Today I chose the songs for BOCA (along with Amanda Newman), and had someone ask me "What is BOCA?"
Sit down, kiddies, and let me tell you the story from the olden days:
The year was 1994, and the contemporary a cappella movement was young.
Adam Farb, a member of the Brown Derbies, had just graduated college and contacted me because he was interested in making a career of a cappella. I had several ideas bouncing around in my head that I shared with him, and the one that showed immediate promise was an annual collegiate a cappella compilation album.
It bears noting that CASA was born, in part, from a mailing list compiled and carefully updated by Rex Solomon, a former Brandeis student who loved a cappella so much that he contacted collegiate groups every year or two to purchase their latest album. This was hard work, as no central database existed, so he created his own. So it's not an exaggeration to say that CASA's foundations were laid in part by the desire for collegiate a cappella recordings.
Moreover, it was near impossible to find a cappella music anywhere those days. Record stores didn't have an a cappella section, so Take 6, The Nylons and the King's Singers were usually found in gospel, pop and classical respectively, if they were to be found at all. One of my personal hobbies since high school was to scour the racks for hard to find a cappella and vocal music, which was all the more difficult because a list of a cappella groups or albums didn't exist either. When I came across an album called "Montezuma's Revenge" in a used CD store in SF one summer in 1990 (?), I had to purchase it guessing it was a cappella, and only upon opening and listening at home did I realize I'd stumbled on what would become an historic Dutch group.
Needle, meet haystack.
Anyhoo, you can imagine how hard it was to find collegiate a cappella. Moreover, much of it was, how shall I say it... pretty terrible. There were so many versions of "Only You" by the Flying Pickets that Rex filled one 90 minute cassette with them... and then another 60 minute one. Many albums sounded like they were recorded in a wind tunnel (usually the school chapel), with a couple of hastily erected mics, as the group sang once through their entire repertoire. In essence, albums were often just aural yearbooks, a memento for members, fans and parents. Hardly the stuff of legend.
But occasionally I'd come across a great track or album, and I wanted to share these with the world. There was a market, I was certain of it... but how to reach it. And how to make the project financially worthwhile for the person who was going to take the time to chase down all the albums, handle distribution, etc.
The idea for the logistics came from a project I worked on with Danny Lichtenfeld, a fellow Tufts Beelzebub, during the 1989-1990 year. We had a great group and wanted to make an album, but the Bubs only made studio albums every other year (they were expensive, and logistically difficult). What about a live album? But would it sell well? Would it sound good enough? The Bubs were known for our albums, and we didn't want to put something out of lesser quality, so a full live album didn't make sense...
But what about a live concert album with other groups? They could sell the album as well. We found 4 other great groups, invited them to perform on Friday and Saturday night, taped both shows, and each group picked their favorite 4 tracks, resulting in a 20 track album. The other groups would pitch in to cover the cost, and get copies of the album that they could sell on their own campuses: and thus the Beelzebub Winter Invitational was born.
We got a great price on duplication, the location for free, an alum to record us... and before we knew it, our costs had dropped such that we were making a profit on the CD before we pressed it, and that's with the other groups getting the CDs for a great price as well. Win-win.
Plus, back in 1994, there wasn't a single mail order catalog that specialized in contemporary a cappella back in those days, so we'd just figured out a clever way to get our CD sold on 4 different college campuses.
Expand this model to include studio tracks by 18 different groups on 18 different campuses, and you have a direct distribution model that is promoting groups to college students and other groups across the nation, while promoting collegiate a cappella in general. Charge a small amount ($5 or $6 a CD), and require a minimum purchase (a meager 50 CDs or so, easy for any college group to sell), and groups have a built in $300-$500 profit as soon as they sell that batch. Very easy for most groups, and yes, we had plenty of reorders. Everyone makes money.
We did indeed require groups to purchase CDs. Why? Because we didn't want any group to be the one to say "we want to be promoted on other campuses, but we don't want to promote anyone here." The model only works if everyone's participating. To date, I don't know of any group turning down the offer (one group from Yale did pass the first year, but gladly signed up for the second BOCA the following year), because it makes sense.
My wife, Katy, came up with the name. Rather inspired, I must say. Stands the test of time: a topical acronym that makes sense, is easy to pronounce and easy to remember. BOHSA, bless its heart, is the clumsy younger sister with a speech impediment).
I did expect groups to want to be on BOCA, but I didn't expect it to be as big a deal as it has become. It was always intended to be a promotional tool for the community, rather than an award. Each year, I find myself explaining this fact, along with the caveat that the songs are chosen to appeal to the casual music listener, not a cappella insiders. All of the "rules" we have used (trying to include new groups when possible, not repeating songs, variety of sounds and styles) are all to this end. When accused of not being "fair," I try to politely remind people that it's better to think of it as my mix tape than the Grammys (the CARAS were established for that purpose).
Since the beginning, any collegiate recording has been accepted. Some years we've only allowed albums that are on records (because the point is to promote a group's completed recording), but now with digital downloads, EPs, partial albums released... we're back to considering anything.
Who is "we?" Well, Adam Farb and I chose the tracks for several years, until he sold it to Don Gooding (along with the ICCAs), who oversaw it until he retired and sold both to Amanda Newman, who owns and runs Varsity Vocals to this day.
Speaking of the present day, one might think BOCA is no longer needed. It certainly doesn't fill as large a need as it once did, what with group web sites, digital downloads, RARB, casa.org, Mouthoff and the like. And yet, I like to think it still has a purpose, providing busy fans an annual collegiate a cappella compilation of quality while giving groups a little feather in their caps.
And one day, if it fades into obscurity, it'll go back to being what it basically was initially: my annual collegiate a cappella mix tape. Wait, you don't know what a tape is? Oh boy. We'll save that history lesson for another time...