What’s going on with The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA)?

The Contemporary A Cappella Society has, for more than 20 years, offered the a cappella community a place to find recorded vocal music, useful resources such as arrangements and advice, and most importantly to find others with common interests. In recent years, CASA has also offered a number of annual festivals around the United States devoted entirely to a cappella music.

It has also seemed to disappear at times, periodically failing to follow through on its own promises, express or implied. At a time when a cappella music is more popular and accessible than ever before, there would seem to be a real need for a strong central organization devoted to CASA’s stated goals. In thinking about all of this, I decided to reach out to a representative of the organization. President Greg Rubin was happy to accommodate me and answer some questions.  His responses provide a particularly candid assessment of CASA’s struggles, how the organization hopes to address several obstacles, and where CASA plans to go in the future.

Here is a transcript of that interview. I welcome comments and questions in the space below, and I am sure Greg or another CASA representative would be more than happy to respond where appropriate.

I should note that this interview was conducted in mid-December, and the delay in getting it transcribed and published is entirely my responsibility. If any of his answers are untimely, I welcome any updates from CASA.

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Acatribe: I first joined CASA in the late 90’s, and have watched it go through many iterations, at times struggling with consistency of activity and leadership. What plans do you have to try and solve some of those persistent problems?

Rubin: One of the things we realized recently, and made a commitment to focus on, was that CASA was formed to be a central point for information and activities and news in the a cappella world back when it wasn’t easy to disseminate information. Pre-internet, it was newsletters, it was handed out with paper copies and that sort of thing. That was exactly what people needed at the time. When CASA became more of a formal organization, even though our mission statement may not say it explicitly, the goal of the organization was to provide people on the a cappella community exactly what they needed, and what they needed at the time was a central point for information and a way to disseminate it. And things have gotten markedly different between then and now; we don’t need to be the central point for information. There is still some need for it, but not nearly to the degree there used to be. The needs in the community have changed, the community itself has changed. There are now companies devoted 100% to a cappella music, whereas that didn’t really exist ten years ago, with some exceptions, to the point where there was an a cappella industry, which I would venture to say there is now.

We [the CASA Board] sat down and said to ourselves, the needs of the community have changed, and our mission is the same as it has always been: to provide people in the community things they need that others can’t.

Some of those growing pains have to do with recognizing that too late; when you take a moment to pop up and take a breath and see what you’re doing, you realize you kind of missed the market, things have shifted and you haven’t kept up. What we’re trying to do on a macro level is we’re trying to position CASA again as the place that can provide things that people need.

In more tangible terms, we want to be an enabler to the community, whether that means helping someone find or form a group post-collegiately, or helping a company with promotion or with anything they may need, that we can be a service to, creating programs around these sorts of needs after identifying the current needs of people in the industry.

A lot has changed, we are trying the best we can to recognize what types of people are now in the community and what people need from a non-profit organization.

We have tried to look at other non-profit organizations that exist for industries or communities, and ask if there are elements of this that we can emulate. Do we want to be like a union, or a guild, or like a traditional fundraising non-profit. Those are the macro questions we’ve been asking ourselves as a Board.

The tricky part is once we’ve figured out what makes sense for people, how do we do that strategically or programmatically. So those are the kinds of things we are working on.

 

Acatribe: As I understand it, all leadership and Board positions are unpaid volunteers. Is that correct?

Rubin: That’s right. We do pay some people; it costs money to produce events and manage technology and structure and things like that, but I don’t believe we’ve ever, as an organization, run a fundraising campaign, never explicitly asked people for donations in that way. We do have membership dues, but no campaign. We have talked the idea around, and it may be something we do in the future, depending on how we gauge interest. At this point, I don’t think the presence is there, I don’t think it’s something that people expect or that would ultimately be successful.

We are in an interesting spot where the community expects a certain level of quality and execution…there is an expectation for what CASA should do and can do. People expect certain things from a CASA event and yet everybody is a volunteer. It is an interesting place we’re in.

