Dear Professional Group:
I want to ask you a question, a favor. Plead with you, actually.
I'm sitting on a five hour flight, and got tired of listening to songs on shuffle, so I decided to listen to an album all the way through.
And I was transported.
Remember when we were young, and an album was just that: a collection of photos, memories, ideas, emotions, dreams, tales? Remember how it felt to sit down and listen as an active process, dim the lights, and let the music take you somewhere, elsewhere, and you returned... changed.
I miss that.
No, I'm not going to say that the music industry is garbage now and no one is making great albums. There is still great music being made.
What I'm going to say hits a little closer to home: very little a cappella is great in this way. Which means very little a cappella is great.
It stings to say that, but I believe it to be true.
Yes, we have amazing technology nowadays, and come college albums sound professional. Which can be impressive and fun. But not life changing.
There are professional groups who are digging deep to create recordings of lasting emotional impact, but to my ear they are few and far between. Lots of flash, lots of commerce, not so much heart.
* Are you writing music about the most difficult moments in your life?
* Are you singing cover songs that make your eyes well up when you sing them?
* Are you challenging yourself and your listeners beyond the easy, the obvious, the light, the ephemeral?
Do you know what I see? I see Gotye recording an amazing song that goes viral, and then groups aplenty jumping on the bandwagon with their cover versions. Yeah, I love that song too. And I'm glad that groups are singing songs with a bite, an emotional impact. But we shouldn't just be following, we should be leading.
We're not going to change the world by singing an artist's song in the same key, same tempo, same everything.
Remember when you first heard the "Hallelujah" in Shrek? That was a cover tune, and it crushed the Leonard Cohen original. Or the "Mad World" cover in Donnie Darko? Much more powerful than the Tears for Fears album.
So it can be done. A cover song can grab you and not let go.
As can original music, of course. Written from personal experience, with perhaps a few drops of blood or tears spilled during the process.
We want the world to love our music, but we're not giving them enough to love when we regurgitate others brilliance. We're just holding up a mirror, reflecting someone else.
Do you want to just be another reflection, or do you want people to look at and see you?
It starts on stage. Are audience members coming up to you after a show, saying "Where can I buy your version of X? it's better than the original!" If not, you've got some work to do.
And let me be clear: it doesn't just happen. It takes time, and care, and nurturing, and many failed attempts.
Once you have something, you'll know it. Everyone will know it.
That's what an album should be: a collection of songs that people need to hear.
I'm tired of listening to a bunch of songs that are arranged and recorded with ease. Anyone can do it now, as well you know. That's why college groups are beating pro groups in the CARAs: if it's just a cool, perfectly in-tune version of one song agains a cool, perfectly in-tune version of another, it doesn't really matter if the singers are professional, because it point of fact both songs are amateur.
Yup, amateur. From the French, meaning "for the love of." You're singing because you love a cappella, which is great when you're in college, but now you're professional so you need to step up your game. You need to sing music that transcends your enjoyment. Music that wrestles with your heart, wrestles with life.
So, from now on, that's how I'm going to think of adult a cappella groups: as older amateurs. Because, guess what? That's what the world largely thinks. Because it's true.
You want everyone to take your music seriously? You have to:
* Write powerful original songs that have meaning as well as craft.
* Choose, arrange and perform cover songs that transcend.
* Have a distinctive group sound.
* Make music that is not available anywhere else.
* Convey powerful emotion through your songs.
Note that I did not say you need to be in perfect tune, have a great blend, be rhythmically precise. That's all just polish, which is secondary.
No, it's not easy. But nothing truly great ever is. If you want to be known for your craft and artistry, you need to learn, develop and exhibit craft and artistry. You started out copying other artists, and that's how all art students do it, but there comes a time to leave school and leave behind the art that's made in school.
We have too many perfectly polished mirrors. People are getting sick of them. I'm sick of them.
We need paintings.