So I don’t know if you’ve been reading the blog-o-spheres lately, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, the popular show “Glee” is butting heads with famed comedian/indie singer Jonathan Coulton.
Jonathan Coulton is a popular artist for a cappella groups to cover, with his geeky hits like "Still Alive" from the video game "Portal," the zombie anthem "Re: Your Brains," and the ode to cubicle workers, "Code Monkey." Deke Sharon even dedicated one of his blog posts on CASA to Coulton's success story in order to motivate a cappella groups to work hard, because, in his opinion, overnight success is not as simple as it looks. Jonathan Coulton “quit his job, wrote a song a week, and started making real money without a record label.” (Sharon)
Here’s the short, short version of what happened that enraged the internet so much:
Jonathan Coulton acquired the rights to cover the popular Sir-Mix-A-Lot song “Baby Got Back.” He used the same lyrics (minus a couple of miniscule changes) and wrote an entirely new, original cover using original music and accompaniment.
And it was awesome. Really awesome. So awesome that somebody from GLEE found it, realized it was awesome, and put it on the show, in the most recent episode “Sadie Hawkins.” Before the episode even aired, an anonymous source tweeted to Jonathan Coulton that GLEE was about to use his arrangement, and not only were they going to not credit him, they weren’t even going to acknowledge his existence. And just to rub salt on the wound, they sold it on iTunes.
So, of course, the Joco fans exploded when Coulton blogged about it on his website. A representative from GLEE issued a vague statement saying that someone like Coulton should be glad for the exposure, but never officially stating what they did.
At first, no one knew what to believe. Was it possible that GLEE ripped off an arrangement in such an obvious fashion that there would be absolutely no doubt in people’s minds where it came from?
Well, turns out, that’s exactly what they did. Here is each recording separately:
Yikes. Turns out (and here’s the part that should interest you a cappella fans...) that even though Coulton had written original music, he was still producing a cover, and covers were not legally protected. Which means GLEE had no legal issues doing what they did, even if they DID admit to stealing the cover. (which they didn't)
Even though Coulton has basically no right to sue (although there is a small chance GLEE used the same backing tracks as Coulton, which would give him a legal leg to stand on) Coulton got the last laugh. He re-released his “Baby Got Back” arrangement in the “style of GLEE” on iTunes, and it reached the top 100 in only two days, obliterating the sale of the GLEE recording.
So…why am I reporting an already overexposed story? There are several reasons why this issue matters to you, the a cappella fan:
1) Know your legal rights.
You do it every day. Your group covers a song and posts it on Youtube. You don’t even think about the repercussions, because, honestly, is anyone even going to notice?
Well…this story proves that lightning can strike. Let’s say you produce a stellar arrangement of a song, one that no one has ever thought of before, and you post it on Youtube. Now let’s say some other group sees the video and re-creates your arrangement by rote, and then becomes famous for it. Do you have a case? If this story is any indication, then no. You don’t. Your arrangement is gone with the wind.
2) Covering an arrangement
For a minute, let’s look at the other side of this issue. I’ve seen, time and time again, groups singing someone else’s a cappella arrangement. I used to do it too, when I worked in public school. However, I always gave the original group credit. That doesn’t justify borrowing without permission, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
One of my all time favorite arrangements is “Come Together” by Spiralmouth. Turns out I’ve seen other groups cover this arrangement on Youtube and I have to wonder…how did they get the music? I know it’s not available. (I’ve looked…BELIEVE ME) This means they must have done it by rote, which means they didn’t ask for permission, because if they had, Spiralmouth probably would have sent them the music.
Now I could be wrong about this. I honestly don’t know. Maybe they did secure permission. But let’s assume they didn’t. Are they presenting an homage to a group they admire and respect or are they blatantly stealing? In the eyes of the public, it’s probably the former. In the eyes of the law, it’s the latter.
If you are going to do this (and I’m not advocating that you do), then at least give the original arranger credit. Speaking of which…
3) Credit where credit is due
Jonathan Coulton has publicly stated that he would have been 100% fine with GLEE taking the arrangement if they had just called or emailed him first. But they didn’t.
Is it better to ask for permission or forgiveness? Forgiveness is much easier, but permission is legal.
I don’t know the law very well. I’m not a lawyer and I’ve never taken a copyright law class. But after this whole debacle, I’m going to, because I want to make sure I’m protected at every cost.
I’ve mentioned many times how much I admire copyright lawyer and a cappella superstar Jonathan Minkoff. On his website, acappella101.com, he outlines what you can and cannot do with a cappella music, which applies directly to all covers.
