People like convenience. They like things delivered to their door, and find them all the sweeter when they don’t have to ask for, much less order them. In the a cappella world, more and more people like original music. While covers remain a staple for most groups, the success of Grammy-award-winning Pentatonix, not to mention The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, Centerville High School Forte, and a key subplot of Pitch Perfect 2 have all demonstrated, a cappella can thrive on original songs, and more and more of us are buying into the theory that originals are the future—that original music will pave the way for a cappella to truly break out as its own unique and fully legitimate form of music.
So how does the a cappella world meld our desire to convenience with our drive for new, original music? It turns out that VoxMail, a new service based in Phoenix, Arizona, just might have all the answers. Patrick Watson, who is heading up the new project took the time to discuss it with me.
The idea came to Watson this past holiday season. “Last December, I was looking for gifts online for my wife, and I stumbled upon recommendations to get her a gift box subscription. I ended up getting her a Birchbox subscription which mails her new beauty supplies each month, and she's loving it,” Watson said. “I have a friend who buys a Barkbox subscription where they get new dog toys each month. There's a subscription business where they send you a random vintage t-shirt every month. There is pretty much a subscription business for anything you can think of, even really obscure niches. The more I learned about the success of this emerging business model, the more I began to realize that there might be an opportunity for a cappella.”
Watson worked from the foundation of his directorship for Outside The Vox, a music-based non-profit that aims to “pay musicians for leading music programs and events for the general public and for under-served populations.” The organization boasts its own choir and a cappella group, and is aiming for VoxMail to be a major source of funding for the organization. “We wanted the service to be consistent with our non-profit's overall purpose,” Watson explained, “to serve and compensate musicians for entertaining and inspiring the public through music.”
Consistent with the non-profit’s mission, Watson does intend for VoxMail to pay contributing artists, and will need to involve a large number of artists. “We plan on having ten tracks at most on each monthly album, so that's one-hundred-twenty submissions a year, one-hundred-thirty if you count the planned specialty album for the holidays. We think we can keep getting submissions by continuing to raise the amount we pay to musicians, which we will be able to afford as more people subscribe to VoxMail.” He pointed out that, in contrast to a number of compilations and competitions, VoxMail will not charge groups to submit music, but rather carefully consider all submissions, then honor the achievement of those selected with not only inclusion on one of the organization’s releases, but also payment. The project focuses on submissions from the US not, but is accepting submissions from a cappella artists worldwide. In the longer term, Watson also discussed how the project might expand and diversify. “If VoxMail gets enough subscribers, we could start taking submissions from other original artists in other genres, and start customizing albums for subscribers based on their individual tastes. There's really no end to the musical creativity of the human imagination.”
The project will, for now, focus on original a cappella. “We see [originals] as the future of a cappella,” Watson said. While he paid proper respect to the creativity involved in and importance of covers, he went on to explain, “The human voice is one of the most incredible and flexible instruments in existence, so a cappella needn't be a mere reflection of other genres, it can be its own. As a cappella has grown in popularity, as arrangers have grown more skilled and experienced through crafting covers, as more and more musicians have access to professional-grade recording equipment and software, and as even Pentatonix has pivoted toward all-originals, we believe the moment for original a cappella is fast approaching.” Watson also explained how, both for VoxMail and artists, focusing on originals eliminated the complications that come with copyright law, and that VoxMail would plan to pay artists for limited publishing rights.
Another nuance of VoxMail is a focus on shipping hard copy CDs of their music. “I think it really says something that in an era of instant texts and emails, we actually get excited when we get a package in the mail,” Watson articulated. “For a brief moment, anything could be in there! It's that Amazon thrill! I believe that's partly why these subscription businesses are doing so well. It's fun to get something in the mail. That's it. In an era of digital downloads, how can you send music in the mail and make it exciting? CDs are the only feasible answer. CDs are not as completely obsolete as cassettes as most people still have optical drives on their desktops and laptops, but they're retro enough to carry some degree of nostalgia.” For those who prioritize having digital tracks, Watson also clarified, “VoxMail tracks will also be available to stream and download from a members-only section of the website after the physical copies have been released.”