The things that we could do were we to have a full-time staff and be more of a traditional operationally efficient company would be great, but beyond just figuring out how to position ourselves in the community with what people need now, it is a huge challenge to say how do we get from “this is everybody’s side hustle, moonlight gig” to where we have paid staff, an executive director, a fundraising campaign, all the things that larger, more traditional non-profits are doing. We’ve been talking about this for probably two years now…I don’t think there is a clear answer.

 

Acatribe: Are there grants available?

Rubin: We had a woman involved who was looking into the grant-writing world. For starters, it is difficult to get grants for national music and arts programs. A lot of the grants, from what we’ve seen, are on the state level, so there is a ton of legwork to chase them down. Grant writing is very time-consuming.

On top of that, we felt like it would be in our best interests to set ourselves up for the best chance of actually closing those grants, by which I mean having programs that really are in the wheelhouse of what the grants are writing for.

We had a couple of false starts on some programs we started that seemed like real needs in the community that would also benefit us in terms of being able to apply for more and larger grants.  For example, Harmony in the Halls was a program we started a couple of years ago and the mission of that was to provide a cappella groups and after-school programs to schools whose music or arts budgets or curriculum had been cut or eliminated.

We were doing that with a couple of schools in New York City and learning the bureaucracy of the city education department and that sort of thing, and …we recently closed that program. I think AEA [A Cappella Education Association] is doing something similar and hopefully better. I’m very curious to see how they do it.

So those are the kinds of things in terms of grants… we want to be able to set ourselves up for the grant writing but it is a chicken or egg thing. We need the program in place to apply for the grants, but we need the grant to get the program off the ground.

That’s a pretty good example of the difficulty of going from a volunteer staff to scale up to a paid, more traditional company style.  Something like that falls through the cracks.

 

Acatribe: Have you guys ever considered a hybrid approach, such as creating a paid position or two just at the top to ensure more consistency?

Rubin: We talked about that. Ideally, we would have something like an Executive Director who could be like a field general, and an operational COO of sorts, and there would probably be qualified people coming out of a Master’s in Arts Management or something similar.

We’ve been considering the Executive Director position for a bit.  We wanted to know what we are before we bring somebody in to run it. Those kinds of discussions center around what kinds of things does the community need from an organization like CASA.  We wanted to have those conversations first before we figure out if we could fund an Executive Director position.

Frankly, our events portfolio has been a little bit in flux. We’ve taken on a bunch, and stepped back from a few.

We wanted to get a little more stable in terms of cash and cash flow because to bring somebody in for that position and to give them potentially a staff, we didn’t want to make it something that we weren’t sure we could fund long-term.

 

Acatribe: That goes into my question about the festivals. CASA seemed to hit its stride with festivals for a few years, offering them in a variety of locations, spaced out throughout the year for maximum exposure, but then some festivals such as VoCALnation and AcappellaFest never came to fruition in 2014. Are you guys trying to figure out a balance for a manageable festival schedule going forward, or was this just an unfortunate exception to the new norm?

Rubin: We’re trying to figure out what is the sweet spot for us. What are the market fits that really hit, that you walk away from the weekend and think that there were a lot of people who really dug that…[and] this is a place in the country that we should be every year.

There are so many factors; there is the demand factor, the boots-on-the-ground operational factor… Do you have people locally who are committed and are hustling, are in constant communication, and who can really pull this off?

I think we are pretty good at producing festivals. LAAF (Los Angeles A Cappella Festival) has been great every year, there’s always magic at SoJam.

We don’t want to start planning a festival [while] nervous that we don’t have the resources to do it to the degree people expect. That’s what I was saying about expectations for what a CASA event should be. I think that we’ve done enough of these now that that there is a certain expectation for the quality of a CASA event that we feel incredibly honored to maintain.

