Friday, June 29, 2012

A cappella is like Atari

The 40th anniversary of Atari video games was celebrated just a couple of days ago. Being both a video game geek (though I don't play nearly as much as I used to) and also an a cappella geek, I saw parallels between the rise and fall of Atari (especially the 2600) and the production of a cappella albums.
Understanding the history of one of the fastest growing companies in the United States will actually help you produce better a cappella albums! Confused? Read on.
Here's the short-short-short version of Atari's rise and fall:
When Atari first premiered their video game system- the 2600- with the idea of interchangeable cartridges in the 1970's, video games were the "new thing." In fact, Atari became the fastest growing company in the history of the United States. Due to poor management skills by the corporation, employees soon left and started their own video game company, Activision, in 1982. Because Activision was a more efficient and well-managed company (mainly due to actually paying their employees when one of their individual games sold very well), Activision replaced Atari in 1983 as the fastest growing company in the history of the United States.
So other companies said "Hey! Activision can make money! We can too!" and so there was a flood of games coming from all different companies. And in short...they were bad. Really bad. Really really bad.
In fact, the video game market was so cluttered with bad games, that everyone associated Atari with making bad games. These new companies failed to learn a very important rule (pay close attention a cappella fans): Making games (a.k.a albums) is an ART FORM, not a by-the-numbers output of programming code.
And so to cut through the clutter, Atari tried to make video games out of popular titles, like Pac-Man and the upcoming movie, E.T. And they failed. Miserably. They failed because they thought that the name alone would bring them recognition and it didn't matter if the game was good or not. (Starting to see where I'm going with this?)
Here is an interesting web series called "Play Value" that gives a much better recount of everything I just said:
Okay, so take the above history, replace "video games" with "a cappella albums" and you'll see where this is going. The more I try to increase my knowledge of A cappella music by purchasing recordings, the more I am disappointed.
A cappella music is Atari. What I mean by this is, contemporary a cappella music is still in a new, unfamiliar phase of its life where our identity is still being established, and we are growing and evolving, much like the history of video games. Our markets are flooded with a cappella albums. FLOODED. There are literally hundreds of thousands of a cappella albums, and we are a little over 20 years old.
For a fan like me, cutting through the clutter, like Atari tried to do, is difficult. Here's what we as a community can do to make sure our album is listened to by lots of people and not get lost in the clutter.
1) Understand that A cappella, and making an album, is an art form.
One very important thing I learned from my time in A cappella Boot Camp was that way too many a cappella groups are hasty in making album choices, because they fear that time spent on perfecting an album is time wasted, because the album is not being promoted. This is not true. The more time you spend on crafting an incredible album, the better your reception will be.
Just look at Pentatonix, who released their first EP, "Volume 1," three days ago. They took six months to make a seven song album, something that arguably could have been done in only a few weeks. But they were smart. They crafted each song from the arranging stage to the mastering stage, and now they are number five on the iTunes album chart.
And the reason is simple- they understand that a cappella is an art form and needs time to be crafted, much like Activision understood when making video games.
2) Treat your album mixer with kindness and let him/her offer opinions.
I admit it. Before I attended A cappella Boot Camp, I thought that album mixers were program monkeys, here to do our bidding and be treated slightly above human scum.
I realized that I could not have been further from the truth. A cappella mixers not only have the technical know-how to make you sound amazing, but they have the experience and expertise to know what sounds good and what doesn't, because they have listened to hundreds or even thousands of recordings (millions if they are Bill Hare). Treat them with respect, don't waste their time, and take their opinions into consideration, especially if you are releasing your first album.
3) Make unique, original albums.
If you're going to spend time and money crafting an album, please make sure it's something we have never heard before. Deke Sharon wrote a fantastic plea to professional groups about crafting an album like a work of art:
Pentatonix gave us something we really have never heard before. And personally (I know I'm going to be slammed for this opinion, but I don't care) I prefer their version of "Somebody That I Used to Know" over the original. In fact, I think its better.
4) Why are you making an album?
Your group wants a physical record of what you have done so far. You don't care about pleasing a cappella fans, you just want something to cherish.
Don't start a kickstarter campaign. Don't spend money promoting it. Don't put it up for a review on RARB and then complain if they don't like it. Don't make 1,000 copies.
5) Your song choice doesn't matter. Your arrangement does.
Learn from Atari's mistakes. They thought the name brand alone was enough to sell copies. Just because you put out a recording of a big hit song [Pac-Man or E.T.] does not mean it is going to be a good record [like Pac-Man and E.T.] The name brand does not matter. The arrangement does.
You need to pay attention to the nuts and bolts, the production quality, the in-tune singing, the artistic choices, etc.
These matter way more than "OMG! Random A cappella Group just released their version of 'Call Me Maybe!'"
If your version of "Call Me Maybe" isn't good, then no one cares.
6) Don't flood the market
The moral of this story. A cappella fans are going to search out and find great albums that they can listen to. But it is very overwhelming for someone to search a cappella and get THOUSANDS of hits. Which album do I buy? Which group is awesome?
I'm of the opinion that if you are going to arrange a song, you can blow me away by doing one of two things: Either your version sounds so much like the original that it's impossible to tell which is which, or your arrangement is so different than the original that I need to decide which one I like better.
Of course, I prefer the latter. Recording a song to match the original is very cool when you listen to it for the first time, but it loses its punch after multiple listenings. Honestly, for my money, turn the song into something brand new, or I'm just going to revert back to the original recording.
We are Atari. Pentatonix jet released their "Donkey Kong." Now, someone needs to give us a cappella's "Super Mario Bros." or "Tetris." That can be anyone.
Marc Silverberg
Play Value. (2011. April, 4.) Play value: The fall of atari. [Web Video] Retrieved June 29, 2012 from
Sharon, D. (2012). Mirrors and paintings. [Web log post] Retrieved June 29, 2012 from
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Game changers part 1

