HomeDeconstructing The Diabolical Dissonance Between Fan and Critic

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Today's contemporary a cappella group finds itself in a familiar quandary. For as long as there has been art, there has been a seemingly unresolvable tension between two key roles. Just about everyone who has made art for public consumption (in any medium, not just music) is familiar with this particular phenomenon, and to recognize it is to struggle with how to answer it. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine any baffle has damped more creative voices or any specter spooked more muses than the diabolical dissonance between Fan and Critic.

These roles are not mutually exclusive, of course, as nearly every consumer of art plays both roles in varying proportions. But in terms of how their respective appetites are fed, the Fan and the Critic place dramatically different demands on the Artist - demands that very often result in either Fan or Critic being disappointed (and sometimes both).

To define our pedagogic caricatures more distinctly:

The Fan, in this context, is the general consumer. The Fan, by definition, doesn't have an exceptionally broad or deep technical appreciation of the art form. That's not an indictment of the Fan (no matter how strongly the Critic may believe otherwise); it's merely a reflection of the fact that the Fan's life priorities tend to be weighted more heavily in areas outside the medium in question. The Fan's chief concern in the consumption of art is some mixture of leisure, entertainment, and distraction. The Fan's most remarkable quality is his multiplicity: there are a shitload of him.

The Critic, on the other hand, is markedly more scarce. He is, by whatever combination of experience, study, and innate aptitude, more knowledgeable than the Fan about both the technical aspects of the product and the broader artistic context in which the product exists. The Critic is more difficult to impress (within the given medium) than the Fan; his chief concern when experiencing art is the evaluation of whether it meets or exceeds his criteria for artistic achievement - a metric that's often inextricable from the Critic's sense of the product's intrinsic merit.

The Artist, then, is in the precarious and uncomfortable position of being called to serve two masters. Compounding the problem, the two masters very often have diametrically opposite needs that seem to be simultaneously met only with great difficulty, if at all.

Contemporary a cappella music is no exception. Different aca groups have different goals, but it's a safe bet that, given the option, the vast majority would choose to please both Fans and Critics. I suspect I'd meet little opposition in suggesting that pleasing both groups is an excellent goal, and preferable to pleasing only one group or the other. However - and this is crucial - there are very different rewards for pleasing one group or the other. Pleasing Critics means favorable reviews, positive word-of-mouth within the ‚"industry", success at competitions, appearances on compilations, and the like. Pleasing Fans, on the other hand, means selling tickets and merch. The former success sustains the spirit; the latter, on the other hand, sustains the a cappella group that exists in the actual physical world.

Some on the Critic side (myself included) seem to operate from time to time under the deeply flawed impression that artists create largely to satisfy our decidedly peculiar aesthetic preferences. While there are iconoclastic, Critic-centric artists out there - in the collegiate a cappella context, think of recent iterations of the Stanford Harmonics or the Duke Pitchforks - they're the exception rather than the rule. These are groups made of Critics making music for other Critics. The simple fact is, for most a cappella groups, it's a poor survival strategy to orient the group’s artistic choices solely - or even predominantly - toward pleasing Critics. It's hard to win CARAs when you can't afford to make a new album because nobody came to your concert or bought your last CD. And the people buying those concert tickets and CDs, by and large, don't want to hear a Tallest Man On Earth B-side (even though I, personally, very much do). They want to hear Lady GaGa, and it's not unreasonable for the Artist to give it to them.

The Critic misses the mark when he attributes the Artist's inclusion of crowd-pleasing repertoire or lack of original material purely to ignorance or simplicity rather than to a rational evaluation of how best to serve the group's interests. Further, even where such choices are indeed made guilelessly, it ill behooves the Critic to dole out obloquy on that basis, as commercial success is, for most groups, an absolute prerequisite to producing the high-end recordings that we Critics expect - and, indeed, demand - from them (while perpetuating the illusion that we maintain those standards for any reason other than the fact that we're music snobs who want to have more good stuff to listen to). Without making music that Fans want to hear, the Artist lacks the material resources to continue creating. Critics, call it a necessary evil if you like, but recognize it for what it is.

