HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogTo The Young And The Hungry

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I'm sitting on yet another plane, trying to arrange, and one train of thought leads to... WHAM. Dammit, now I need to write another blog.

This one is for those of you that are young and hungry. You want a career in a cappella, and you're willing to work your uvula off for it.

As the Emperor in Star Wars once said "Good... Good..."

All kidding aside, misdirected energy is a common problem in any industry, any pursuit. You have some skills, you have some knowledge and experience, and now it's time to work work work until you're recognized as a legitimate a cappella powerhouse.

To that end, I offer the following suggestions:

Find Your Niche:

You can be good at many things, but there's something to be said for being the very best at something. Of course the idea of being the best in any creative endeavor is immeasurable and frankly rather silly, and yet if you find the right marriage of your talents and the unmet needs of a cappella, you can basically corner the market on a sound, a style, a technique.

Example: Tat Tong. Sang in an a cappella group, got into mixing and production, and brought his love of modern electronica production styles to our world. End result? When you want a club remix of your a cappella track, you send it to Tat. Not only is he supremely talented, he has a style and bag of tricks that are unmatched if you want a particular sound. End of story.

Same goes for Mervyn Warren in the early days of Take 6. Same goes for Andrew Chaikin in the early days of Vocal Percussion. Find a unique technique and hone it, and you will likely find yourself at the beginning of a very long line of followers as well as customers.

Some of you are shaking your heads, thinking all the good a cappella real estate has largely been claimed. To this, I offer a hearty laugh. Shall I present you with a long list of seminal musical styles that have basically gone untouched by a cappella (reggae, country, rap...*), or would you prefer I remind you that the human voice's potential is still largely unexplored (ever heard of "sideways yodeling?" Check out Australia's Mal Webb).

Perhaps you'd be more encouraged by the fact that the popular music industry is churning out new musical styles for us to digest every year (ala dubstep), or the fact that tastes change driving the market in that direction. Especially the college and high school markets, who are hiring arrangers, coaches, engineers, producers and mixers every single year.

Bottom line: professional a cappella is anything BUT a saturated, stagnant field. But you can't pick willy-nilly. If you don't love it and you don't really, really dive in head first, your watered down pursuits will likely not impress much of anyone in a cappella or elsewhere.

Practice Out Loud:

There is much that can be said about Nick Girard's plan to create Free Track Tuesday. He wanted to learn to record and produce, so he set an astounding goal for himself (to release a track a week), and then somehow managed to successfully do it. I could use him as an example of how one should set giant goals, set an expectation that you must fulfil, or learn as you go. All deeply powerful lessons.

But the one I want to focus on is the fact that he was "practicing out loud," making the fruits of his labor available to be tasted by all. This served as a year-long free promotional service, where others did the talking for him. Like Jonathan Coulton's now legendary rise to fame as a songwriters, it's not only that he did it, as you also need a deep well of talent and a measure of creativity that will keep others from being bored by your creations, whatever they may be.

And you don't have to be the first. Peter Hollens is a great example of this: Sam Tsui and others appeared to have cornered the market on "one guy, many boxes" videos, but Peter took it a step further, with higher production quality videos than anyone else in the game, and always a new twist, be it a duet with another successful viral artist, or a popular video game theme, he's expanding his fan base, and a cappella's fan base, one video at a time. And he's just getting started.

Mountains Without Kings:

Alas, a-cappella.com is no more. One of the most important for-profit businesses in a cappella just closed its doors, as CD sales have plummeted, and sheet music sales... well... if you've got one copy, you've got 'em all, if you know what I mean.

Does this sound the death knell for a cappella in general? Far from it. A Cappella Records opened its doors a couple years ago, and has been expanding ever since. There are more engineers, editors, mixers, arrangers and coaches than ever before. But you knew that already, and that's not what I'm talking about.

Who's the king of producing music videos for college a cappella groups? Who's the queen of ICCA choreo? Who can you turn to if you're a new group and need help with a comprehensive promotional push: web site, demos, image, logo, etc?

