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This weekend we're celebrating 20 years of the House Jacks. There are a cappella groups that have been around longer, but not many. Moreover, our group members have been in the group an average of about 7 years, which is longer than most groups exist.

I'm not going to begin to answer the question "why" because it would all be conjecture. However, I am going to spend a little time on the topic of "how"... but it requires delving into two very sensitive topics: money and politics. Intertwined.

Moreover, it involves a very dirty word here in America: Communism. Yes, comrades, the House Jacks are run as a communist collective. There, I said it. 20 years in a collective, on US soil no less!

Before I go any further, let me be perfectly clear: Communism as a political and governmental practice is a horrible, dismal failure. Corruption and death. If there's a chance Communism is coming to America, you'll see me on the San Francisco shoreline with a musket, firing with great fervor into the red tide.

Also, I want to point out we're a 5 man communist organization working with in a capitalist system, which is the only way it would work. We can be red on the inside, but  only because we're surrounded by red, white, blue... and green.

Questions? How did I guess. Fire away:

Q) What does it mean that you're a "communist" a cappella group?

A) It's just my cute way of saying that from the moment a member joins our quintet they make just as much money as everyone else. After expenses all profit is divided 5 ways. Each member has an equal vote as well. A completely horizontal organizational structure with no individual financial incentive. All for one and one for all, in other words.

Q) Wouldn't you make more money if, as founder, you took a larger chunk?

A) Perhaps, but it would not be worth it. In the early days of the group we tried several different group structures and payment plans - salaries, stipends, reimbursement for doing more work behind the scenes, and each one lead to resentment. Fact is, if you don't have inner-group social or financial harmony, you will not have great vocal harmony.

Example, from the early days: If your song is on an album, you make an extra 10 cents (roughly) per copy when sold. And if you're on a record label, you'll make money from the first album sold, whereas the group has to recoup the record fund. Result: A HUGE incentive to have your songs chosen for the album. Group infighting, jockeying for the inside track with the label. Yuck. Solution: any song that is on any House Jacks album will result in everyone paid equally. Result: we choose songs based on what we all think will be best. Much less ego, everyone working together for the best results.

Q) Do other groups work this way?

A) I don't know, but I will say the #1 gripe I hear from a cappella singers toward their groups concerns money. Huge international touring groups and little social groups. Unfair payments, owners not taking into consideration X or reimbursing for Y. Innuendo and open conflict destroys groups and relationships every year. Guys who sing together but don't much enjoy each other's company otherwise. I can think of multiple well-known groups off the top of my head who have had members leave in the past year because of financial disagreements. Terrible shame, because they made great music together.

Q) But what about all of the work behind the scenes?

A) First off, the time spent traveling, at sound check and on stage, is quite significant, and everyone does that equally (N.B. you don't get paid if you're not at a gig - the sub gets your share). Secondly, everyone in the group has responsibilities behind the scenes that are essential to the group's success. And if something needs to be done quickly, everyone pitches in.

Q) But if some people are working harder behind the scenes, shouldn't they be paid more?

A) Who would decide? If you ask a group of people how much of a certain project is the result of their work, you'll end up with far more than 100%. Someone will always feel cheated, and they'll resent whoever decides what they get paid. People remember the resentment around not being paid $10 they think they're owed FAR more than they remember getting $10 they shouldn't have. It's human nature to inflate perceived injustices toward yourself. Equal pay circumvents this.

Q) What if people don't do their jobs?

A) The combined, group pressure and expectation coupled with even payment is a far better motivator than one guy telling another "hey - you didn't do X." And when we do need to point out that something needs doing or a ball was dropped, it's from the perspective that we're all working hard, all doing our best, and all sometimes drop balls. Very different energy. Balls still get dropped and inefficiencies exist, but with much less resentment.

Q) So when a person leaves the group they give up everything?

A) Almost. The one area outside this formula are albums. If you're on an album, you get paid your equal share in perpetuity. You help sell past member's albums and they get all that money, knowing you'll get money when you leave from the albums that you're on.

Only one catch: if you leave the group without sufficient notice, which we agree is 4 months (so we have time to find and train a replacement), you forfeit that money. It's the one carrot/stick we keep in place to ensure we have smooth transitions when someone leaves.

And that's pretty much it - the entirety of our business structure. Fits on one page. In the early days we spent 2 weeks hammering out a long, complicated membership agreement, and over time have whittled it down to a few short, clear paragraphs.

Q) But people still leave... why?

A) Life happens! We've lost two members to lead roles in Broadway productions (one's back in the group now), two members to the legal profession, and so on. One guy left after a decade, exhausted from being on the road. Sometimes the grass is greener. And music is tough sometimes; it's hard to tour internationally and raise kids.

Q) So are you suggesting this business model for everyone?

A) Not necessarily. I hear every month about long, painful fights in groups, and simply offer this as a better way. It's not perfect, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, "it's the worst way to run an a cappella group, except for all the others." It requires open dialogue all the time, it requires good accounting and open books, so anyone who questions anything can see that there are no secrets (but you might be surprised to know that almost no one ever asks to look, as the trust level is extremely high).

And, as mentioned up top, it means I make less money. I founded the group, I've been doing this for 20 years, and I could be taking a bigger chunk of earnings... but how much bigger? And for doing more now or doing more in the past? Every question leads to another question, which could keep you up all night discussing fairness and payments. Which I have done. This way, no questions, no second guessing, no one feels unfairly treated. We have a 5 man team of guys who make music together, knowing we're all looking out for each other.

I've looked at a cappella from both sides now (sorry Joni), and found that being happy and being unified and being productive is much more important than making a little more money.

Might even be more that a little... but you know what I have instead?

A 20th anniversary this weekend.

Priceless.

photo by Deb Fought Westergaard

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