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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.

What was the best ICCA set ever? Do same-school groups compete against each other or work together?

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Adele (probably not the famous one) gets right to the point…

What was the best ICCA set ever?

There’s a great deal of subjectivity on this one. There’s still enough buzz around the show Voices in Your Head put on in 2012 that some people will surely champion their cause. Others might turn to the iconic showing by Divisi when they were arguably robbed of the ICCA Championship in 2005. The Melodores turned in one of the most distinctive sets in ICCA history their debut year in the tournament in 2011.

But I’m going to go with a group that did take home the championship—the 2008 USC SoCal VoCals. The group has won the tournament twice since, and there’s an argument to be made that their later two showing were more memorable, between their innovative rotating soloist approach to “Crazy Ever After” in 2010 (reiterated in “Poison and Wine” later…) and an unreal solo on “Tightrope” in 2012. 2008 didn’t have quite the same iconic moments, but rather represented a truly extraordinary fusion of sublime musicianship with unparalleled showmanship—a complex sound, extraordinary dynamic range, star soloists, and choreography that nailed the holy trinity of visual presentation: relevant to the song, innovative, and perfectly executed. To be fair, there are hundreds of ICCA sets I haven’t seen, but out of those I have, that particular set still takes the cake.

Jeremiah was neither a bullfrog, nor a good friend of mine, but he does raise a good question.

Nowadays, it seems like every school has at least two or three a cappella groups (some have way more!). Do groups at the same school see themselves as rivals? Allies? Or do they ignore each other and go about their own business?

The answer to this question will vary based on the school, the groups, and even the particular academic year. I have heard of some rivalries—rarely out-and-out feuds, but petty disagreements because one group placed ahead of the other in competition or both groups wanted to sing the same song, or was hoping to induct the same first-year student into their ranks. More often, though, it seems that groups from the same school are relatively collaborative—putting on shows together, Tweeting on each other’s behalves, and even joining forces for the occasional allied-power performance/recording.

Bottom line: while the petty stuff can lead to some serious dissent, in most cases there’s a lot of commonality between the kind of people who sing in college a cappella groups—they’re into singing, dig the community a cappella provides them, maintain at least somewhat similar rehearsal schedules, etc. And so, there’s more room to make friends than foes.

For further, if fictionalized insight into this dynamic, check out Stephen Harrison’s AcaPolitics.

Why didn’t The Sing-Off last? Who is on the cover of ICCA programs?

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Manuel leads us off this week with one of my favorite questions.

Everyone I know really liked The Sing-Off. It had great music and the elimination format kept it exciting. The judges were really good. I know NBC couldn’t keep the show on just because it was good, but rather it needed viewers. So that’s my question: why didn’t The Sing-Off have more viewers?

I don’t think there’s any one definitive answer to why The Sing-Off was discontinued, but rather a confluence of factors working against the show’s long-term success. But we’ll focus on what I would consider to be the two biggest reasons things didn’t work out:

1) The show went too long too fast. When The Sing-Off only aired for four episodes, it was a surprise success story. When it aired for five episodes the next year, the ratings were even better. But then the show stretched beyond its compact holiday season niche to a full half-season run with eleven episodes, plus a Christmas special. When the show aired during the holidays, the competition at its time slots was far less steep and the finite nature of the competition commanded an audience’s attention. Stretching across the entire fall demanded a much longer attention span and put the show in direct conflict with every show Monday nights had to offer—accordingly, the ratings took a dive. I loved The Sing-Off as much as anyone (probably more than most) but even I’ll admit that there inescapably niche elements to the show’s audience, and asking more than a million or so viewers to tune in for that many episodes was probably too ambitious—at least at that stage of a cappella’s development.

2) I can’t escape the sense that one reason The Sing-Off didn’t connect with a larger audience was the struggle to develop mainstream stars and stories. The nature of a cappella sees groups working together, but amidst these groups it was difficult for the public to latch on to individuals, and individuals tend to sell better to an American audience than conglomerates (I maintain that only relatively small groups—none with more than six members—won the show for this very reason--that people could more readily identify individual faces in smaller crowds).

I’m not sure how you solve that problem (though insisting on the same soloist(s) week in and week out wasn’t ideal) but I would pose that this aspect of the show would only have been helped with more real-time input from the viewing audience. With all but the finales of each season pre-taped, groups left the show without any input from the fans. Having the audience get behind an unlikely, un-network-endorsed dark horse could have added some real intrigue to the proceedings.

Mary has a question about a cover boy.

I went to my son’s ICCA quarterfinal last year, and then went to his semifinal. I kept the programs from both shows and noticed that they each had the same person pictured on them. Who is he?

Assuming Mary was writing about the 2012 competition season, the covers spotlighted none other than Christopher Diaz—a prominent alum of Florida State University All-Night Yahtzee, who went on to work behind the scenes at The Sing-Off, co-host the Mouth-Off podcast, and sing with a little outfit called The Exchange. Diaz competed in back-to-back-to-back ICCA Finals which makes him as fitting of a Varsity Vocals model as you’re likely to find.

Why do some great groups abstain from the ICCAs? Should groups get professional help with their CDs?
What was the best ICCA set ever? Do same-school groups compete against each other or work together?
Why didn’t The Sing-Off last? Who is on the cover of ICCA programs?