The following is a love letter - a tough love letter - to professional a cappella groups and musicians.
Everyone in a cappella is so nice, so I'm going to take a minute to hold up a mirror and be "that guy."
By the way, if you're a casual singer, have a CAL group, don't consider yourself professional, this is most certainly not for you. Keep singing, having fun, spreading harmony through harmony. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a cappella as a hobby and avocation. In fact, the world would be a far better place if there were many more people and many more groups like you. Carry on!
As for the rest of you...
1) NOBODY CARES
How many fans does your group have on Facebook? Take a long look at that number, then go to the Facebook pages of all of your favorite bands. Uh oh.
You performed at an a cappella festival this year, and had some fun doing a couple high school and college gigs last month? Fun, but if your group disappeared next month, how many people would be asking about you?
If you want fans to love you, and you want your music to matter beyond friends and family, you need to step up your game. More gigs, more videos, more tracks. You're not working hard enough. Until you have done over 250 gigs in a calendar year, you're not really hitting the pavement. Yup, it can be done. In fact, I've done it. Exhausting, and in the end you're humbled, but likely have some numbers that will make people in the general music industry begin to take you seriously.
You're not so much about touring, and prefer to make videos? That's fine, but there are fourteen year old kids in the Philippines making music videos with more hits than yours. Step up your game: more heart, more flash, more creativity, more cleverness, more... more. Make a video a week for a year. If Peter Hollens is making more videos than you, then you're not making enough videos.
You're more about recording? I have three words for you: Free, Track, Tuesday. We'll talk in 52 weeks.
That's all there is. Take your pick.
2) YOU DON'T CARE
Did you lose sleep over your latest recording? Either by staying up all night working on it, or better yet lying awake at 4am the next night, worried if it's the absolute best it can be? If not, your approaching your job with the same non-challance as a middle manager working at a cardboard box distribution warehouse.
But wait: you're working as hard as you should have to work, as hard as you worked in school, and you're just not getting results, not getting A's like you used to, not at the top like you've always been? That's called grade inflation and entitlement. You might never have really worked hard. You might be a member of the "entitlement generation." Who knows, who cares. Just pick up a shovel and start digging, and don't stop until people start writing newspaper articles about your ditch. Which they may never do. But you keep digging anyway. Every day.
Did you spend more time looking at Facebook or working on your a cappella career today? Yesterday? Did you coach at the local high school for free, send off some arrangements to a group in South America as a gift, and volunteer for CASA, or did you spend another day waiting for the phone to ring and your email box to fill up?
Wanting to be successful and popular is meaningless. Everyone wants that. And a million dollars. Make that a billion. Desire is meaningless, beyond its ability to motivate. That's not caring about your music, that's caring about yourself. Narcissism.
Here's the bottom line: a real, full time job is between 45-80 hours a week. If you are not working that hard at a cappella, day in, day out, for several years, then you have absolutely no right to expect anything. You start at the bottom like everyone, and shed blood, sweat and tears. For years. Then maybe you'll have some real success.
It doesn't work any other way. ESPECIALLY in a cappella.
3) YOUR MUSIC IS IRRELEVANT
The statement above should sting immediately. Because it does for every single professional musician. Daily. Constant concern about the nature of art and commerce, and where they/you fit in. Even if your music matters today, tomorrow your music will have mattered yesterday, and you have to start all over again.
The problem for most a cappella musicians is that they're not fundamentally concerned about their musical relevance. I've seen to many people laugh about how there are far too many versions of "Fix You," and then turn around and record "Firework." If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
Are you singing songs because you like them or because you're saying something? Are you picking your tunes because they'll help you land a corporate gig or because they'll touch someone's heart? I'm all about people making money, selling albums, cashing checks, but that's commerce, and based on replicating someone else's relevance for people who can't afford the real thing.
Yeah, I said it: you're singing Michael Buble covers of Frank Sinatra tunes to people who can't watch Frank because he's dead and can't afford Michael Buble tickets. Ouch.
Start with one song. One powerful song. Might have been done before, or maybe you have a friend who is a songwriter. One amazing song that doesn't sound like anyone else. It sounds like you.
And then do it again a hundred times, as it might take that many before one clicks. You were kinda hoping that first one would be enough, weren't you?
4) THERE'S NO EXTRA CREDIT
You will get no brownie points for anything. No one cares how hard you work, or how many hours you log working on an arrangement or a recording. Zero. There's a recession and all pity parties have been cancelled.
You do get karma credit for working with students, and giving away arrangements to new groups. You get credit for volunteering with CASA or another great organization, but I should be clear: you don't get to walk in the door and do the coolest job. But none of this makes you a more popular musician. It just makes you a better person.
5) YOU'LL PROBABLY FAIL
Whatever reasonably high goal you set for yourself, you'll probably fail. So, set another. That'll probably not work out as well. Welcome to reality.
I'd venture to guess that 90% of the things I initially set out to do haven't worked out as planned. And I consider myself extremely lucky having had a 10% success rate.
Yeah, I said it: luck. That's the most important thing, after hard work. In order of importance: hard work, luck, talent. Talent on its own is useless.
So you'll spend the next decade busting your ass (if you're doing it right), and maybe, just maybe, have enough to show for it that you felt it was worth it.
Fact is, if you do it right, you will have plenty to show for it, because a cappella is young, and the tree is still ripe with low hanging fruit. But it's only available to people who get up early and stay up late, as the really easy fruit has all been picked. Better yet, plant more trees. Even better yet, teach others to plant trees.
It may not be clear, but I'm saying all of this because I care. I love a cappella, as we all do, and want to see us make gains that make last year look like a quiet prelude. Let's talk again after we're filling stadums and have another string of top ten hits.
How amazing would it be if we had all 5,000 graduating collegiate a cappella singers continue in some way, starting groups, joining groups, singing in retirement homes, filling every farmer's market and local TV station with their song. And the music that would be made by the best of the best?!?
This is nothing, our numbers are miniscule. Imagine if we had 100 times as many pro a cappella musicians. 1,000 times... but only if they really put their back in their work. A bunch of slackers will only water down the impact, filling the bandwidth with self-absorbed mediocrity...
Actually, you know what? I take it back. Go back to Facebook, to YouTube. Get out of the way so that the real musicians don't have to climb over you. Do 10 arrangements a year, and 27 gigs, and make a video, and make sure to check your Facebook profile every day to see how many people liked them! Ooh, you got a new friend! She's kinda cute too! Click on her profile and check out her photos...
Ok, we got rid of those people. You're left. There aren't many of you. That's OK. We only really need a few.
You know what you need to do, and it starts by closing your browser.