After The Sing Off – An International A Cappella Debate
by Nate George, David Michael Loucks, Stephen Saxon, Tom Keyes, Deke Sharon, Willy Eteson and Florian Städtler
On February 7, a remarkable thread emerged out of Facebook, a real-time discussion by a bunch of a cappella activists. This online debate, which was exciting to be part of, happened after Nate George, baritone for Red Harmony, a Los Angeles based, 6-person vocal group updated his facebook status with a comment on the image the US TV show “The Sing-Off” created in the US public. What followed was a highly interesting discussion of experts offering views from inside the business and a lot of general a cappella insight.
So this time I will radically break the rule of “Don’t write more than one page in a blog”: This post is quite long, but worth reading if you care for vocal music. And the debate is not an exclusively US American issue. Many thoughts, especially on the image a cappella music holds in public apply to the European music scene as well.
Nate George wishes ‘collegiate a cappella’ was not the face of the a cappella music scene, in pop culture. What about the many professional vocal groups that tour around the world? There, I said it, don’t chastise me!
David Michael Loucks You and me both, bro. Sad state of affairs. Thanks for nothing, sing off.
Stephen Saxon Is it worse to be misrepresented or to be ignored completely? I don’t have an answer, but perhaps a foot in the door is better than a closed one.
Nate George No disrespect to collegiate groups, some really do a good job, but they often don’t have the resources or the musical training to pull off industry standard recordings or entertaining live performances. As they are the ‘face’ of the genre, it gives the genre an amateur stigma, thus limiting the kinds of audiences that come to the concerts and buy the recordings.
David Michael Loucks The Sing Off could’ve/should’ve done more to include professional groups as special guest performers, most of whom would surely have done it for free just for exposure and/or for the opportunity to be associated with such an event.
How do you have a show that supposedly celebrates acappella with NO Take6, NO Rockapella, NO Real Group, etc, etc??? Deke Sharon was actually involved with the behind the scenes… yet no appearance by the House Jacks. Any one of those (or many other) groups would’ve been enough. More than one would’ve been ideal.
Instead they feature famous/semi-famous artists that have zero to very limited knowledge of acappella??? Boyz II Men? Pussycat Dolls? Ben Folds? Gimme a break. It was a complete joke. Boyz II Men had the worst performance of any of the guests, judges, or contestants!…
Now for most of America, acappella is the Beelzebubs. Good grief.
Nate George I totally agree!!!
Stephen Saxon Well, Bobby McFerrin has some a cappella credentials <grin>, and he did a pretty good turn when he appeared. Ben Folds had just done a tour with Kerry Marsh as his choral director (oh, have you checked out Kerry Marsh and Julia Dollison singing the music of Maria Schneider? Of course not, it is going to be released in March. Not exactly a cappella, but it’s absolutely awesome!). I thought Ben’s comments were the most consistently musical and intelligent.
Deke was able to use a lot of House Jacks clips slotted as the “return from commercial” music. I think it was most or all from their recordings.
But let me be clear – I don’t disagree with you guys. Mostly I’m in tune with you. But it’s kind of like healthcare reform (uh, oh!). I’d rather have some change that moves us in the right direction than to see the world as we know it remain unchanged. Perfection can be an enemy of the good. And if folks think that a cappella = boys from Tufts, well, perhaps it’s better than them having absolutely no context for the concept of a cappella, or that it’s what the four guys from their high school production of The Music Man were doing. (No offense to BSQ’s, of course. I’ve worked with many and have a healthy respect for that area of the tribe).
David Michael Loucks Bobby M was the only solid… though most people don’t know him as an acappella artist, so again… for me it doesn’t exemplify much exposure to professional acappella artists that are outside the mainstream. McFerrin’s inclusion in the show was however one bright spot in the midst of a huge goose egg.
I’m aware of the Ben Folds college acappella connection. No disrespect to Kerry Marsh (I really like his stuff)… but Ben Folds making an album with a college acappella element does not make him an expert, though I do respect his musicianship. My problem with him as a judge is that his knowledge is limited to college acappella, which is only a minimal and very amateur part of the genre.
House Jacks bumper music doesn’t exactly qualify as exposure. Not trying to be argumentative… just trying to clarify and defend my thoughts.
Stephen Saxon No disrespect taken or intended.
After all was sung and done, I thought the right group was “crowned.” And they weren’t the Tuft’s boys, of course.