But really, what angers me the most is that GLEE didn’t even acknowledge Coulton’s existence. They give all the credit to Sir-Mix-A-Lot, even though the music is all Coulton.
In my view, the public opinion of GLEE shot down a few points. I bet, had they acknowledged Coulton’s arrangement, even publicized the fact that his music would be on the show, they might have scored a few more fans.
The moral is, don’t break the law. And if you do, at least give someone credit for the work they did.
And in the spirit of giving credit, I must acknowledge that it was my friend, Alex, who brought this story to my attention.
Let’s talk for a moment about the word “standard.” In most cases, a standard is “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model.” A standard is something we live by, something that we strive to achieve.
I’m not referring to that definition, however. I’m referring to the musical application of the word “standard,” as in a “jazz standard” or a “Barbershop standard.”
A music standard is, in the loosest definition, a song that everybody knows. And everybody knows these songs because they fit into one or more of the following categories:
1) The song has, in some way, helped introduce, reinforce, and/or improve upon a musical concept so that the majority of repertoire composed following the song’s release shows proof of that song’s influence.
For example, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in the era of grunge. The scat singing of popular jazz musician Louis Armstrong influenced hundreds of new jazz singers to adopt an improvisatory style.
2) The popularity of the song is so great that anyone can start singing/playing it without sheet music, tablatures, or diagrams of chord changes.
3) A higher musical authority, such as a trusted publication or famous musician, declares the song to be a standard.
This is how the term “jazz standard” came to be. Jazz musicians (without the aid of computers or the internet) rallied behind songs that they could “jam” to; songs that were recognized across the country, despite the limited means of communication and recording technology.
Is there a master list of jazz standards? No. Is there some all-powerful, highest-authority-in-the-land who has the final say on which song is deemed a standard and which one isn’t? No. Could it be that half the population thinks one song is a standard, while the other half disagrees? Yes.
In other words, the term “jazz standard” is simply a matter of opinion. But through my studies, I’ve discovered that, despite having 100% proof that a song is definitely a standard, the consensus tends to agree on many of the older jazz tunes as being standards, especially ones from “Tin Pan Alley,” “The Golden Age of Broadway,” and “The Great American Songbook.”
I bring up the term “jazz standard,” because I think it’s about time a Pandora’s box be opened…Is there such thing as an a cappella standard?
Let me rephrase. Is there at least one, or multiple, popular songs that have been sung by so many a cappella groups and arranged in so many different ways, that we, as the a cappella community, can agree to label it a standard?
The short answer is: I don’t know. I am one guy, and I’m hardly the authority on these matters.
The long answer: Mmmmmmaybe? Let’s take a look at some ways a song might become a standard.
With the emergence of GLEE, The Voice, American Idol, The X-Factor, etc. the popular repertoire list almost doubles in size every year. For example, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was a popular song even before shows like Family Guy and GLEE gave it recent national exposure. But after the song became the anthem for the New Directions, it seemed like every show choir, high school choir, and a cappella group wanted to perform it. Today, the song is still the number one best selling GLEE arrangement on websites like J. W. Pepper.
The audition form for a show such as American Idol warns anyone who auditions to avoid the following songs, as they are the most over-performed:
At Last, Crazy, Summertime, You Raise Me Up, The Climb, Halo, Listen, Firework, Someone Like You, Ain’t Got You, Fallen, I Will Always Love You, I’m Yours, Who’s Loving You
So are these songs considered audition standards? If you agree with that, then doesn’t the same principle apply to "Don’t Stop Believin’" as a show choir standard? Who makes these decisions, and does the exposure on a show like GLEE automatically qualify a song as a standard?
2) The precedent set by BOCA, SING, and Voices Only
Once a song makes it onto BOCA, it’s locked into a cappella history. BOCA’s popularity has grown to the level such that whichever group gets their arrangement onto an a cappella compilation, that arrangement becomes accepted by the a cappella community as the pinnacle of how this song should be done. That doesn’t stop other groups from performing the song, even arranging it in a completely different way, but no song has ever appeared on more than one BOCA. In the beginning, this was done on purpose to help market each volume of BOCA as an independent album. But the more festivals and concerts I attend, the more I begin to start to see groups avoiding BOCA selected songs altogether, unless the song is so popular (e.g. Viva La Vida) that the inclusion on BOCA doesn’t matter.
This begs the question, is one an effect of the other? Does inclusion on an a cappella compilation deter other groups from arranging the same song? Does inclusion on an a cappella compilation automatically qualify the song as an a cappella standard? Sure, you could argue that “Animal,” the first track on BOCA 2012 might now an a cappella standard (and a popular, well-known song) but then you’d have to include every BOCA song from the last 18 years to make your argument fair, and as good as "Backseat" by Noteworthy (BOCA 2011) was, I wouldn’t qualify it as an a cappella standard.
