(Give it a second and let it sink in.)
You are doing arrangements wrong, in many ways. Let me explain...
Every year a fresh new group of survivors come through your audition process. They wowed you with their solo, the group loved them in callbacks, and you feel like they are ready to make a contribution right away. What is the best way to get them in the groove? Sing something as a group that the rest of the group is already familiar with. They learn the music quickly, and before you know it they are holding down the bari line by themselves like they have been in the group for years. But now you have a problem…. You are singing the same song that you sang last year. In all probability, you are singing the same song you have been working with for possibly two, or, gag, three years. Why?
There have been roughly 236,784,134 professionally recorded songs in the world to date. Want to check this statistic? Go ahead, but it changes every minute. People are constantly writing new music. Even if only half a percent of them are in your group’s interest area, that still leaves you with more music than your group could ever possibly perform. Realistically, it leaves every group around the world to rarely repeat music. So why do we hear the same covers all of the time? I get the same response all of the time: it’s what our crowd likes to hear. You have that magical number that gets people on their feet. People know when you start singing that song, it is going to be good and entertaining. So why get rid of it?
Evolution. There are high school groups writing their own music. HIGH SCHOOL GROUPS! Shame on the college group that is still repeating the same music year after year. Last year I recorded three versions of the same Sara Bareilles song, “Hallelujah”, five times, and every Katy Perry song known to date. Stop the madness, people. By no means am I condemning these artists. In fact, I love all of this music. But did you listen to the rest of Sara’s album? “King of Anything” is catchy, but is nowhere near the best song that she released. Voices in Your Head blew me away with a very powerful, very different arrangement of “Hallelujah” last spring. So why was it so hard for others to stop directly transcribing the same one we heard for years? Katy Perry is a great artist in her own right, and a very underrated vocalist, but she isn’t the only one on the Billboard charts. Stop buying singles. Start buying albums. Dig through for the emotional song that hasn’t hit the radio yet. Get your fans to Google the title after the show to see where they can hear more. Go to a concert and hear a pretty good opening band play before the big act? Buy THAT album and start arranging their music before they make it big. Then you can be the first one to introduce your audience to the music. Better yet...
Diversify. Stop doing covers. Calm down, I know that songwriting may not be your strength, or that of anybody in your group. Do you think Bob Dylan wrote a hit his first time? Well, maybe…. But you might uncover a talent in the group for this very skill. Work in groups, work one on one, work alone. WORK! Try. Fail. Keep trying. The good thing about writing an original is that nobody has a comparison to work against. They don’t hear it and say…”I liked the original better”. You are the original, how it sounds is how you intended that it sound. When you think of it that way, how can you fail?
Maybe you are in a group that hasn’t had the strongest arrangements in the past. Limited exposure to the a cappella world can limit the growth of a music director and the rest of the singers around you. A cappella is changing, people! Last week the coach of the Jaguars made reference to a player holding out for a better contract. He told the media that “The train is leaving the station. Run, get on it.” The same is true of the current state of a cappella. Groups that aren’t on the train will fall behind, or become irrelevant. Sprint to catch up to the train if you have to. Don’t be left behind singing repetitive, directly transcribed top 40 hits. Your crowd may praise you now, but when they hear it two performances from now, they will start wondering what they are paying for each time. You aren’t charging for gigs? Go back and read past articles, as this has already been addressed by myself and many others. If you need help catching up, there are many professionals out there that are ready to help. And we aren’t hiding, so it isn’t difficult to look for us.
This semester, take the leap that everybody else is afraid to take. Dump out your arrangement folder, and fill it with some new stuff. Your group members will complain, people will worry, but you will be better for it. The only way that we can grow as an industry is to constantly challenge the way that we do things and change the habits that we develop. I cannot wait to hear what kind of new, inspired, music that all of you release this year. Just know, if you are on stage singing yet another version of “Rolling In The Deep”…. you will probably see a disapproving frown in the crowd. That is the ghost of me, present at all of your shows to make you feel guilty. Or it is the guy that has seen you do this one before, and he is checking his Facebook. Either way, it’s a lose-lose. It’s time to change things up. Maybe your next song will be number 236,784,135.
About the writer:
Eric Talley fell in love with a cappella music the very first time that he heard it. He is the founder of Appalachian State University's only co-ed a cappella group, Lost In Sound. He served as their President for three years. During that time, a cappella brought him not only musical joy, but love as well. He met his fiancé Nicki - who was the music director - while in the group, and the two married in August 09. A background in a cappella music and sound engineering led Eric to become involved in professional album production, where he continues his work today and as a contributor to CASA.