That's right, no one. Or, more correctly, you can probably find someone who can help you with one of these things, but I'm not sure if it's even clear where most people should look, beyond calling CASA or asking successful a cappella friends.

You see, a cappella is a giant, decentralized mess. And I mean this in the very best way. Unlike large swaths of the music industry in which people smell money and set up shop, a cappella is still a remote island, left to our own devices. People eat, huts get built, we have great singalongs by the campfire. But that's not to say we can't learn from the big boys.

When Brody McDonald auditioned for "Sing-Off" season one and wasn't happy with the result, he decided to go full Motown on his group. They got new arrangements and such, but they also worked with people on how to present themselves, how to interview. He was the Berry Gordy of high school a cappella. And the next year they were seen by 9 million or so people. No big whoop.

Where am I going with this? The a cappella industry has plenty of ways in which we can grow and improve and expand that aren't even on people's radar yet. Singing telegrams were a thing, but now that's gone... and now we have Skype and a cappella is growing and we have even more birthdays and valentines days and... someone figure it out.

Have Ideas or Get Ideas:

I'm far from the only person who can come up with ideas that involve a cappella. I mentioned to Dio that we're starting "Inside Acappella" and he said "oh yeah, I've been thinking about doing that for a decade, never had the time. In fact, I have 'insideacappella.com' already registered", which made me laugh. I had no idea, but I'm far from surprised.

Those of us who have been doing this for a living have many, many more ideas than we can every possibly enact. We spit them out over lunch with each other: "you know, somebody should really..." and then 90 seconds later we're onto something else.

It's not that we're brilliant (although of course we are), it's just that we're able to see the community from 10,000 feet, and notice things that could and perhaps should happen, sometimes acutely, because they impact our business. Sometimes it's very task specific (like my need recently for native Chinese a cappella coaches), and sometimes general (like the new yet large and ever-churning a cappella industry known as "editing"). Sometimes it can be filled by lots of people who already have the skills (like when I need transcriptions to help speed up my arranging process), and sometimes it's brand new.

In the end, there's plenty to be done, so if you're looking for a good idea and don't have one, sit down with a friend or two and start brainstorming. Or come to an a cappella event and start picking brains (not to be confused with a zombie event where you eat brains). Do some informational interviewing, and try to find where you'll best fit.


I realize those of you who are looking for a career think it's all so far off in the distance and impressive and hard to get started...

Nope. It's really easy to get started. You just start.

People all the time ask me "how did you get the House Jacks started" and I say "I looked for great singers my senior year of college and asked them all to move to SF and try it for a year. They did, and after a year we kept going." There was some early paperwork, but really, it's just that simple. You start doing something and then tomorrow you do it again.

The hard part comes later...but by that point you already have momentum and an investment, so it's easier and you're motivated.

Don't pick five ideas and dabble in each, as you likely won't have enough success to keep you going. Pick one thing - your favorite thing, your best idea - and set a couple finite goals.

If you need some words of reassurance, let me offer these:

Have you ever read history books and thought "I really wish I'd started a computer company right when everyone wanted computers, or a railway just when track was being laid across the nation"? Well, that's what we have here. The a cappella community is growing as never before and whereas one can always start a business, the best time to do so is right when it goes from something that a few people know about and are interested in to something everyone knows about. That's right, contemporary a cappella just hit the tipping point.

So what are you gonna do about it?

*note: I can already hear some of you muttering under your breath "but Deke, college groups every year do country songs and rap songs" to which I reply "sure, but have you ever seen a legitimate, full blown country a cappella group from the South, singing and speaking with twangs? I'm not talking about a one-off album project here, like the Edlos. So that's a no. As for rap? Acaplease! We'll all know when there's a legitimate modern a cappella rap collective, fulfilling the promise that was hinted at in the early days of the Fat Boys et al. Until then, keep those baseball caps a quarter turn to the side, bro!