The A Cappella World is Flat

Ok, so I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read the entire book by Thomas Friedman called “The World is Flat.”  But my understanding from the selections I did read had to do with the idea that the internet and a rapidly changing globalization in business have leveled the playing field dramatically between traditional industrial nations and everyone else. As the world changes in this way, the previous geographical restrictions become less and less relevant. (Don’t hold it against me if I’m wrong- I read a few chapters a few years ago, so I don’t consider my summary to be comprehensive, ironclad, or completely accurate)

WHO CARES AND HOW DOES IT RELATE TO A CAPPELLA?

Well, this past weekend I think we saw a glimpse into the global changes infecting our “little” a cappella community. I am talking, of course, about the live internet streaming of both concerts from the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival (LAAF) and the two personalized live concerts performed by Danish quintet Postyr Project.

I have to admit, I was irrationally excited about the idea of watching 3 or all 4 of these events live; and thus a little disappointed when I missed the first LAAF concert on Friday night. Nevertheless, I tuned in Saturday night at nearly 10:30 p.m. EST to watch the professional showcase concert featuring Hookslide, Pentatonix, and Duwende.

Now, I’m not interested in reviewing the concert for a few reasons. First of all, the camera was pretty much just placed on a tripod pointed directly at the stage, and the sound seemed, at least on my computer, to be nothing more than the room sound (stereo mic’d?). In other words, there was no fancy camera work, and no house-mix or higher quality sound being pumped into the feed. Second, I do believe that a cappella is generally something which must be experienced live, in person, in order to best appreciate its potential. As I have said before, the power of a cappella music is being in the room and hearing the voices lock in harmony. Over time, recording engineers and producers have figured out ways to substitute for that aesthetic, but the live streaming of the LAAF concerts was not directed towards that goal of giving the viewer a precise and accurate simulation of being present in the auditorium those nights.

Instead, the value of CASA streaming those concerts was more about community. In the United States, these major festivals happen typically 3-5 times per year (I realize there are more smaller festivals- I compiled the list of American festivals along with the Vocal Blog‘s compilation of other worldwide festivals here– but it is really only 3-5 festivals which are massive in scope and draw the biggest headlining acts).  The time and geographic distance between these festivals makes many of them practical only if you live within a 30-mile range or have lots of time and spare money to attend. But if you are on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube immediately after these festivals, you learn about all the wonderful things you missed. In fact, if you are on Twitter and following a cappella people, you are likely watching their responses to workshops and concerts in real-time (as they are happening).

So, by streaming these concerts (and also the SoJam concerts back in November), CASA is doing all it can to engage a cappella fans who cannot travel to a festival for any number of reasons, and also helping to ensure that more people try to make an effort to attend a future festival or two.

Saturday night, I was able to watch Hookslide, Pentatonix, and Duwende and share thoughts, comments, and laughs with people on Twitter who live in different time zones, engage in different professions, and have vastly different backgrounds from my own all from the comfort of my own house. Would I rather have been there watching it all happen live? No doubt about it. But this wasn’t a bad alternative.

I also think by making this stream available, again regardless of the quality, people can get a sense of a group’s live identity and maybe say “ok, the next time [group] comes to my city/town/county/state, I’m gonna invest a little money and bring a friend!” I think it answered my question about Pentatonix- can they put on a great live performance outside of the highly sanitized and rigidly controlled confines of network television (YES).

I know CASA streamed the SoJam festival back in November, and I was very excited to watch the Saturday night concert there featuring The Boxettes and Naturally 7. This weekend, I really enjoyed seeing Hookslide, Pentatonix, and Duwende. I know that it is not a substitute for being at the concert, with the live crowd energy and sound cranked up, but I think CASA is really doing a great thing by making these concerts available for free online so that people can learn about new groups or see how groups they have heard about perform.

Now, Sunday’s festivities were a little different. Postyr Project, a groundbreaking quintet from Denmark, has been pushing boundaries since they released their album in 2011– an album which features not only their vocals, but cello, drum loops and beats, and various other instruments. It is a stunning tapestry of vocals mixed with electronic and acoustic sounds, and it was not surprising to me that they would be the first vocal group (at least the first I know of) to perform not one, but two live streaming concerts solely for the benefit of web-based viewers. In other words- the “audience” was me, and anybody else watching from their own home, and the “stage” was what appeared to be an apartment or house with some very comfortable-looking chairs. The group called these  “Digital House Concerts,” and this was a totally accurate description.

The website running the show, LiveMusicStage, created an interface where you can not only watch the video of the performance, but on the left-hand side you can participate in a chat box (if you login through Facebook) which allows you to interact with other viewers. You also have the option of clicking “Applaud” to see a silhouetted figure stand up and applaud, something like “Rock Out” (using the classic rock and roll “rock lock” gesture of the horns), and something which allowed your figure to wave a lighter back and forth. Interestingly, you could see a computer screen on the video behind some of the members of the band which showed the front of these faceless figures being triggered by the viewers, giving the performers a feel of an audience (though I’m sure it was a somewhat empty feeling). There was also a poll which asked how the viewer would like the group to perform the song “OMG,” offering such options as “Excited” and “Flirting.”

The production value of these concerts (yes, I watched both) was pretty high- the sound being streamed appeared to be either the primary mix or something of similar quality. The video component was also really well done, offering a more interactive feeling for the viewer, with close-ups of the singers much like the camera work that goes on a big screen at a bigger rock concert.

Again, leaving aside the quality of the performance (which was very, very high), the most valuable aspect of this was the viewer’s options for interaction with other viewers and with the band. At one point before the first show started, people started typing into the chat box “Hello from Berlin,” “Hello from Detroit,” etc. People from all over the world were coming together to watch and participate in this musical experience, and I think this experiment offered a guide for how groups can connect with the larger, global a cappella community in new and very cool ways.

The two streaming events this past weekend were different options perhaps directed towards slightly different goals, but the one way in which they were the same– the inviting, inclusive call to a cappella fans everywhere– was the most important achievement for both. I don’t know where we as a community are headed, but I know this weekend bodes well for the things to come. I hope it inspires other groups to find new and creative ways to reach out to our community as well.

So, thank you Postyr Project and thank you LA-AF/CASA for knocking down boundaries, widening the reach of good, live a cappella music, and flattening the a cappella world.