college vs. semipro

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college vs. semipro

Postby davetrendler » Wed May 09, 2007 10:48 pm

Hey gang,

Seems like the semipro vocal band scene is in a bit of a lull right now, both in terms of active groups and also semipro groups that are recording. Or maybe 1999-2004 was just a very busy 5 years for semipro groups.

Agree? Disagree?

And a musing: will the a cappella instrumentation go down in history as having reached the heights of its achievement through college groups?

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Postby sahjahpah » Wed May 09, 2007 10:52 pm

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Postby jamesq84 » Thu May 10, 2007 7:01 am

will the a cappella instrumentation go down in history as having reached the heights of its achievement through college groups?


Personally, I highly doubt this. In my opinion, we need to remember that outside of our community, the vast majority of college groups are not ever commented upon or even acknowledged by music critics, commentators, etc. Pro groups, however, often are because of the venues they play, the types of gigs they get, their talent, etc. Think about it. If you had to find numerous major articles/commentary about Take 6, Bobby McFerrin, the House Jacks, or Rockapella versus almost any college group, which do you think will be easier? Peronal opinions about the quality of college groups versus pro groups aside, I guess what I'm getting at is that I don't think collegiate groups get the exposure needed to "go down in history" for achieving the heights of a cappella instrumentation.
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Postby dekesharon » Thu May 10, 2007 7:57 am

In short: CD/download sales are downevery year since 1999.

College groups don't need to make a profit. Pro groups do.

As discussed in this thread:

http://forum.rarb.org:8080/forum/viewto ... sc&start=0

Here's another perspective:

When a major artist (say, Dave Matthews) sells a $15 CD, about $1 of that money goes to him, generally to recoup the cost of recording and promotion (in essence, to pay back the label). So, people are right when they say downloading music without paying is hurting the labels most.

Dave Matthews will be fine, as he never made that much money selling CDs. He made it on radio play (payed when his song is played on the radio), as well as touring and merch.

But what if your group is not on a label, like most contemporary a cappella groups?

You outlay, say, $30,000 to make a CD - that means you have to sell 2,000 copies at $15 each just to break even. In this sense each album is 15 times more important to a self-recorded group than a major label group. No, wait, if a small group sells perhaps 1% of the albums of a major label group, then each album sale is actually more like 1,500 times as important to their equation.

Plus the #1 CD buying demographic is 14-25, and they're just not buying CDs anymore.

Tower Records, RIP.

So, when it comes time to make a new CD, well, crap. Can you justify a $30,000 outlay? Your music will get out there, sure, and that's a big part of it, but, well, crap!

As I mention in the above thread, look at the "best pop/rock album" nominees: only one full length studio album in the group of 5. The others are a live album and 3 EPs. One EP only has 4 songs on it (and then the same 4 remixed), one had 5 songs on it, and one is by a group with a member who owns a studio.

Total number of elligible pop/rock albums? I don't have the exact numbers, but I'll bet it was down perhaps 50% from 6 years ago.

When was the last Bobs album? Nylons album? Rockapella album? And so on.

Yes, it's cheaper to record, but if income is so significantly depressed it doesn't really matter.

College groups? Going strong. Why? Because they don't have to give a poop about turning a profit in most cases. The group members don't make a profit from their gigs and album sales - it all goes back into the group fund - and what better to spend money on than a great album you'll have forever!?! Toss in free money from student activities and you have a fantastic formula for the perpetual "loss leader" of collegiate a cappella recordings.

Thank heavens!

I'm gonna go out on a limb: I'll bet most of the people who read this forum have not paid for most of the music they've acquired over the past five years.

Sure, the loss of income from one of you, no big deal. But take the cumulative effect that the thousand of you have on this niche industry, and it's significant. And you're the most devoted! People who are less devoted, do you think they're MORE likely to pay for their a cappella?

Yeah, some of them who are remote and loving a specific group will go get that new CD, but for many of them, they'll take what they can get on bit torrent. So incredibly much free content that they don't need to have a specific album, and the fact that they can get so much for free diminishes their perception that music should be paid for.

Sorry to paint such a gloomy picture, but that's the fact, Jack.

As for what it'll mean to a cappella in general? Who knows. People will keep on keepin on, I'm sure, but you shouldn't expect as many expensive studio albums coming from pro groups. The "bit of a lull" isn't a lack of creative juices - it's a lack of sales.

Until college groups expand beyond the realm of cover band, I don't expect their artistry will massively overwhelm that of professional groups. But they will keep coming up with cool instrumental sounds, sure. "Heights of achievement?"

Imitating instruments is not and will not be the height of any a cappella! No, no, no!!!! From Hell's heart I stab at thee...
Last edited by dekesharon on Thu May 10, 2007 10:15 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby H.F. » Thu May 10, 2007 9:09 am

annnnnd cue rationalizations........now!
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Postby vocalmark » Thu May 10, 2007 9:10 am

Deke Sharon wrote:One EP only has 4 songs on it (and then the same 4 remixed), one had 5 songs on it, and one is by a group with a member who owns a studio.


transit actually had two members <at the time> that own separate studios, Nick Lyons (Liquid 5th) and Dave Sperandio (diovoce), providing even more of an advantage. Makes sense, considering the product they released... What a disc!

but yeah, crap for no profit in records anymore... :-/

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Postby dekesharon » Thu May 10, 2007 10:41 am

When listing other groups (Bobs, Rockapella, Nylons) I hadn't done any research.

Oh boy.

Last Bobs album was in 2005 (not so bad), but only had 7 tracks on it (uh oh). Granted - it was "Rhapsody in Bob" (cool) but the album clocks in at 35 minutes (uh oh).