Presently, I am in Chicago attending the A cappella Boot Camp- a five day intensive on a cappella recording. Those interested can check it out here:
I consider the A cappella Boot Camp to be a "game changer." That is, the A cappella Boot Camp doesn't just add to the already overflowing pool of a cappella talent; It changes the face of a cappella music.
Let's face it. With the rising number of a cappella groups all over the world, monumental groups can get lost in the crowd. If someone were to teach a class or curriculum on a cappella music, (soon...I promise) they would have to defend the material presented. In other words, groups/people/festivals that are considered "game changers" show us how a cappella music has evolved over the last twenty years.
So what exactly defines a "game changer?" I'd like to think the definition goes something like this:
A person, ensemble, event, recording, video, or tool that makes a substantial impact on a cappella music by starting a trend, influencing multiple artists, or altering the current direction of a cappella music.
The number of "game changers" is substantial, but recently, the number has been dwindling. You can even see the frustration on the internet. More and more articles/blog posts have been criticizing groups for not being unique, dynamic, or original. But on the other side of the fence, becoming a "game changer" is a very difficult thing to do. More so, attempting to become a "game changer" for the sake of changing the game is retroactive. The "game changers" are the ones who don't realize they have become one until someone recognizes their accomplishments. The other pitfall of becoming a "game changer" is that fame/recognition alone is not an authentic reason to become a "game changer."
Part one of this series (series? topic? saga?) discusses what I believe to be the most recent game changers from the last year or so.
1) Peter Hollens- Right now, the big name in solo a cappella videos and releases (and iPhone apps!). Peter proves that you can do it all and sound better than most groups attempting to perform the same song. The process by which he records and posts is a valuable lesson on a cappella recording, promoting, and solo performing.
2) Pentatonix- Top album on the iTunes pop chart. Yesterday, they were #13 on the top overall iTunes chart...and the album hasn't even released yet. It has been a dream of mine to see an a cappella group hit the mainstream media (besides the Warblers...who are really the Bubs) and I think they have the best shot.
3) Live Loopers- Mister tim, Julia Easterlin, Kid Beyond, Dylan Bell, etc.- Performers are making a living showing off their a cappella chops without the input of other people. They are literally their own a cappella group, and they have achieved what we always thought impossible- they are singing their own chords.
4) Pitch Perfect- Have you seen the trailer? Pitch Perfect is a Hollywood movie that doesn't just feature a cappella, it's actually about a cappella. In 5 months, i predict the songs performed in that movie will become a cappella mainstream, the lines they quote will be posted on every a cappella fan's Facebook status from East to West coast, and the movie will change something about how we view a cappella music. I honestly don't know what yet, but something is about to change, and I'm very excited.
These are only a few "game changers" who exist today. Who do you consider to be "game changers?" Who has changed the way you view a cappella music?
Marc Silverberg
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Monday, June 4, 2012

Every body needs an A.R.M.

National A cappella day you ask? Yes! Sign this:

A cappella festivals are at the cutting edge of presenting fans with a cappella techniques and materials. In fact, these festivals, mostly run by CASA, Singstrong, or a neighboring college, have become so popular that tickets sell out weeks in advance, much like Comic-Con. In fact, you could say these festivals are the body of a cappella education.

But for a cappella junkies (like me), 5 major festivals a year does not satisfy the need to explore what is fast becoming a much larger community of singers. But even with directing 2 college groups and 1 community group, time together is time spent on rehearsals. These rehearsals satisfy the need to sing, but not the need to discover.

What is there to discover you ask? LOTS!
-Improvisation exercises
-Hundreds of thousands of unpublished arrangements
-Compositional style
-Millions of a cappella CD’s and tracks
-Rehearsal techniques
-Recording techniques
-Unknown a cappella resources

Going back to the title of this blog post, it seems that every body needs an arm.

And like the Contemporary A cappella League who supports developing a group in your hometown, I posit that the same can be done with an A cappella Roundtable Meetings (A.R.M…Get it?)

Why shouldn’t we do it? All college choral groups have reading sessions and roundtable sessions. These are monthly gatherings of choral directors, who sit down and share new ideas, sight read their way through 50 or so pieces of choral music, and learn from each other. It’s like a choral convention in miniature scale. Instead of taking place over several days, it lasts a few hours (or however long you want it to last).

So here’s how it works:

1) You and your colleagues/friends/bitter enemies pick a place and time to meet, preferably somewhere like a classroom, studio, or house/apartment.

2) Someone (or everyone) brings resources to discuss. These can be arrangements to read through, recordings to listen to, videos to watch, books to read, techniques to try, etc.

3) Everyone learns from each other, just like an educational roundtable.

4) Everyone goes home with a little more knowledge about a cappella music.

5) Rinse. Repeat.

This can be a weekly meeting, a bi-monthly meeting, a monthly meeting, whatever. Roundtables could be the cure for the a cappella summer blues. Imagine having a local meeting place that functions like a shorter collaborative a cappella festival. What could be better?

In fact, that’s what myself and several others are trying to put together.

The website, has a group listing for these A cappella Roundtable Meetings localized in New York City. Follow the link for more information:

Let’s work together to spread the education of a cappella music…and also eat cookies.

Marc Silverberg

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