If they do the show again, it will be up to the collective “us” (though I’m not talking about myself) to show what professional or semi-professional groups can do. Alpha / Nota is a professional group, and they showed their depth and versatility in the competition. I’ve met them and I like them, and I don’t have any reservations about their having won. In fact, I thought that just about each one of the eliminations was the right one at the time. Some of the decisions really surprised me, because I thought the producers might be more inclined to include much more non-musical criteria in their decisions than they did.
If The Idea Of North, or M-Pact, or any one of a number of other groups were interested in sweeping the thing, it would be a very interesting thing to watch. The “prize” for winning, though, is not likely to tempt any group that is producing recordings or performing regularly already, as those groups are. Take6 or the RealGroup or TION or M-P don’t need a recording contract with Sony, nor $100K, if those came along with any real restrictions on their control of their own direction or careers. So it will remain a contest of semi-professionals versus amateurs (kind of like the Olympics used to be :-)).
Tom Keyes Interesting thread guys… just a note: MOST of the pro/semi-pro groups I know went out for auditions, but ultimately were rejected for the show. Perhaps they refused the contracts and eliminated themselves in cases, but I doubt that Face, Nota, and Maxx Factor were the the only non-collegiate groups that actually signed the thing. (David maybe you know the answer to that on m-pact’s part). What you saw on screen was a carefully chosen list from the minds of the producers. Perhaps the producers felt that a group like M-Pact wouldn’t provide enough growth for a 4-show arc.
And I doubt ANY group mentioned would refuse the $100K, unless of course the carrot it dangled from involved a full leash.
David Michael Loucks That’s exactly my point. Any group already making money was not likely to do the show given how restrictive the contract was. The producers’ decision to do it with amateur contestants (who’d be the only ones willing to sign such a contract) is fine, HOWEVER… not giving any historical background, or including the GREATS in the field (even if only through video footage) was very disappointing to say the least.
With that in mind, I don’t think it really is up to “us” to show what those groups can do. Many of those groups were courted by producers to be on the show, but would not sign the contract due to the fact that it was ridiculously unreasonable for existing professional groups. I expect most of them are glad they chose not to participate, as most agree the show would’ve made them look bad. The show’s producers made the decisions on song choice, arrangement, wardrobe, choreography… pretty much every aspect of what makes those artists who they are, so in that sense we didn’t see a true representation of the artist’s vision.
I agree, the contestant who should’ve won, did… at least in as much as they were the most marketable. The behind the scenes dirt is that several of those groups were formed specifically to compete on the show… including the winners. They didn’t exist before NBC started searching for “America’s Top Vocal Group.” At least one of the college groups I spoke to admitted that they didn’t even audition, and the producers not only sought them out to be on the show, but also chose which students/alumni would participate… even buying key members out of existing contracts on other gigs to ensure their participation. Typical reality tv manipulation… as usual, it’s not about “reality” or the artist, it’s about the show.
In my opinion, a great opportunity to introduce to the public what acappella has to offer was missed. It bothers me greatly that NBC (and the production company who’s name I can’t remember) had this vision for a show and yet missed the mark in so many aspects of their production. It’s like producing a documentary about the Civil War and neglecting to mention Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant.
David Michael Loucks Tom… a great many of the groups that we (mpact) spoke with who auditioned did not sign the contract. We also auditioned but did not sign the contract. We have no idea whether the producers would have chosen us for the show or not… but we’ll never know because we wouldn’t sign a contract with so many restrictions.
A $100k Sony recording contract isn’t worth as much as you’d think when you have to give up as much as the contract required.
Tom Keyes I wondered about that when I saw you guys there. My group never made it to the contract part, so I couldn’t comment on it specifically. As far as being worth it, I did mention the “leash”. :)
Stephen Saxon One more perspective on this and I’ll try to leave it alone. The producers of this show patterned it after the Harmony Sweepstakes national finals (even to the extent of having a group from each region of the country). They taped the finals – all day, not just the performance – with extensive interviews of the participants in 2008. I was one of the performers that year, and when I saw the contract (and learned that signing the contract was mandatory in order to perform in the finals), I did a lot of crossing out of offending clauses and had their representative initial each of those changes (a copy for them and one for me). Don’t forget that it is a legal option for you to modify any contract you’re offered, folks. A contract is intended as a two-way agreement. It is not necessarily an all or nothing offer. It wasn’t in that case, anyway.