It’s a testament to the hard work that everybody in CASA is doing to make these events successful and to create a venue for some of those magical moments to happen. Every time I attend a festival, I see them and it is so energizing to see these moments happen. This is exactly why people get into singing a cappella and coming to these festivals.

 

Acatribe: Going back to the AEA, you mentioned earlier that there is almost an industry of both for-profit and non-profit organizations in the a cappella community now. How do you guys hope to fit in? Is CASA hoping to lead with some of these other non-profits like AEA or The Vocal Foundation that are devoted to similar goals?

Rubin: That’s exactly what I was saying when I said we want to figure out what the community needs from us. With AEA or WACA or SING in Canada, we want to be able to say “How can we help?” as opposed to “Why are you guys doing that?”  My feeling is, if there’s somebody who can do something better than us, they should go do that.

That’s why we toy with a fundraising campaign, because ultimately we want to be helping as many people in this community as possible, however they may need help. We talk about it and think some of the programs that we’ve been running for a long time seem to make sense, things we should continue to do. I think our events are something that we will continue to do, they seem to be successful and people like them. CAL [Contemporary A Cappella League] seems to be something that brings a lot to the community.

But if an AEA can come and provide assistance to the schools better than we can, then it is the kind of thing where I want to talk to them and say “How can we help you guys?”

We have every intention of having people at the Memphis [AEA] festival in April; there may not be any clear partnership at the outset, maybe not a clear “here is exactly how we can plug in for you guys,” but it is one of those things where we want to start the conversation and see where it goes.

 

Acatribe: What are the top few priorities or programs going forward?

Rubin: It is always a moving target, but there are a few that are really concrete and stable for us. Events are very stable and something that we will continue to be doing. I think the CARAs [Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards] are something that people look to us for. Those are the kinds of things we’ll be doing. CAL, once again.

 

Acatribe: Is Tunes for Teens rolled into the idea that AEA could do this better or on their own?

Rubin: We have a huge archive of music. That program is one of those things where Chris Tess has really got that program on lockdown. He knows what he’s doing, he has a ton of assets at his disposal. It’s something that we’ll continue to run or maybe grown if we have the resources; or maybe it’s something that we’ll talk to AEA about. That program is like a low-hanging fruit for us. We have a ton of music and assets and it is fairly self-sufficient. Assuming that there is still a need for it, we will continue to do it.

 

Acatribe: How is CASA doing financially and in terms of membership? What’s the picture today, and what are the trends over time? Have you seen any impact from the popularity of Pitch Perfect and The Sing Off?

Rubin: Membership has always been very stable for us. It represents the core CASA patron, I guess you could call it. Revenues overall, the business overall, there’s always ups and downs year to year. We have seen a lift from Pitch Perfect, The Sing Off, and everything else.

It has made it easier for us to get outside of our community a little bit. When it comes to sponsorship, we’ve been able to do things with NBC, with Universal Music on the Pitch Perfect soundtrack, we’ve been able to leverage the general awareness of a cappella into larger sponsorships. We had Shure as a sponsor of SoJam a couple of years ago.

We’ve been able to step outside of our sweet spot a little bit. I think we all expected a little bit more of the uninitiated to start raising their hands and asking questions and showing up at events and things like that. I don’t think we’ve seen as much as we expected…we’ve seen some, but I expected after Pitch Perfect came out to see people who have never sung a cappella at events like LAAF, for example. We saw some, but not as many as I thought.

It is one of our other macro goals when we get above everything and look at the community. I think one of the things we’d like to see overall for everybody in the a cappella world are more people coming into this having no singing background, just fans of a cappella now. That’s what all of these things have done, they’ve created a lot of fans who maybe have never sung in an a cappella group but just dig the music.

It’s tough to figure out how to balance it because you want to create an event, a weekend designed for the kind of people who will benefit the most from it. So when you are thinking about the kind of curriculum you will put into place for workshops, you want to be able to help out the people who will be able to benefit the most, but you also want to create an environment that’s not intimidating or insulated from the people who may not be as heavy practitioners of a cappella as the groups of people who attend.

