many more hours arranging and promoting and preparing than people or groups in the other categories. At least, they should be if they want to earn the right to use that designation. For many, they will also earn other sources of income from their a cappella knowledge and skills, such as producing or arranging or workshopping. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with recognizing that an individual who derives all or most of his income from the various limbs of the a cappella tree deserves to be called a professional, and thus deserves both different recognition and different expectations than the person involved at either of the other levels.

Look, most of this is semantic. I mean, who really cares what you call your group as long as you know your own level of commitment and responsibility to the other people in that group and you’re all comfortable with that level. And I think that is what Deke was talking about. If you are looking to make a career based entirely around a cappella music, and you bring that commitment and responsibility to the highest possible level, you have earned the right to call yourself a professional. We call an athlete who makes that commitment a professional. We call everyone else an amateur. I don’t see why that has to be different in a cappella.

As for the mysterious middle category, the “semi-pro,” here’s what I have grown to expect over the past 10-15 years. If I learn about a group, such as a CAL group, that I know is part-time, I expect something less than a group which devotes its entire existence to the various fields of a cappella music. I hold them to a lesser standard, and I think that’s fair. If they exceed that standard, as many now do, I think it’s terrific. But I don’t think any less of them if they don’t. They aren’t seeking the same goals or making the same time commitment as the professional groups, and they shouldn’t be held to the higher standard.

I have many friends who are “professional” musicians. I know people who play trumpet, sing opera, and everything in between; people who do it worldwide, and those who do it in a 20-block radius in Brooklyn. And then there’s me- I get hired to sing a few local choral gigs a couple of times a year, occasionally a solo, but that’s about it. And while I might tell a colleague or a friend that I’ve been hired to sing somewhere, I would never tell them I’m a “professional choral singer.” While I work hard to succeed at these gigs, I think it would be offensive to my friends who spend hours and hours every day practicing and promoting themselves for me to suggest that I am a professional.

So, I stand by Deke’s original proposition and my follow-up comments to that proposition. If you want to be recognized as a “professional,” you have to work for it and earn it. While I expect more from the “professional” group, I respect any a cappella group equally. What’s wrong with that?

(far more than $0.02, I know).

5 Comments

  1. Robert-Jon   •  

    Ok so first off, that was more like a full dollar!! Haha.

    I appreciate all the insight here, and at the same time I’m afraid some of what I said was misunderstood.

    I completely agree there are different levels of professionalism and we should not in any way be afraid to communicate them to each other. It’s critical we are clear to each other where we stand and what our commitments are, so that we can find each other and work with people with similar intentions. NOTHING wrong with that.

    The point I was trying to make is that we shouldn’t be putting labels on groups, based on superficial data (amount of gigs f.e.), as we risk generalizing and leaving people out of a conversation they absolutely should be part of.

    Also, even though I completely agree that it’s fair and reasonable to label the professionalism of groups, what I was trying to argue is whether it’s useful or not. (There is a huge difference between the two.) And I’m not talking about conversations with friends, I’m talking about official festival announcements that say “we have some pro and semi-pro groups performing”. That kind of labeling is unheard of in any part of the music business, and I wonder why we are so attached to doing this to ourselves. What is the upside to it?

    Since we’re all on the side of music, why do we need to classify ourselves in our seriousness? In the amount of hours we put in? As Deke said: people don’t care about the hours you put in. All that matters is the result.

    • Dave Bernstein   •  

      I’m a lawyer- brevity is not an option. :-)
      So, I see what you are saying, and I don’t totally disagree. It would not be useful to advertise or categorize a track or album on iTunes according to professional or amateur groups, though I still maintain that it would be fair to do so if a group wished to do so. And I agree that advertising festivals with such classifications is not particularly constructive either. But I think the flipside is something you may not have considered. Many people in these “semi-pro” or “amateur” groups take pride in the fact that they can accomplish so much while still relegating their musical endeavors to a small portion of their lives. In other words, some are happy to say that they make good music in this format while still managing a day job and other facets of a typical, non-musical life. I’m not saying everyone views it this way, but I know some who sing in those groups do.

      All of this is a little beside the point of Deke’s posts, I think. Note that in his “Tough Love” post, his preface actually says to the reader “If you’re a casual singer, have a CAL group, [or] don’t consider yourself a professional” then the reader should continue to enjoy singing and disregard. He is not saying everyone who is a casual singer or in a CAL group is not a professional, he is simply saying they should not take the “tough love” personally if they do not consider themselves professionals. More importantly, his post is designed to guide, motivate, and assist those who wish to make a career out of a cappella music. He’s not categorizing for the sake of categorizing, and in fact he’s not really categorizing at all. Instead, he’s simply addressing a select portion of the community who actually WANTS to make a living doing this thing we all love. He’s telling them that if they wish to make this dream come true, if they have any chance of succeeding in this regard, they have their work cut out for them and they have to focus their efforts in particular ways.

      So I guess it is really the rest of us who do the categorizing, and while I don’t necessarily agree that it is always antithetical to our goals as a community (or our role in the greater music community), I completely understand what you are saying.

      • Robert-Jon   •  

        Completely agreed. Also I completely agreed with the tough love article and the way it adressed people who considered *themselves* (important!) to be professionals.

        The only complaint (if you wanna call it that) I had was against later remarks by Deke on Facebook where he did label certain groups as non-professional because of them not doing enough gigs.

  2. Dave Bernstein   •  

    Ironically, I had been thinking recently about writing some updated thoughts on this post when I saw the new discussion on the Facebook CASA group page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ACappellaNow/) which is on fire this morning. The discussion began with Deke’s new CASA blog post (https://www.casa.org/dontbethatguy) and people’s opinions that Deke was being inconsistent or suggesting a sort-of happy/hippie/everyone’s great approach to giving feedback to a cappella groups. I don’t think, and Deke confirmed in subsequent comments, that this was his message. It seemed to me that there were several messages for his post. One was that you should have reasonable expectations for what a group is capable of before you tear it down. Another which he suggested in the FB comments was that you can be critical of a group, to its members, while keeping those expectations in mind, without being snarky and rude behind their backs. Anyway, since the discussion veered into “semi-pro” versus “professional groups,” I guess I will follow through with a new post on my evolving thoughts on this. After BOSS, which commences in 2 days. 😉
    But I’d be happy to hear other thoughts on whether a “semi-pro” designation should exist, and if so, whether it should impact expectations/reactions of the a cappella community.

    • Robert-Jon Eckhardt   •  

      I think we need to move away from the positive/negative debate and need to move into the constructive/destructive debate. I don’t care about positivism. It’s as empty as negativism. It doesn’t do anything. It’s meaningless.

      When in the constructive/destructive debate, my point about the uselessness of “amateur”/”semi-pro”/”pro” labels stands. You’re either constructive, or you’re not. Being constructive works and is necessary on all levels. It also requires you to focus on what isn’t working (yet). (Which has nothing to do with being negative.)

What do you think?