Maybe it’s the ease of performing a song that qualifies it as a standard. For example, even if your group has never improvised a note in their life, I’m willing to bet that at any time, your group could start, and finish, an entire arrangement of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” without sheet music or even a starting pitch. The same goes true for “Lean on Me,” “In The Still of the Night,” and probably “Stand By Me.”
Does this make them a cappella standards? In my opinion, yes, because any group, anywhere, with anyone can perform these tunes at anytime. But the problem is, as I’ve stated before, my opinion does not a standard make.
4) The CASA books
Starting in 2000, Deke Sharon began a series of a cappella songbooks, designed to provide a cappella groups, who were incapable of arranging their own repertoire or finding repertoire without help, a substantial amount of performable repertoire that was both easy to learn and demonstrated an understand of contemporary a cappella.
If the argument was made that this series was the a cappella standards collection, then I agree that it would be the strongest case. But, as with any case, there is a problem. The songbooks are chock full of familiar a cappella tunes like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Good Old A cappella," "Zombie Jamboree," "Up On The Roof," "My Girl," etc. But the books are also chock full of a cappella tunes that I have NEVER heard performed by an a cappella group, such as "Only You," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Wonderful Tonight," etc. All great songs, but in ten years, I’ve never heard them covered by an a cappella group. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe these songs are too old to be appreciated nowadays. Does audience exposure disqualify a song from become a standard?
Doo-wop songs are much easier to sing a cappella, because they already have element of scat syllables, parallels harmonies, and a "group versus soloist" vibe already written in. Because of that, many doo-wop songs are sung more often because they are much easier to arrange.
Popular songs with repeatable chord progressions and composed harmonies also fit into this category. I feel like that’s why “Some Nights” is one of the go-to songs these days, because the song practically writes itself for a cappella.
Does the genre of where the song comes from qualify it as an a cappella standard? No, but it does explain why some songs are arranged more than others, especially by beginner a cappella groups.
When Adele became a mega-huge-ultra-superstar, every single she released became a cappella gold. There was a point when I declared that if I heard “Rolling In The Deep” one more time, I was going to dive into a tank of piranhas wearing a filet mignon suit.
Right now, my guess is that “Locked Out Of Heaven” by Bruno Mars will probably be the new go-to song, replacing the popular “Gungham Style” but only time will tell.
Does the a cappella flavor-of-the-month qualify a song to become an a cappella standard? Believe it or not, the flavor-of-the-month helped many “golden-era” Broadway songs reach the title of standard. (Some of these Broadway tunes were ironically composed hours before opening night)
The conclusion is…it’s inconclusive. I open this topic up for discussion, because, as a budding a cappella historian, I’d like there to be some consensus as to which songs evolve into greatness and which songs should be avoided at all costs.
But in the interest of not wasting your time by avoiding my own opinion, here’s a short list of songs I believe should be considered A cappella standards. Feel free to disagree, or send hate mail:
The Lion Sleeps Tonight, For The Longest Time, Stand By Me, My Girl, Don’t Worry Be Happy, It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye, Like A Prayer, Lean On Me, Don’t Stop Believin’, Gravity, Zombie Jamboree, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego, Come Together, Good Old A cappella, In The Still of the Night, Goodnight Sweetheart, Under The Boardwalk, She Will Be Loved, Bohemian Rhapsody, Change In My Life, Unchained Melody, Take On Me, Turn the Beat Around, I Saw The Sign, True Colors, Pinball Wizard, Runaround Sue, Hide and Seek, Earth, Viva La Vida, Blackbird, Yesterday,
What do you think is an a cappella standard? Anything on this list? Nothing on this list? Let’s start this discussion, and maybe, one day, we’ll have an a cappella standards book.
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I re-read them about a week ago, and it occurs to me that I failed to clarify a few things. So it’s time once again to riff about riff-offs.
As I’ve stated before, a riff-off is something your group can aspire to be a part of, but it won’t happen overnight. Just like the ICCAs or the ICHSAs, you need to train. But unlike the ICCAs or ICHSAs, it takes a completely different skill set to master the art of spontaneous improvisation. Let’s compare the two:
Skill set required to compete in the ICCAs:
Memorization of music Perfecting your group blend Perfecting your choreography (if applicable) Mastering microphone skills Perfecting your group’s musicality Fine-tuning your competition set (usually 2-4 songs) Improving your overall stage presence Selecting the perfect solos A ton of other things I’ve neglected to mention
Skill set required to compete in a riff-off:
Memorization of a large repertoire of songs you can draw from that will apply to multiple categories Group cohesiveness An ability to follow each other and recognize audible and visual cues Comprehension of chord structures and how to improvise over them An ability to internalize and sing harmonies Knowledge of how to build a song from the bottom up as quickly as possible
As you can see, the skill sets are almost entirely different. Riff-off’s don’t require group blend, microphone skills, fine-tuning repertoire, or even choreography. Audiences should be more impressed with your improvisation skills.