From an efficiency standpoint, it’s a heck of a lot easier to do the marketing and promotions of the festivals to groups than it is to individuals that may or may not exist. When we want to get 1000 people to North Carolina in the Fall, do we contact 200 groups or spend $15,000 on an ad buy and radio spots and hope that people in North Carolina decide they want to hear some a cappella music?

There are things you can do, we’ve done more interesting marketing campaigns and things like that for our festivals. I think we’ve done a couple of really good ones for BOSS [Boston Sings festival]. Boston is an interesting one where it probably has the most opportunity for non-singers to come because you have so many colleges there. You can get somebody at Harvard who is sharing our Facebook posts and a bunch of their non-singing friends see it and hopefully it can go from there.

We are trying, we are going to put a little money towards doing some of these paid campaigns next year just to see how they do, and if we get some of those non-singer, non-practitioners then it tells us that they are out there and waiting to hear from us.

We’ve done a little bit with the barbershop organizations [too]. We’ve had three barbershop-specific workshops at our festivals now, and they have been really successful. People loved them, so we want to keep doing them. We’ve been talking to Chorus America and other large organizations outside of our more contemporary a cappella community, and…I think there’s a lot to be learned on both sides of the table.

 

Acatribe: The website has been fairly static in terms of structure and layout for awhile. Are there any plans to reboot it?

Rubin: We’ve just built a new CARA platform because the old one was even older than the CASA website. Rick Thomas, who is now our program manager of awards, and Shane [Ardell] and Joe [Antonioli] basically built an entire submission, nomination, and judging platform from scratch. It’s pretty unbelievable the amount of work they’ve put in on nights and weekends. The next thing we’re looking at is the website.

We hosted a town hall-style meeting a few weeks ago to see what people wanted from our website [Author’s note: You can see the Google Plus session on YouTube here]. Also… we’ve started hosting a CASA town hall type of meeting on the Sunday of every festival to get general feedback, to get a conversation going to find out what the community needs from us. One of the themes that keeps coming up is the website, and access to information. So that is the number 1 thing on our list now is to do something with that. You should see more about that in the coming months.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: At this point, Greg and I ran out of time on the phone. I fired a few follow-up questions via email several days later, and here are those questions and responses.

Acatribe: I just have a few more quick questions. First, is there a term period for leadership positions, board members, or program managers? How do you guys ensure diversity among these positions?

Rubin: Our terms are for 1 year each… We look to create a board that is both representative of our community and includes talented and bright people and experts in their respective business areas. Those are our priorities.

 

Acatribe: A few years back, Florian Stadtler and I started co-blogging a list of all the vocal festivals around the world. It was daunting for the two of us, and we did not update it for 2014, but I still get regular inquiries about it. Has CASA ever considered maintaining resources like this for the a cappella community?

Rubin: It’s a good idea. That sounds like something we would want to try and build once we have the website redone.

 

Acatribe: Similarly, one CASA individual had hinted on Facebook that CASA might put together some sort of database of upcoming a cappella performances around the United States which would rely on volunteer-based sourcing. I volunteered to help and track certain groups but never heard anything further. Has this idea come up?

Rubin: Again, this is one of the things that is on our list of “to-do’s” that we’ve had to press pause on due to the website project.

 

Acatribe: The collaborative recording option from festivals seemed like a fun idea and produced some great tracks. The last track to be released was from 2012. Will the subsequent recordings ever see the light of day, or have they been shelved?

Rubin: I was literally just emailing people about this. Yes, we’ve had a lot of moving parts with the collaborative recording projects (they are incredibly complicated logistically) and we’re working hard to get them out the door for people.

 

Acatribe: CASA’s annual calendar for 2014 had listed that ACAs [A Cappella Community Awards] would happen in November. Were there logistical problems or was it strategic decision to skip that program?

