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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