But given what they were using as a pattern and model, I think they did much, much better than the original. It could have been better, but I think it could have been a LOT worse, too. Just having Deke involved to help the groups work out their musical kinks would be enough of a take-away for most groups to benefit from the experience. I would guess that each group got to take their new costumes home with them, too. Maybe I’m a half-full kind of guy, but even Face seemed to be pleased to get some national exposure, even if they only got to sing 1.25 songs. It may be that the Tufts boys got the best outcome of the show by placing second. They don’t have to abide by the recording contract or tour to support Sony, but they got huge exposure and increased fan-base.
Florian Städtler Hi everybody, I don’t know if it’s appropriate to join the conversation from outside the US. But as European tv and radio usually copies every US entertainment format with a delay of about a year, the EU a cappella groups might face the “reality question” rather sooner than later.
Talking to members of professional vocal groups from both sides of the Atlantic, I could imagine having the same kind of discussion over here. To what degree should a cappella and vocal groups compromise in order to get into mainstream media. Btw: this is not an a cappella question in particular. None of the groups I’ve worked with as an agent would agree on anyone being in control over artistic questions.
I think producers know that they will NEVER make artistically serious groups sign a contract that leaves them as puppets of artistically lightweight tv producers. And they are probably more happy that way, as the young amateur groups (some which are of amazing, almost pro quality) will be easier to handle and incorporate into the rigid reality formats….
So what can both US and EU acappella and vocal activists do? Firstly, I think we have to realize that we all need each other. There will be no pro groups without a semi-pro and amateur scene. Imagine there was no basketball besides NBA, no Spanish soccer besides the Primera Division etc. Singing together is a social activity before it becomes a profession and singers will most likely be an audience for other singers.
If the common goal is to create better music and more opportunities for singers, arrangers, producers, engineers, promoters, the current and future followers, college and amateur group need the national and international groups, too: They can show the audience what a cappella can do and that this kind of music is as artistically outstanding and independent as other contemporary styles are.
Couldn’t this be a strategic goal for CASA? Using the lobby of tens of thousands of singers combined with the a cappella flagships Rockapella, m-pact, Housejacks, Take6 and maybe international top acts like The Real Group, Rajaton, The Idea of North, A’Cappella Expresss, The Swingle Singers, Vocal Sampling…
Looking forward to your feedback.
Willy Eteson All very interesting for us reading this! The swingles were in our office HQ towards the end of last year, and the TV reality show “Britain’s got talent” was auditioning in the building. We had a look at the application forms for interest (and even came up with a few group name pseudonyms for good fun) but decided not to enter because of the contract straight jacket. It would basically have meant potentially giving up all our existing contracted work for 1.5 years! not very tempting.
I’m not sure what the solution is to this, because I agree with the sentiment expressed here about these type of TV shows. How can pro a cappella groups create something engaging for the mass audience addicted to ‘reality’ scripts? I think it’s either join them (as coaches or suchlike) if you get the opportunity or create a similar amateurs competition from within our own a cappella festivals/summits etc. I’m not sure we could guarantee a 100k for the winners though!
Willy Eteson Oh Hi Florian! Seems Europe is back home for the night! You are right that you need am. and pro. – although it’s perverse that the am. gets the big exposure which is converse to major sports! All in all – I think it’s good for a cappella profile. Perhaps we should campaign for a grammy category in its own right!
Florian Städtler Willy – reality shows with artificially casted bands love to leave the stage to non-professionals. To be honest I haven’t seen American Idol, but the German version of the show, “Deutschland sucht den Superstar” (Germany’s search for the Superstar) was in my humble opinion 10% art, 10% kitsch and 80% voyeurism. And still I believe that there are niches for authentic artists. Would be OK for a cappella to get 10% of the music market, wouldn’t it? ;-)
Nate George The show’s producers should have made the show about looking for the NEXT big vocal group, an amateur group that they’re helping turn pro. Not a ‘super group’ that should be known as the representative of the best in A Cappella. The fact that they billed it as them trying to find the best A Cappella group, but then focused on paying collegiate groups to be on the show proves my point that the media thinks that collegiate groups ARE the ‘face’ of A Cappella. I made a new friend recently that is somewhat familiar with A Cappella music… the first thing he asked me was ‘How many people are in Red Harmony?’ When I told him ‘six,’ he was surprised. He knew of a cappella groups (obviously collegiate only though) to have nearly double that many members. That was definitely not the first time I had mentioned A Cappella to someone and they made a comparison to the collegiate format.
