In one of my very first columns [http://www.casa.org/content/robert-dietz-you-need-producer] I talked about getting a producer involved with your project in order to provide a cohesive vision that you, as a group member, might not be as easily able to provide. It occurred to me recently that though I talked about this idea of a “vision,” I didn’t go into too much detail as to what that might mean, or how you might go about finding it. Let’s delve into that a bit further.
When your group releases an album, you have a list of priorities (whether you explicitly state them or not). You have to decide whom your album is designed to appeal to, for perhaps no single album may truly appeal to everyone. Your target audience may be your fans, your alumni (if scholastic), other a cappella nerds, etc. These are not mutually exclusive goals, and you can shoot for something in between, but inevitably to have a strong vision something is going to have to give a little.
A “vision” then I think has at its core your audience in mind. You have a set of goals for your album, targeted to appeal to a certain demographic, and the vision is what helps you get from point A (the material in your repertoire) to point B (an album that showcases your repertoire in a way that appeals to your target). This is only one way to think about it, but I think it’s a good place to start!
So, identify your targets and goals (write them down!) and use that as a jumping-off point for your approach. Let’s look at how this might play out with each of the above targets in mind:
Fans – These are the people who come to every gig, who support your group through thick and thin. They have a specific idea of what your sound is, based on having seen you perform the same songs many times in different situations. Odds are you probably don’t have to sell these people on your album – they’re going to buy it anyway – but you probably want to keep them around by encapsulating for them the spirit of the show that they enjoy enough to keep seeing it!
This doesn’t necessarily mean recording everything exactly as it sounded live (though it may, if that is your choice), but rather it means capturing the spirit of the songs as they happened live. Was there an arrangement moment in a particular song that your fans consistently reacted to? You probably want to make sure that it’s on the album in a manner similar to what it was live. Does your soloist have a signature riff that drives the crowd wild? Make sure it’s in there!
Executing this approach optimally, and in a way that is more creative and original will involve enhancing the live performance in keys ways, without losing the core spirit. This is something that can be exceedingly difficult to articulate if you are a group member. You’re too close to the material. Here is where a producer can help you identify what is crucial and what can be changed.
Alumni – Similar to fans, but these people have a different sense of what the group identity is based on their own personal experience. An album made with these folks in mind may have a stronger focus on a group’s “signature sound” – perhaps this means songs in a specific genre, or certain grandfathered arranging techniques. It may also mean songs that make it for the sake of nostalgia. All perfectly acceptable things, but be careful not to include material you’re not crazy about just to appease your alumni. Nobody, alums included, wants to listen to music that the performers themselves aren’t enjoying!
A Cappella People – These people have heard everything, so you’re going to have to come out of left field a bit to capture their imagination. I think a good place to start here is by giving a sense of story to your album. It doesn’t have to have a literal narrative, but it should flow emotionally in a way that seems vital. A cappella aficionados have been bombarded over the last decade or so with technical precision. As important as this element of things is, emotion will always be more interesting. I think appealing to this demographic is about crafting something that goes beyond “good” (technically sound) and into “great” (speaks to the humanity of the listener). If that sounds lofty, good!
At the end of the day, which target audience you choose isn’t as important as the fact that you’ve made a choice and have executed your decisions in service of that choice. The alternative is an album that feels disjointed (or the terms many reviewers like to use, “unfocused”). What you want to avoid at all costs is an album that feels like it was made without a purpose. Even if your purpose is simple, for the sake of your listeners, it should be clear!
What do you think? Let me know below!
About the writer:
Robert Dietz is a graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. Most recently, Robert was a vocal arranger and coach for The Sing-Off on NBC.