On the other hand, for the groups themselves - especially college groups - you'd be amazed how much farther you get when you maintain an active awareness of the entire chess board of contemporary a cappella rather than just your own square. It's important to have a sense of the wider world of a cappella beyond your own campus - e.g., to know that college a cappella is basically an Adele cover album right now - and to consider deliberately eschewing trite choices when presenting your work to Critics for their feedback, as you do when you perform at competitions or submit your work for compilations or CD reviews. For example, be aware of which songs we've already heard a dozen other groups sing. You can still do those, but you'd better make damn sure that, compared to the other groups, you do them both differently and better; if you can't, it's better to sing something else. It's important to know the demographic of Fans to which you're trying to appeal and select repertoire that satisfies their needs, which are different from those of Critics but no less important to your continued success.

But bear in mind that Fans are less discerning and more forgiving than Critics. What does that mean in practice? You have some latitude to make bold choices that Critics will appreciate but that won't alienate Fans. There's a sweet spot. And that's what you should be gunning for with every single song. You never know which piece is going to become an opportunity for greatness in a way you didn't expect. I'm pretty sure On the Rocks didn't put Bad Romance in their repertoire expecting seven million YouTube hits and prime time network TV, and I'm equally sure that all those great things wouldn't have happened if OTR had begun work on the song with the attitude that it was a throwaway pop song and they could just phone it in. Some choices end up not making a big difference, but every choice starts out with the potential to mean much more than it first appears to. Take that seriously.

The most significant obstacle to most individual groups' advancement is the failure to pay attention to the lessons they could be learning if they were up to speed on the state of the union, as it were, in contemporary a cappella. (This means everyone in your group, not just the MD.) Listen to more tracks. Go to more shows & festivals. Read and listen to more reviews. By all means, ask the pros - we love to help, and hardly any of us are jerks.

The bottom line is, it's tremendously important for both Artist and Critic alike to be conscious of the Artist's need to cater to both Critic and Fan. The Critic too often ignores this reality; the Artist too often cuts corners and thus fails to put in the work necessary to achieve it. Critics, understand that the groups upon which we're passing judgment may love complex artistic statements as much as we do, but not every group gets money from their school or their alumni; a lot of them are just out there hustling, and if they feel like they need to sing a Rihanna medley to optimize their return, well, they know their constituents better than we do. Artists, please remember that institutional memory isn't limited to your group (or your school); ignoring that means willfully putting your group in an unnecessarily difficult position, both by being unaware of the criteria by which you're being judged and by choosing not to learn from the mistakes and successes of a truly immense universe of others who have trod where you're about to tread. The better course, no matter where we fall on the spectrum, is to remember that each of us is a little bit Artist, a little bit Critic, and a little bit Fan, and try to view other folks' potentially perplexing choices through that prism.

About the author:
Tom Anderson’s arrangements can be heard on multiple issues of the BOCA, Sing!, and Voices Only compilations and on the hit NBC a cappella showcase “The Sing-Off”. His arranging clients include 5-time Grammy winners the Swingle Singers, award-winning a cappella solo artist Peter Hollens, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and dozens of other vocal groups and studios across the country and around the world. A former member of pro a cappella groups Ball in the House and Four Shadow and original music director of UW-Eau Claire Fifth Element, Tom is the founder and owner of Random Notes LLC, an arranging service specializing in vocal music for groups of all styles, makeups, and abilities, and situated cozily online at www.random-notes.com.


You have described this very

You have described this very well. Your writing style is easy to understand and I am sure that the readers are going to agree with many of your points here. Thank you for sharing.


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An incurable critic...

I underestimated how far on the Critic end of the spectrum I was before reading this! You've done a great job with this article! I am grateful that you covered the idea that lots of highly fan-oriented (read: revenue-oriented) groups still need to understand the context of existing a cappella within which they exist.

-Joseph Livesey | Fermata Nowhere | SoundStage

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