Rubin: Two things have happened with ACA stuff. 1) We are building a new nomination and judging platform for all our awards, so that’s one reason for the delay. The other is that we’ve made a strategic decision to move some things around. E.g. SING was not released as a physical album at SoJam. It is now a digital album, recently released on Loudr. Our thinking was that it would make a great holiday gift. So ACAs are going to move as well. More to come on that soon.

 

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I would like to thank Greg Rubin for giving me so much of his time to bring a little transparency to CASA’s process and progress. I look forward to seeing how CASA continues to change or evolve in light of the shifting priorities he referenced.

If you have questions about any of Greg’s responses or about CASA more generally, feel free to share them below and I will see if he or another representative can respond.

 

3 Comments

  1. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    This is an illuminating interview, Dave, and I’m so glad you took the time and energy to do it. I also commend Greg for agreeing to it, and for sharing his perspectives.

    Based on Greg’s comments, I am concerned that CASA is at risk of losing its leadership position in contemporary a cappella. Now, I will disclaim that opinion in several ways: first, perhaps the organization doesn’t have that as a goal (in which case, no bigs!); second, I could easily be missing lots of details, considering that I do not sit on the board and never have; and third, it’s always possible that I’m veering toward the hyperbolic.

    However.

    Leadership is an amorphous thing, and can be defined in several ways. Steve Jobs is cited as having said that it is innovation that distinguishes between a leader and a follower. Leadership pundit John Maxwell has said that a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. Over much of the history of the organization, CASA has excelled against either definition. But in recent years, it feels like the engine has stalled.

    A marquee awards program suddenly stopped. Multiple annual festivals were discontinued, with little communication to CASA members or the broader a cappella community. Content updates on the website have become more sporadic, to the point where spam posts were making it to the front page. New initiatives seem to come less and less frequently, and the most significant mentioned in the interview were retooling the website and back-end electronic judging system — admirable and important work, but perhaps more evolutionary than revolutionary.

    As someone who has led nonprofit organizations as a volunteer board chair and as a paid executive director (not for the same organizations!), I totally recognize the limitations of having an all-volunteer group. Heck, we have an all-volunteer group at Acaville Radio, and have the same kinds of capacity limitations. I suggest, though, that CASA has grown beyond that stage in a nonprofit’s lifecycle.

    Judith Sharken Simon has written about this concept — of a nonprofit’s lifecycle — as have many others. It is very common for a nonprofit to be all-volunteer throughout its incubation and startup phases, but generally, to make it to adolescence and sustainability, most of these organizations begin getting a paid staff. Those additional staff members add significant capacity, bring a professionalism to the group, and, frankly, they add stakes. Someone who depends on the organization for their livelihood has a very vested interest in seeing it succeed and grow.

    CASA has, through the dedication and passion of its board members over the years, managed to carry some of the characteristics of adolescence and maturity as an organization without the infrastructure to support it. The difficulty with that approach, often, is that it burns out the board members and the organization itself can sputter. It’s not an uncommon story and it’s why many similarly-situated organizations begin to atrophy and die.

    I’m not nearly suggesting that’s the fate of CASA. But I do think we’re nearing a key decision point, where the board needs to make some clear choices for the future. In this interview, Greg starts to motion in that direction a bit (although in setting up some odd barriers, like requiring a master’s in arts management instead of experience and the ability to kick butt and get things done, it seems to come with hesitation), and that’s a great sign.

    The a cappella community is growing, and more importantly, it is diversifying. Will CASA be shaping the direction and setting the tone of the conversation about contemporary a cappella into the future? Will it be a utility player in the mix, maintaining a small group of programs but not making much noise? Or will it be the group that helped start it all and then found itself running out of gas? Decisions today will help determine those answers over the long-term.

    Again, Dave, an illustrative interview, and my appreciation to you and to Greg for doing it.

  2. Dave Sperandio   •  

    Aaron, it’s almost like you have access to my email account.

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