2) Exercises to help your group train for a riff-off:
The first four blog posts listed some great (and mandatory) exercises to determine whether your group is capable and ready to riff-off. Included in these are mastering the art of the circle song, expanding your group’s repertoire knowledge, and improvising chord progressions. Here are some more exercises that will encourage improvisation and repertoire knowledge:
This exercise will determine how fast your group can grasp the concept of major and minor tonality. This will, in turn, illustrate how quickly your group can build a song from scratch. One person plays, sings, or blows on the pitch pipe one note. This will be the root of the chord. Everyone else in the group, as quickly as possible, must sing the third or the fifth above that note in order to complete the chord. A major chord is probably the easiest one to sing, followed by a minor chord. Since pop songs rarely have augmented or diminished chords (rarely does NOT mean never), you can probably avoid those for now. The group should be timed on how long it takes them to sing a major or minor chord. Anything more than three seconds is too long.
I’ve mentioned this game before in other posts, so this idea comes from the department of redundancy department.
This game should be played with two or more competitors. Someone (anyone) says a familiar word, like “love” or “man.” Competitors take turns singing a different song that contains the given word in one of the lyrics. For example if the word was “love,” competitors could choose from “All you need is love,” “Can you feel the love tonight,” “I will always love you,” etc. Play continues until someone cannot think of a different song, or a song is repeated and that person is out. Last person left standing wins. This helps your group expand their repertoire knowledge.
Advanced Hot Spot:
If you’ve never heard of the game Hot Spot, you should read part 1 of the riff-off blog first. Here’s the advanced version:
Same rules apply with Hot Spot. One person jumps into the center and sings a song.When someone in the circle recognizes the song, they start singing along. The exception is that they CANNOT sing the melody. They must either sing the lyrics in harmony, or sing a pattern that reinforces the song’s harmony.
3) The rules of a Riff-off.
Since a true riff-off has never occurred, I wrote these rules as I think a riff-off should be played. If you disagree, that’s totally fine. I don’t hold any copyright to the rules of a riff-off. These were merely suggestions to ensure a fair competition. For those who are unfamiliar with my suggestions, here they are again:
Unless your group consists of musical gods/goddesses, you will most likely not be able to sing a perfect, eight-part song from scratch as soon as you open your mouths, like they did in the movie. Is it possible? I’m honestly not sure. I’d like to believe it can be done, but until I see it for myself, live, then I’ll be in doubt.
More than likely, your group will need to build the song, on stage, part by part. This should not only be allowed in competition, but it should be encouraged. Granted, if it takes your group thirty seconds to come up with an accompaniment, that’s probably a bit too long. But to expect that a solo will open his/her mouth with lyrics and the group automatically responds with a full a cappella arrangement of the instrumentals, all within two seconds, is unrealistic.
Here’s how I imagine a song will be built, on stage:
All competing groups receive the category and huddle together to choose a song. Whichever group is ready either blows a pitch, or selects one person to start singing, and more than likely, that person will sing either a bass line, or the recognizable riff of a song.
Members join in as soon as possible, filling out the chord structure. The soloist enters, when appropriate, and cues the group on how and when to end the song. The entire process takes about 30-45 seconds. With only a short amount of time, only a full chorus or verse of one particular song will be sung, but that’s exactly how it went down in Pitch Perfect, so nothing new there.
Another competing group should jump in before the first group is done. After all, it is a “riff-off,” not a “politeness-off.” But remember, this isn’t a rap battle. You’re not trying to insult the other group.
5) The open challenge.
In the fourth, and final, post about riff-off’s, I issued an open challenge to any group, live looper, or merry band of singers to go up against me and my humble loop station.
And so far…no one has answered the call.
I suspect it’s either because no one is ready to riff-off yet, or more likely, no one read it. That’s okay. The open challenge still stands.
You versus me. Your entire group versus me and my machine. You can set the place, the time, and the home ground rules.
I’ll sweeten the pot. If you win, I will declare your group to be the “undisputed masters of the riff-off” and describe, in gory detail, how you slaughtered me and tore me limb from limb onstage. I will recount your victory in every upcoming riff-off class that I teach (two upcoming ones in the next four months) and hang my head in shame if I ever walk past you.
