HomeBlogsJonathanMinkoff's blogA Peek at Producing and Programming CASA’s East Coast A cappella Summit

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All good-humored hyperbole aside, my friend had a point. Maybe Blue Jupiter’s role in the East Coast Summit wasn’t clear to outsiders. Maybe credits and thank yous had failed to provide the whole picture. If only I had some bully pulpit from which to clarify this situation. But who has time? I have to write my overdue blog for CASA. Wait a minute…. Info needed there… blog needed here… It was all falling into place.

That crazy ECS. How do we do it? We produce one of the world’s foremost contemporary a cappella conventions by offering a wide assortment of talent over a weekend’s worth of concerts and master classes. While some of our talent contacts us, that’s actually pretty rare; we invite most of the performers personally. We try to bring, not only the groups whose recordings are impressive, but those whose live performances are also sure to impress. And we look to the cutting edge: New style. New singers. New sounds.

One of the most key elements is that the summit is a charity event. Every performer and speaker and of course the summit team itself- we all volunteer. As you might imagine, that sometimes narrows the pool of willing performers a bit. Sometimes travel costs too much. Sometimes there’s a conflict with a paying gig. Sometimes a given group simply refuses to perform without pay. Quality, charity and availability are the beacons here.

And of course, there’s a delightful catch-22 in that, generally groups don’t commit until a date and place are set, and yet it’s uncomfortable to set these things without multiple committed groups. But given the venue’s scheduling restrictions as well as other significant conflicts, we simply have to bite the bullet.

Once you’ve chosen date and place, what do you do? You call a wide variety of acts, some you know, but often people you’ve never worked with before, and do all you can to secure their participation. Sometimes your reputation is such that groups will fly halfway around the world to attend. Sometimes you don’t even get the courtesy of a callback. But one way or the other, the show must go on. It must be amazing, and preferably in budget. You’re gonna need those performers. But that’s not all. You need speakers, coaches, lights, sound, insurance, artwork, promotion, ticketing, volunteers … . Yes, indeed Mrs Clinton, it takes a village.

Thankfully, my co-producer Diana Preisler and our Registrar, Christina Parke don't do this alone. From webmaster Freddie Feldman to a core group of performers like Wes Carroll, the LaGrecca brothers, Yo Yo Beats, Adam Matta, Barry Carl, Jeff Thatcher and so many others, to our volunteers who’ll drive across the country on their own dime to be a part of this insane magic, to devoted choral directors like Rita Gigliotti- we know we have friends we can count on. We’d be lost without them and we can never thank them enough. But, aside from Diana and myself, no friend of the summit has contributed more than the combined efforts of Marty Gasper and the members Blue Jupiter.

I encountered the up-and-coming, nearly nascent Blue Jupiter for the first time as a RARB reviewer when reviewing their CD “Ear Candy”.

Heard it. Loved it. My review started with “Contagious energy, stunning arrangements, soaring leads, seamless blend and promising originals: Blue Jupiter is out of this world.” It ended with “Pull out your telescope and keep your eye on Blue Jupiter. These guys are going places.”

But lest you think I was alone in my opinions…

Fellow reviewer Elie Landau said, “Wow… as thoroughly polished, fabulously arranged, magnificently produced, and fantastically sung a debut album as a group could ever hope to release.”

RARB’s final reviewer, Valerie Kolko said, “I can't describe how much this album rocks…Amazing production quality combined with the outrageous talent exploding from the guys themselves manifests in this must-have for any a cappella enthusiast…if I weren't in school I'd be on the road following them around the Midwest …The room I grew up in at my parents' house has a green shaggy carpet [referring to the Blue Jupiter original “Green Shaggy Carpet Ride”]. The guys in Blue Jupiter can take me for a ride on it anytime.”

Intimations of possible romantic interludes are the kind of review we performers all dream of; high praise indeed. Certainly, not typical RARB fare. RARB reviews are more often more along the lines of an elegant three paragraph variation on “Nice try, but you suck.”

This is just background for those who don’t know Blue Jupiter. Talent is something they have plenty of. But though that’s necessary, it’s far from sufficient and hardly the only reason they keep getting invited to the Summit. Think back on what it takes for us to produce a summit and then consider this:

1) Each year Blue Jupiter agrees to perform at the summit for free, before knowing the date or location. You read that right. They agree to cancel or reschedule other paying gigs in order to perform at the summit.

2) Once they learn of the date and location, they set up a week-long mini-tour to the area of the summit in which they promote CASA and the summit. This promotional mini-tour cost CASA a grand total of $0 this year. No fees. No expenses. Just publicity and advance ticket sales.

3) Blue Jupiter provides first rate sound equipment and engineering for four days, for a tiny fraction of the going rate for even a live sound engineer without any prior a cappella experience, much less a pro like Joel Foner. This can’t be overemphasized. There are a lot of a cappella events each year where sound quality seems to be a secondary concern. Either the equipment is substandard or the sound engineer just doesn’t know how to handle the very specialized needs of a cappella groups. Read reviews of ICCA or Harmony Sweeps events and even these prestigious institutions can end up dropping the ball.

