Ask ACB: Why do some great groups abstain from the ICCAs? Should groups get professional help with their CDs?

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Bill kicks things off this time around with a question about why groups do and do not compete…

I’ve followed ICCAs since my group’s triumphant run in college (meaning, we never made it out of quarterfinals…). My questions is why don’t more of the best groups in the country compete? The Sing-Off showed off The Beelzebubs, The Whiffenpoofs, On the Rocks, The Airs, etc. but it’s been a long time since they were in ICCAs (if they ever were at all).

Each group makes its own decisions on whether to compete each year for its own reasons, so I can’t hope to cover every rationale here, but I’ll go for some of the bigger reasons why big groups choose not to.

Let’s start by thinking about why groups to compete:
-to network
-to get feedback
-to see how good they really are for their own purposes and prove how good they are to the world

When we look at things objectively, it becomes clearer why groups wouldn’t enter ICCAs. Groups the likes of which you’re talking about don’t need to network—even before their runs on NBC they had enough clout in the a cappella community (not to mention enough powerful alumni) to successfully book tours and draw big crowds at campus shows. And feedback? It’s nice to have, but you can also reach a certain level of excellence at which you set your own bar.

And then there’s biggest reason of all to avoid competition: having something to lose and nothing to gain. A group like The Beelzebubs knows it’s great, and so does the a cappella world. If they compete at ICCAs, best case scenario, they win and confirm that’s true. The worst case scenario? They have a bad night, rub the judges the wrong way, or even legitimately run into better groups and don’t advance out of their quarterfinal? Right now, a group like The ‘Bubs can claim it’s the best college group in the world, and there’s very little you or me could say to disprove it. Once they put themselves out there and come up short, they may not see their reputation disappear over night, but they will open themselves up to an unnecessary chink in their armor.

With all of that said, there’s one more big reason not to compete: it’s hella time consuming. Sure, some groups manage to compete, record, tour, do charity work and remain good students all the while, but few and far between are the college groups that can truly do it all justice. Serious competitors will spend the better part of the spring semester (and probably part of the fall) rehearsing the heck out of three-to-four songs, and doing very little else until they’re eliminated from the tournament (or, best case scenario, finish at Finals). That doesn’t leave a wealth of time to pursue other project or add depth to the group’s repertoire, and, to be frank, it can be less fun.

Marjorie is thinking about recording…

My group is recording a CD in the spring. We have a divide between people that want to work with someone like Bill Hare and people who want to do the recording “in house” at the school of music here on campus. Is an expensive producer worth it?

Every group prioritizes differently when it comes to recording. The fact of the matter is, Bill Hare has a song on every Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation—that’s a pretty concrete testimony that the man knows what he’s doing and has worked with some truly great groups. Similarly, companies like Liquid 5th have thrived for over a decade on making a cappella groups sound good. Increasingly, there are free lancers out there with varying pedigrees, who can do recording and production work at varying rates.

With all of that said, the question comes down to your group’s aesthetic, values, and budget. If the biggest names in recorded a cappella are out of your price range, don’t feel bad about crossing them off of your list (or think about starting a Kickstarter campaign…). Do your homework and listen around; see which existing albums best speak to your group’s sensibilities and ask around about other groups’ experiences working with different people.

Push comes to shove, recording “in house” isn’t necessarily a bad option either. While I’m reticent to recommend that a group go gunning for major awards with an untested audio engineer in their corner, the software and equipment are becoming more available and affordable (hence the proliferation of “semi-pros” and if you have someone in your group or at your school who knows what he or she’s doing you may get the most bang for your buck that way, and just may be pleasantly surprised with some innovative techniques and approaches that haven’t yet made it to the establishment.

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.