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Nowadays, with an international a cappella community in place and dozens if not hundreds of professional groups worldwide, it might seem to some as though it’s all been done, and there’s no way to find a unique sound and style that will both be artistically satisfying and commercially viable.

That’s most certainly not the case.

If you compare the enormous variety of musical groups, it’s clear that although a cappella has grown considerably over the past 20 years there still remain vast untouched plots of vocal real estate.

But the music industry is of course competitive, especially with the dramatic drop in CD sales and reduced numbers of people going out to see live music (at least in the US). So it’s not enough to just do something new; you also have to do it well, and it has to be something that will appeal to the public.

A daunting consideration. Exciting, but potentially overwhelming. Where to start?

There are two major areas of consideration when deciding on your group’s style and format: those that involve the people within your group (internal) and factors/forces outside your group (external).

Internal considerations are pretty straightforward: what do you like, and what do you do well? Although this is a simple thing to consider, it’s not uncommon for a group to focus more on the former than the latter, fashioning their group primarily on the music they want to sing and the groups they want to emulate.

And yet there is a real potential for failure here. Consider a violinist who wants to play lead guitar. Good idea? Perhaps, but on average it will take years of work for that person to be as good a guitarist as a violinist. In fact, few people would consider so dramatic a shift. And yet there is almost as wide a gap between a trained classical vocalist and a great rock singer.

No one can do everything well, and few people can do many things well. The key is to figure out your own strengths and the strengths of your other singers and find an appropriate stylistic match for each of you as soloists. In addition, consider the added importance of the composite effect of your voices: are your voices similar, making a unified blend easy, or do you find that each person’s voice has a different character such that you might consider arranging in a style that doesn’t emphasize homophony?

Again, I’ll repeat, because it’s central to the future success of your group: no one does everything well, and it will be extremely difficult for a new group to make their mark in the world if they’re not focusing on their core talents. In other words, know yourself, and take the time to know the other voices in your group, so that you can play to your strengths. Just about everyone’s music tastes span a far greater range than their talents

To be clear, I’m not speaking to those of you who are singing recreationally. If you’re singing primarily for your own enjoyment, by all means you should sing songs that you want, and I’m sure that your audiences will enjoy your music. But if you’re looking to take your music beyond your friends and a modest local fan base, you’ll need to represent yourselves well against the myriad professional ensembles in your country, and for that you’ll need to put your best foot forward.

External considerations are every bit as important.

For example, what music is selling in today’s market? Are boy bands on the upswing, or is the public shying away from them currently? Are heavily produced power ballads a part of the current sound, or would a more “unplugged” quality give your music a cutting edge quality? What are other vocal groups doing this year, and other groups who perform your style of music? Have you seen their concerts? Listened to their recordings? Visited their websites?

I hope I don’t sound as though I’m suggesting you go chasing every trend. That would most likely be a bad idea. But understanding the trends so that you can take advantage of opportunities within the market is a good idea for everyone.

Another consideration: what’s the best way for you to position yourselves within this market? A little history: in 1991 a heavy metal band was all about black leather, big hair and eye makeup. By the spring of 1992, Nirvana had destroyed the public’s perception of corporate rock, and yesterday’s hair farmers quickly dropped their leather pants for torn jeans or were seen as cultural relics. Once enough time passed it became cool, and perhaps retro, to foster a traditional heavy metal look, but only with an understanding of how it went from cool to uncool to cool again. Get caught in the wrong part of that trend wave and your group will be fighting a significant uphill battle.

And although the above examples reference pop music, there are similar trends within classical music (Three tenors, anyone?), world music (remember when “Chant” was a top 10 album?), jazz (today’s “smooth jazz”), and just about every other segment of the music industry. Know your market by keeping up with the latest news and releases so that your group doesn’t make decisions that will hinder you.

Geography is another consideration. A cappella in the Netherlands has been very “theatrical” for many years as compared to other regions; a Montezuma’s Revenge show will have lights and cues but perhaps no talking to the audience. If you’re looking to break into this market, you should do some research: follow this trend, or bring your own different sound and style? I don’t have an answer, but I do think the question should be considered before curtain rise.

And you need to know the biases of the people in each region. For instance, I’m often asked by groups outside the US how they can tour here. Well, if they’re a pop group, they’re most likely out of luck, as most American audiences are not interested in hearing pop music from other regions. However, if your group sings folk or “world” music, there may be a cultural tour awaiting you. Yes, there are exceptions, but by in large it’s far easier for Anuna or Libana to tour the US than Maybebop or the Magnets.

I grant you: a cappella is a small piece of the music industry, and yet many groups are making a full time career in many corners of the globe, and most likely you can too.

Speaking of a cappella, there remains an almost limitless combinations of styles and sounds that have yet to be blended. Sure, there are vocal bands and jazz groups, and if you’d like to blaze down that path, you know you’ll have an audience. But some of the best a cappella has been made by groups that either created a new sound by blending styles (Take 6) or replicating the music of their region using just their voices (Vocal Sampling). Reggae is huge internationally, yet there has been no reggae a cappella group that I know of. There’s a new “Broadway” a cappella group forming in Manhattan: great idea, perfect location. How about starting an a cappella karaoke group in Japan: you sing the background parts and the audience can sing lead? Like I said, there are a limitless number of stones that remain unturned.

Hopefully these considerations will help you and your fellow group members to discuss and decide how you can best position yourselves within today’s music industry. By all means, you must be true to yourself, and make music you like. But that’s not enough: you also have to be utilizing your strengths and talents as well as developing a sound and style that will appeal to listeners.

Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions, or would like feedback regarding your group.