4) Speaking of equipment, Blue Jupiter also provides three days of stage lights for free. Cool, moving, intense, colored lights. If they didn’t, we’d be stuck with whatever the “house” provides, which is (sorry for the pun) “spotty” at best.

5) Blue Jupiter provides artwork and design services for the posters, tickets and flyers for free. I’ve also designed a bit of the art and Freddie Feldman has as well, but Marty Gasper has been the man to make sure that the designs keep getting better and that it all gets printed correctly and sent out to the site in advance of the event.

6) Blue Jupiter has twice provided the contact for the event location itself. While that’s not the end of the process –a million details then still must be negotiated- without that first foot in the door, the summit team is left with many additional weeks of cold calls to find, not only an available space, but a dedicated and supportive community.

7) Blue Jupiter provides insurance coverage for CASA and our host school at about half the cost we were able to negotiate independently.

8) Blue Jupiter brings their fans to the event. Yes Blue Jupiter sells tickets by going early and promoting, but they also send out repeated mailings to their own existing fan base. And once Summit week begins, Blue Jupiter does everything from leave 4 part harmony phone messages to lunchtime promotions in the school cafeteria. Whatever it takes to push the summit- they do it.

9) Blue Jupiter works with the local high school choir to do a combined performance on-stage at the summit. They provide sheet music in advance. They go on site to work with the kids. They get the community involved.

10) Regardless of the advance notice, Blue Jupiter does as much or as little as I ask of them. And they do it with top quality and without ego. This year when two performers canceled last minute, Blue Jupiter easily filled the time for me. (And they got standing ovations and a mash pit.) When one of our planned seminar leaders canceled, Blue Jupiter seamlessly took over with excellent results.

I could go on listing, but I like round numbers. ☺

Blue Jupiter is one in a million, but more and more groups are catching the charity bug. There is a growing feeling of community among a cappella groups and singers, especially those who have attended the summit. It’s inspiring, especially to a summit team that works our butts off to make sure the summit doesn’t just happen, but happens in a spectacular way.

2007 saw 18 performing groups –most at the pro or semi-pro level filling four concerts; Two full days of two tracks of seminars; the CARA awards; more one-on-one coachings than ever before with Diana and myself, Blue Jupiter, Barry Carl, Wes Carroll and others. When your goal is to make a life-changing event, you need people on the team that can get things done.

And that friendship goes both ways. Blue Jupiter got along with Summit Producer Diana Preisler so well they asked her to manage them and she has. Blue Jupiter got along well enough with me that they asked me to produce their next album and I’ve agreed to do so. They have also many times asked me to fill in as a pro temp member, and I’ve been delighted to do it.

But I don’t invite them to perform out of friendship. Anyone who thinks that has the formula “bass-ackwards”, as they say. I invite them to perform because it translates to success for CASA and the summit. Their inexhaustible charitable spirit, dedication to excellence, vigilant professionalism and contagious humor are pillars for this event. Our friendship is just a happy byproduct of those very qualities.

Thankfully, no matter how one may feel about Blue Jupiter, they’re only one group of the many we showcase. We had 18 performing groups and featured more than a hundred individual performers this year alone.

One should also keep in mind that from a programming perspective, the audience is overwhelmingly dominated by newcomers each year. This stems from how often the summit changes location and also from the fact that the locals always have it cheaper! No travel expenses!

Of course, for our beloved and devoted die-hards, the ones that come back year after year, often traveling great distances, we provide nearly entirely new material each year. So even when the same groups perform, they perform mostly songs that have not been performed in the previous year’s summit. And even when a song or group is repeated, there has almost always been a change in group sound or group membership. We need a dependable team, but we keep things pretty fresh.

Still not enough variety for you? As our website states, there’s an open invitation for groups to apply to perform at the summit. All you aca-stars, drop me a line and a demo! We love pro groups, but we’re also excited to have more collegiate and high school groups too. So bring it, collegians and high schoolers! It’s rolling admissions, so keep ‘em coming!

We’ll do our part by trying to set the date and location earlier. And as a matter of fact, here’s a start on that:

For planners who can handle a little uncertainty, I’d say there is a very strong likelihood that CASA’s East Coast A cappella Summit will be returning to the same place-the Washington DC area- in early March of next year. So pencil that in, but give a guy a little slack if we have to change it.

So there’s your peak behind the scenes, a glimpse into the summit and its machinations. My hope is that the ramblings not only provide some transparency, but also some inspiration. Do you know a group that’s ready to donate their efforts? Do you have a great idea for a seminar you’d like to teach? Do you have skills, connections, assets or even just time to devote that can make this event even more incredible? We want to hear from you!