In the contemporary a cappella landscape, it’s not unusual to look at groups as cover bands—acts that arrange and often recreate popular music, but that, just the same, depend upon performing someone else’s material.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the past five years, we’ve heard all-original albums from acts including Pentatonix, Arora, Forte, and The Octopodes, and individual original tracks from dozens of other groups, some of the most successful including UCD Mix’s “Water,” and Brandeis VoiceMale’s “Phoenix.”
Using original songs in recordings is a gamble. There’s the chance that listeners won’t as readily seek out or enjoy a cappella music that they don’t already have a degree of familiarity with. Moreover, it’s fundamentally harder to not only arrange, but create new music.
That said, there are very real rewards to recording originals. Most prominently, there’s the glass ceiling effect for both individual groups and the a cappella genre on the whole. Think about a cover band that you may have heard at a bar, club, or on campus. You may have liked them perfectly fine, but in resigning themselves to only playing cover songs, the band has relinquished any meaningful shot at ever become as notable as the acts that they are imitating. Similarly, it’s difficult for a cappella to ultimately be taken as seriously as music with instruments for as long as the genre is so dependent on covers.
Originals open new opportunities. They provide the chance for an a cappella group to achieve a breakaway hit on the group’s own merits. Moreover, they afford group members creative outlets. If we liken arranging an established song to problem solving, then assembling an original is more like the process of invention. And for those groups concerned that not filling their albums with covers will hurt their sales, consider how excited people who know and care about you may be to buy something that is wholly your creation. If the work is good, the word will spread from there—among your social networks, and among the a cappella world.
Recording original music is not for every group. If you don’t have songwriters in your midst, or don’t aspire to anything but cover music, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. But for groups that do wish to make the leap to recording their own original songs, there are myriad opportunities blaze a new trail and thrive.