If I win, you buy me a cookie.
Now let’s get ready to riff-off!
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In honor of the new year, I thought I would take some time to reflect on self-improvement.
I wandered into my local bookstore, shunning the sunlight that I had been accustomed to avoiding for two weeks and immediately headed for the humor section, as this was the most intellectually stimulating topic I could muster that day.
It was here that I found a book titled “This Book Will Change Your Life.”
Change my life? Really? Well color me intrigued with a light shade of purple.
There are roughly 365 pages, and each page recommends that you perform a different task on each subsequent day, much like a “one-idea-a-day calendar.” These tasks range from ordinary (Improve your signature today, Google your name) to slightly bizarre (Pretend to be a spy, Try to eat a piece of furniture) to “obviously this book doesn’t expect you to do this otherwise you would die/be arrested.” (Make a citizen’s arrest, Discreetly give the finger to people all day)
But despite the attempts at humor, I thought that the majority of suggestions might actually force you to live through different, unique, and unfamiliar experiences, and I think that’s just swell.
I began to wonder…Could someone change/improve their a cappella knowledge in the same way this book suggests? I THINK SO!!! (Woohoo!)
No, I’m not going to write an entire, 365-day book. But if you wish to improve your a cappella knowledge base, following this day-to-day schedule for a full month should help you immensely. Or just take a few of these suggestions. Or don’t take any suggestions. Or write some hate mail...doesn’t matter to me.
Here is a full month of a cappella related activities designed to broaden your horizons.
Day 1- Since this is the first day, you should start with something easy. Do one or more of the following:
1) Combine a consonant and vowel together and create a new scat syllable. 2) Write/Sing a new bass line. 3) Read whatever post is under this one on CASA.org.
Day 2- Listen to one track from an a cappella group you’ve never heard before, but found through chance.
Day 3- Post something on RARB.
Day 4- Go to itunes/amazon.com and search for the word a cappella. Buy the first and last tracks you see.
Day 10- Find a friend and ask them what their favorite song of all time is. When they tell you, show them an a cappella version on Youtube.
Day 11- Discover who your state/country a cappella ambassador is and contact them.
Day 12- Vocal health day. Spend the entire day taking care of your voice. Don’t overuse it. Drink singer-appropriate beverages only, like hot tea and water. Monitor how tired your voice gets over the entire day. Don’t shout or yell. If you sing, use breath support and resonance to avoid straining your vocal cords. Get plenty of rest.
Day 13- Name your favorite song in the whole wide world. Listen to as many a cappella covers of that song as possible, either through itunes/amazon.com and/or Youtube.
Day 14- Play the following game alone or with others: Say a word. Now try to think of as many song lyrics that contain that word as you can.
Day 15- Draw/Create an all-around logo that represents “a cappella.” Print this logo out and wear it.
Day 16- Email your a cappella hero and tell him/her how awesome he/she is.
Day 17- Read the very first post on CASA.org.
Day 18- Explore the following websites: Avid.com (maker of Protools and Sibelius) Celemony.com (maker of Melodyne) Ableton.com (Maker of Ableton Live) Reaper.fm (Maker of Reaper) Apple.com (Maker of Logic Pro)
Day 19- No music day. Today, go the entire day without music. Don’t sing, hum, or whistle. Don’t listen to any music. Don’t watch any videos with music in the background. Avoid music at all costs. At the end of the day, reflect on how awful this day was and how you will vow to keep music in your life forever.
Day 20- Download a free looping app on a Smartphone or computer and loop yourself.
Day 24- Watch something else besides Pitch Perfect, Glee, and The Sing-Off that features a cappella. Here are some suggestions: The Wedding Weekend (Movie) Do It A cappella (Documentary) Sex, Drugs, and A cappella (Web Series)
Day 26- In three minutes, try to name every a cappella group that you can. Ready? Go!
Day 27- Go on youtube and watch a video of a former ICCA competition. Copy one dance move that you see.
Day 28- Familiarize yourself with every entry in one of the popular annual compilation albums- BOCA, BOHSA, SING, or Voices Only.
Day 29- Try to name as many a cappella conventions, festivals, and workshops as you can.
Day 30- Purchase one book about a cappella music. Here are some suggestions: A cappella Arranging by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell A cappella Pop by Brody McDonald The A cappella book by Mike Chin and Mike Scalise Pitch Perfect by Mickey Rapkin Powerful Voices by Joshua Duchan Anna Callahan's Amazing A cappella Arranging Advice by Anna Callahan Acapolitics by Stephen Harrison
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