Contemporary Songs vs. Old Songs

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on whether your group should focus contemporary songs.

There are those folks in a cappella circles who cringe when they hear a group cover a song from over a decade ago. They say the song choice isn’t relevant anymore or complain that they’ve heard this song covered a dozen times already. On an oddly similar tack, there are folks who buck against groups covering current Top 40 music because those songs, too, are so quickly over-exposed.

So what’s an a cappella group to do? Stay contemporary and risk recording the same song that ten other groups release that year? Or go to older material that may have been covered before but at least isn’t in the current audience’s immediate consciousness.

When it comes to picking which songs your group will arrange, perform, and record, the core set of questions you need to ask yourselves are: Why this song? Why this group? Why now?

First and foremost, I’ve set up a false dichotomy above between well-known songs of yesteryear and well-known songs of today—in reality, many groups find the most fertile ground for their repertoires in lesser known songs by mainstream artists, or lesser known bands from whatever era.

Beyond that point, there’s the matter of thinking about how a song fits a group’s identity, and what the song will accomplish for the group. If your group is recording a medley of iconic 1980s pop songs to offset the heavy nature of the rest of the album, it makes sense to pick songs that the audience will immediately recognize, regardless of their history of being covered a cappella. But if your group aiming to come across as more cutting edge or innovative, there’s probably very little reason for you to cover Simon and Garfunkel (unless your dramatically reinterpreting the song).

But then there’s the question of why now. While we all hope that an album will survive the test of time and that listeners will revisit it for years to come, the nature of the modern music landscape is that your average listener will listen to your recording most often in the immediate aftermath of its release—then maybe stumble back upon periodically in the years to come. In any event, for most groups the aim should be to record for a contemporary audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean recording only contemporary music, but it does mean thinking about what impact a song will have on today’s audience—if a song is an older song is pleasantly nostalgic or sounds like music your parents would listen to (in a negative way), or if a new song already feels over-exposed on the radio or in a cappella circles, and if so, what you’re doing to make it distinctively your own.

Ultimately, there are few pure right or wrong decisions when it comes to picking songs for your album, but you should purposeful in considering what a song choice—its vintage and all—says about your group and accomplishes for your recording project.