If they had wanted to make the show about the ‘WORLD”S BEST’ group, the producers should have done their research and sought out the top groups to have somewhat of an ‘ultimate showdown’ (as I chose those words, I must point out, I’m laughing :-)). Something to showcase the absolute best talent and make the prize worthy of an already-professional group. This would be ideal because then the world could see what the ‘vocal bands’ of today are really made of. Then they should get some judges from the A Cappella scene that are seasoned performers/directors/clinicians and do a backstory on them, letting the world know about their accomplishments, maybe invite the group, that they sing with, to the stage. Maybe the content wouldn’t be initially exciting for people that don’t know anything about A Cappella music, but the producers can still make the show flashy, add some drama, do what they do to sell a show to the masses. If someone can make a show about fishing interesting (like ‘Deadliest Catch’ haha), they certainly can make a show about the A Cappella world interesting to anyone who watches it.
Florian Städtler Nate, I think that even with much money involved, the groups – quite naturally – would love to sing *together* instead against each other. This is the core of singing in a group: Sharing the experience. Might be not as spectacular for the masses…but as Willy said before: It’s our job to create formats and concepts that are both artistically valuable and efficient in fascinating mass audiences. Let’s work on that!
David Michael Loucks Stephen, using FACE as an example… in my understanding, they were outfitted and choreographed by the production company. More than that, the song they performed (which was far from their first choice) was selected by the producers… AND re-keyed… AND the lead was given to a different member of the group… AND their performance was mixed by an engineer other than their own who clearly missed the mark (mixes were horrible throughout the entire event). All choices that were out of the groups hands. Then, the judges questioned their choice of song on the taping of the show. How dramatic. Too bad for FACE though. If I were a member of FACE, I’d have been very disappointed with the exposure the show provided… despite having to say the obligatory, politically correct thank yous while gracefully exiting.
Unfortunately, nobody saw the FACE that they would see at a concert… whether they were good enough to win the contest or not. At least they could’ve been allowed to represent themselves honestly.
Again, I think making it an amateur competition is great… and I agree with Florian, we need amateurs as well as pros. My hope would be that EVERYONE would be more interested in vocal music in general as a result of a show like the Sing Off… BUT, don’t ignore the history, its pioneers, and its top notch performers in the process.
Nate George Florian, yes, I agree, a showcase of the best groups would be awesome! a televised festival, rather than a competition!
Florian Städtler It will take some effort. And a long-term plan. And lots of time an energy by people who are able to share what they know about music and business. Let’s keep ourselves posted across the Atlantic.
And thanks a lot for starting this discussion. Vitally important and a great opportunity to learn from different views.
Tom Keyes I think what Florian is saying, if I may paraphrase, is if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. ;)
David, I liked everything in your last post and agree with all, except a minor nit. I don’t think the show strictly *ignored* the pioneers…after all Deke himself was a major consultant. Did they run a package that talked about the recent history of Contemporary A cappella or give him any screen time? Obviously no, but they thought enough about it to bring him on when they could have ignored him completely. Progress, I guess is what I’m saying. I’m willing to bet they had none of this consideration on any of the other shows that groups have appeared on (the mixing on them bears this observation out). For the record, I would have LOVED to have had one less appearance of Boys II Men (Boys 3 Men?) or Nick Lachey, and one more appearance of any of the groups who’s names we’re throwing around here for a showcase reference.
I think people in TV are taking a huge risk with someone else’s money every time they stage something that is an unknown, and they are rightfully cautious about it. But conservative successes can lead to bigger and better opportunities later. Maybe next year they have live show bumpers instead of canned (ala a “Live Band”). Better or more relevant judges. A larger venue so people attending the live taping won’t get turned away next time (right Nate?)
As long as we keep getting chances to represent our own selves (i.e. m-pact doesn’t lose a gig because they don’t have 14 members, all female and cute…no offense), we’ll be fine, and the additional exposure will help people understand that we’re not singing church choir music when booking us
Deke Sharon Great discussion! A decade ago a Cappella was bbshop, doo sop or classical, and now it’s contemporary music – big step. Also, American idol doesn’t feature Aretha Franklin…
Willy Eteson All true – the best thing is that we’ve got a bit of progress as Deke has pointed out. Whilst over in Boston when the show was on I read a review in the Washington Post or something slamming the presenter for ramming it home that a cappella meant “no instruments”!! I can understand that frustration over in the states where a cappella is relatively well known, but here in the UK people are still trying to get it – they still say “oh like barbershop”!! I agree about the mixes – don’t know what is was like for the groups in the studio but the aired mixes were terrible in my opinion – I felt for every group when a judge made comments on the group’s live balance. Thanks Nate for your hospitality, by the way! nice to drop in!!! ;-)
David Michael Loucks Tom… though Deke had a behind the scenes roll in the show (which I agree was a good move), no one who watched the show knows any more about Deke Sharon or the House Jacks than they did before the show aired. That’s what I meant by no “exposure” to the pioneers, legends, etc… there was no bar set for the general public to understand what good acappella is supposed to sound like. That’s the main problem I have with the show. (Please understand that this is not some embittered rant based upon mpact not being part of the show… we CHOSE not to be involved, and believe me, after seeing it, we’re glad we made that choice.)
