Got a note from an ambassador wanting to take his region to the next level. He's got multiple a cappella festivals, a harmony sweepstakes, ICCAs... but knows that a city's reputation starts and ends with its local groups.
So, this got me thinking: what elements are needed, and which things don't matter quite as much? Thinking out loud:
(note: this is not for all a cappella groups, but rather those that have a chance of blowing up in today's media)
Yes, everyone in your group must be able to sing well, but not all of them need to be amazing soloists. What do I mean by "amazing soloist"? A lead voice so compelling you would buy this person's solo album: Jeremy Lister. Scott Hoying. Margareta Bengtson/Jalkeus. Jerry Lawson. The group can share solos, but you need at least one person whose voice is world class.
NOT NEEDED: SIMILAR VOICES
You'll have an easier time building a blend if you create a group around similar voices, but it's definitely not necessary. You can be Take 6 or you can be Straight No Chaser. Both are winning formulas.
NEEDED: GREAT BASS
After the soloist, the second loudest element in all popular music is the bass. That's how it should be in your group's mix as well, and that voice should be as low and as powerful as possible. The octave pedal can work, but if your group name isn't a palindrome (hello, Sonos!), I don't like your chances.
NOT NEEDED: GREAT VOCAL PERCUSSIONIST
Not every contemporary group features vocal percussion. If you've got one, great. If that's not part of your sound, not a deal breaker.
NEEDED: ORIGINAL MUSIC
Your ensemble will likely have more success with cover tunes than original tunes early on, but eventually having music that you're known for will become essential to keep you from simply being a cover band in the eyes of the public. Note that this isn't always an original song, but it can be: Straight No Chaser has found success with both "The Christmas Can Can" (old music, new lyrics, new concept), and "Who Stole The Egg Nog" (entirely new). An original arrangement can serve this purpose, but it has to be as arresting and memorable as, say, the remake of "Mad World."
NOT NEEDED: ORIGINAL CONCEPT
Yes, it's excellent if your group has a new sound or approach, but I have to admit, there are plenty of bios boasting a sound and style unheard ever before in a cappella, and most fall short. Don't tell the world you're different. Show them. Don't focus on being amazingly different. Just be amazing. Not convinced? Nothing about Pentatonix on paper looks much different from many other groups. There's no huge fundamental concept behind it all, but the way they do what they do has indeed become revolutionary, and inspired millions.
NEEDED: TIME TOGETHER
Lots of time. Ideally everyone lives in the same city and sings together every day for a year. Especially in the beginning. Build rapport, build a sound, build a character. You can make great recordings from a distance, but you're probably not going to have a great live sound until you're just a little bit sick of each other.
NOT NEEDED: VETERANS
Almost all of the biggest names in professional a cappella currently had nothing more than some high school and/or college a cappella experience when they started.
It might be a viral video, an appearance on a television show, going on tour with a big artist, a 6 month cruise ship gig, theme park gig, college tour ... something to keep the group together and move you forward. It's partially about common experience, partially about time together, partially about building success.
NOT NEEDED: ALL THE ANSWERS
You might not exactly know what style your group should adopt or what songs you should focus primarily on. Don't worry about having all of the answers early on. Instead, focus on answering the questions you can, and using the successes you have to help you answer the open questions as the become more clear.
The fact is, there is no one perfect formula, one easy path to success or excellence, especially in a market as diverse and as niche as a cappella. I'm sure there are exceptions to the points above, and I could probably come up with some of my own with a few minutes ... but the larger point I'm trying to make is that you don't need everything to make a great group. You only need some things. And you probably already have some if not many of those things.
So what remains is the ability to focus and spend the time you have together building quality and momentum in ways that matter.
How are you supposed to know what matters? Oh, that's easy: get some outside perspective. Ask the experts. They're waiting by the phone, and Facebook, waiting for you to call...
Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard),and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com