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).