David Michael Loucks … and Deke, you are right about AI… but as you might expect, I have issues with that show too. :-)
Nate George You’re very welcome, Willy! Its always great to hear from you! :-) I’m excited that my post garnered such interest from everyone here. I agree with Florian, we need to have more discussions like this. Maybe it will help us come up with ideas as how we can make our music more mainstream. I’m sure that surrendering our creativity to today’s producers is not the only way to achieve that mainstream status!
Deke Sharon I agree that everything suggested above would be nice, but the fact is that network television is rarely educational, as American Idol doesn’t teach anyone about singing. The fact that the show did have Bobby McFerrin in the final and treated contemporary a cappella with great respect made it a net win, even without a treatise on the King’s Singers etc. And if we get a season two I’ll be involved in casting (I wasn’t last time) and there will likely be more groups involved (longer run) and we’ve already lept many of the initial hurdles (sound issues, etc) so I think everyone will be happy with it…
Deke Sharon BTW – regardless what anyone here thinks, BoyzIIMen is the only group in music history to have 2 top 40 a cappella hits. A significant statistic. And Bobby McFerrin is the king, second to none. A gutsy casting choice that paid off. And he also had a huge top 40 hit that was a cappella (something the Real Group, Rockapella and Take 6 never had). If you consider the others who have had big radio hits with a cappella (Huey Lewis, Nylons, All4One, Shai…) they were the two to have. In my opinion. And if we get a second season, we’ll hopefully have more.
David Michael Loucks Well stated Deke… you make several strong points here, but even so I disagree somewhat (which should come as no surprise based on all my other scathing posts). :-)
1. I don’t think the “AI not teaching people about singing” comparison is relevant. The fact is, we’re talking about exposure to acappella, and with that in mind I’m only pointing out that many of the top acappella groups in the world remain relatively unknown. I still feel the show could’ve done more to highlight some of those super talented, lesser known groups. That’s not the same thing as being “educational.”
2. Boys II Men may have 2 top 40 acappella hits… but again, I don’t think anyone views them as an acappella group. It’s fine that they were part of the show in that they are more of a viewer draw, I get that… but it would’ve been better to follow that up with an actual top notch acappella group that would not only be a solid “guest performer” but a representative of the elite in acappella that much of the US may be unaware of. Everyone knows Boyz II Men already, and sorry… but they’re a poor example of good acappella, hits or no hits. In my opinion they keep the bar very low in the consciousness of America.
I’ve already stated that Bobby M was a solid choice… best part of the show, but again he’s well known so he doesn’t exactly expose the public to the genre in a new way. He’d have been an ideal judge.
All that said, Deke… I’m really glad you’re a part of the show. Another bright spot in my opinion. Though I’m a “call it as I see it” kind of guy, I really do have the highest hope that the show will be a great success. I’ll be looking for good things in seasons to come.
Florian Städtler Deke, keep on doing the pioneer thing. And let us all not expect things to be perfect. It will certainly be a long way with lots of little steps and some detour ahead.
I love people who get things done. And the fact that Deke Sharon was involved in the (pioneer) show is a proof that he and contemporary a cappella has a built a reputation and a lobby.
Btw. in Europe the situation is quite similar and we still have this decade of development Deke mentioned before us. All of you probably know the Comedian Harmonists, which have done great stuff, both as musicians and entertainers. However, a cappella groups in Germany, home country of the Harmonists, tend to concentrate very much on being funny, writing funny lyrics, doing funny choreos etc. instead of writing great original material and high quality arrangements. As a consequence, most of the people over here believe this is a cappella – a parallel to the barbershop-is-acappella-perspective the US scene suffered from a long time….
Reading your post has been incredibly valuable for me, I think this thread offered much insight, thanks everybody for contributing. I think it would be great to have more a cappella activists join this conversation – is anybody against making this thread public? (Well, in fact it is public for Nate’s friends…)
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