Where Will A Cappella Be in 5 Years?

The Round Table

For this Round Table, we pose the question:
Given recent developments and trends, where do you see collegiate a cappella in five years?

The participants for this session of The Round Table are:
Deke Sharon, the founder and current vice president of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, a past director of the Tufts Beelzebubs, and a co-founder of BOCA, the ICCA tournament and a successful professional group, The House Jacks.
Mike Scalise, production manager of The A Cappella Blog
Mike Chin, content manager of The A Cappella Blog

Deke Sharon:
This is an excellent question, asked at perhaps the perfect time, as we may well be at a significant crossroads for collegiate a cappella.

If you'd asked me this question two years ago, I'd have said "probably about where we are now, but a little bigger, maybe a few more originals, and some new studio effects."

Now, it's anyone's guess. A reality show devoted entirely to collegiate groups? The ICCA finals televised annually? The movie "Pitch Perfect" becoming the next "American Pie"? It's hard to know what will be the next big catalyst, and whatever it is, collegiate a cappella will be significantly affected.

All of the pieces are in place: Pitch Perfect (the book) lent a somewhat scholarly legitimacy to the scene, if only because people respect things they read in books. Straight No Chaser's amazing rise to 10 million YouTube hits, a deal with Atlantic Records and a top 40 Billboard album is showing the collegiate a cappella sound and style is not only ready for the big time... it's already there. And shows like Glee, as well as appearances in Scrubs and The Office are bringing a cappella to people on a weekly basis.

In my mind's eye I see more collegiate a cappella groups (will we reach 2,000?), I see better collegiate groups (with more high school groups being formed, resulting in more experienced singer/arranger/directors), and I see many more people watching and listening to collegiate groups (another major label signing? a TV show? group members making enough money to pay for tuition?)

I hope it's all of the above!

Mike Scalise:
My first true exposure to a cappella was eight years ago, when I was a freshman in college. I was passing through my alma mater’s auditorium, when I heard what I thought to be a typical band that the school brought in to entertain students on a Saturday night. Much to my surprise, Ball in the House was anything but typical. I wasn’t listening to drums or a bass guitar, but rather all sounds produced by human voices. I was actually shocked. From that point on, my interest in a cappella only grew.

With the creation of TV shows like American Idol and more recently The Sing Off and Glee, children, teens, and adults too have developed an affinity for the genre. This recent boost in popularity begs the question: “Is this a phase or a shift in culture?” I think this is a foresight into a much larger paradigm shift.

A cappella has an element of purity associated with it, and I think that’s appealing to society--the raw talent of people. If the green movement has taught us anything, it’s that people are prepared to embrace a “back to basics,” or minimalistic approach to real-life situations, which is the essence of a cappella music. In five years, I expect a cappella to have grown even more in popularity, to the extent that many of our favorite artists will be releasing albums in full a cappella. The ball has begun rolling to some degree, with Ben Folds’s University A Cappella, which is a compilation of the United States’ best a cappella groups performing his songs.

A point I want to make is that I don’t think there are a finite number of pieces to the pie. A cappella won’t overtake traditional music, but rather supplement it. Artists can, and in my opinion, will continue to write and perform music as they always have, but offer their fans new and unique versions of their songs, enabling them to reach a broader audience. This has other implications as well. I predict that there will be even more mainstream television shows focused around a cappella by 2015.

I’m very excited to see what the future has to offer for a cappella music. There are many directions it could go in, but as long as it remains in the minds of the masses, I believe it will continue to attract new fans, and ultimately create a market for the music, movie, and entertainment industries.

Mike Chin
There’s no question that the last couple years have seen a surge in interest in a cappella, from The Sing-Off, to the rise of Straight No Chaser, to Mickey Rapkin’s book and so on. With so many things going right for the form, there is a real chance that a cappella could make it big within the next five years.

To qualify that, I’m not among the most optimistic of a cappella followers who think that a cappella is going to explode into the mainstream--getting featured on Top 40 radio, selling out stadium shows, garnering live network coverage of the ICCA finals, and so on. On the contrary, I think that the next five years represent a cappella’s time to quietly assert itself as part of the public consciousness.

While some might find the following analogy disparaging toward a cappella, I do not mean it as such. I would liken a cappella’s potential place in music to that of professional wrestling in the sports world. Wrestling has had its moments in the spotlight when Hulk Hogan surfaced on the cover of Sports Illustrated and when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin made it not entirely taboo for folks to talk wrestling in public. And outside of those peak periods, wrestling still has cable television airtime, profitable pay per view broadcasts and a thriving market for live shows. With all of that said, wrestling remains a form of entertainment that pure sport enthusiasts generally look down upon, and folks in the general public accept as, more or less, a guilty pleasure.

This is an imperfect comparison, of course, because, where professional wrestling’s fixed outcomes preclude it from being considered a legit sport, a cappella is, in its purest state, as real as music gets. In any event, I think a cappella has the potential to serve a comparable niche--to have a significant fan base, to enjoy moments of mainstream success, and to arrive as means making a real livelihood for a large, if not overwhelming, number of professional performers and associates who commit themselves to the craft. On the most simple level, I think we could arrive at a time when the average joe has a fairly accurate perception of what a cappella is--that, even if it’s not for him, he’ll know it’s music made with only the human voice and body, and will know that it’s not all barbershop.

If a cappella has not made it big in the next five years, to the extent I’ve outlined above, I’m skeptical that it will in my lifetime. There’s so much momentum now that the form needs to catch on or fizzle. If it doesn’t succeed, all is not lost. There are lot of groups and lots of fans out there today, and though the growth may not happen by quite the same leaps and bounds--by the quite the same percentages--there is very little to suggest that the community is about to shrink. Worst case scenario, I foresee a cappella--particularly at the collegiate level--being just a little more mainstream, with just a little large community in five years.

Here’s hoping for the best, and here’s to the future!