Rockapella's last was a live album (inexpensive) a few years ago, and this from a group that averaged a new album every year for a decade (uh oh).

The last 3 (!) Nylons albums have been compilations of unreleased material and rereleases of hits (triple uh oh). Their last album of original music was a decade ago (crikey!)

And so on.

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Postby AMalkoff » Thu May 10, 2007 5:27 pm

DekeSharon wrote:When listing other groups (Bobs, Rockapella, Nylons) I hadn't done any research.

Oh boy.

Last Bobs album was in 2005 (not so bad), but only had 7 tracks on it (uh oh). Granted - it was "Rhapsody in Bob" (cool) but the album clocks in at 35 minutes (uh oh).


I just saw the Bobs and they kept referring to their "new album". I assume that they weren't talking about the 2005 one, but I could be wrong. And I didn't visit the product table.
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Postby dekesharon » Thu May 10, 2007 5:42 pm

AMalkoff wrote:I just saw the Bobs and they kept referring to their "new album". I assume that they weren't talking about the 2005 one, but I could be wrong. And I didn't visit the product table.


It's the most recent album on their web site (although their news section mentions them working on a new album, there's nada out there that I can find). Hopefully something new is coming soon!

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Postby Mike Mendyke » Thu May 10, 2007 7:05 pm

I had dinner with Amy last time I was down in LA a few months ago; they are definitely working on a new CD, hopefully to be released later this year.
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Postby AVModelCadet » Thu May 10, 2007 11:36 pm

First off, Deke, I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your writing.

Secondly, I wanted to make a comment regarding the topic at hand: Everyone please keep in mind that vocal performance (and recordings) have been around the block a few times. I have this really awesome book on indexing decades' worth of vocal bands. Are they "a cappella?" Not necessarily. Are they fulfilling some of the basic musical needs expressed by a cappella? Certainly. While semi-professional and professional groups go the way of barbershop (and other relatively restrictive genres, such as bluegrass), these styles will become more infused within the culture at large, outside the specific community and its self-imposed standards. Just look to the inundation of "a cappella" in hip hop, bubblegum, etc.

Thirdly, while I agree with Deke about the reasons for stagnating sales across the board, I don't think that's necessarily the reason why college groups survive in this genre. The college a cappella scene is a dynamic, complicated organism. The success of pure vocal performance in the college market could very well have to do with issues directly embodied by performing without instruments. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify those embodied issues (hint: It's the same reason male a cappella groups have had more success than their colleagues).

I'm relatively confident that the spirit of a cappella music will survive, even if specific manifestations of it, like the "professional and semi-professional" genres, die.
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Postby brianhaverkate » Fri May 11, 2007 4:27 am

DekeSharon wrote:When listing other groups (Bobs, Rockapella, Nylons) I hadn't done any research.

Oh boy.

Last Bobs album was in 2005 (not so bad), but only had 7 tracks on it (uh oh). Granted - it was "Rhapsody in Bob" (cool) but the album clocks in at 35 minutes (uh oh).

Rockapella's last was a live album (inexpensive) a few years ago, and this from a group that averaged a new album every year for a decade (uh oh).

The last 3 (!) Nylons albums have been compilations of unreleased material and rereleases of hits (triple uh oh). Their last album of original music was a decade ago (crikey!)

And so on.



I've been having some Rockapella withdrawel the last few years. Now, I know why! And Rockapella is actually on a label of some sorts, or maybe it's just a distributor (J-BIRD RECORDS). Not sure if they fund their recordings or not.

Most pro groups are not on a label and thus lose money. I've said it before, and I'll say it again....CDs are nothing more than really expensive business cards.

I just had a question pop up in my head while writing this....Why are semi-pro and pro groups still trying to go the way of mainstream recording artists? It seems an unfulfilling uphill battle, no? It seems it would benefit these groups to really gain a regional following and try and make their living from live performances and merch sales.

Not a cappella, but similar situation. My wife and I absolutely love the band Sister Hazel. They haven't been on a mainstream label since around the year 2000, but still release high quality CDs, and TOUR THE HELL OUT OF THE SOUTH. They don't pack arenas, but constantly sell out places like "House of Blues", etc. I don't know how much money they pull in, but it seems that intense touring/development of a strong community is the key to success in an indie-type environment.

Interesting topic.
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Postby mattootb » Fri May 11, 2007 6:31 am

As ever, interesting stuff Deke.
Now, may I ask the obvious question? Why are people paying so much money to make the CDs in the first place?

I know there's an answer to this; a desire to make the best album one can possibly make, win awards, get a nice RARB score, sell more CDs. But if we ignore the first 3 of those and just deal in hard economics, I'll ask this. Will that 2nd $15,000 lead to twice as many CD sales? Really?

When Bill wrote in another thread how many $$ down he was on the last Housejacks album, my jaw just dropped. My split personalities thought two things. The nice half said "wow! what a guy! taking the hit for the art form!". The mean half said "what an idiot! He'll never get that back, and he knew it from the start".

If a sculptor spent $10,000 on materials, and created a sculpture which he sold for $5,000, would he moan about the marketplace, or would he make spend $1,000 making the next one and sell it for $1,500? It's possible to make an A Cappella album for $2,000, and $4,000 total once you've sorted licencing and pressing. You may not sell as many, but you'll break even I'd bet.

The CARAs, BOCA and RARB lead to a competitiveness which is making A Cappella music economically unsustainable. Discuss.
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Postby mcbc » Fri May 11, 2007 8:18 am

The CD is publicity; I'd say it's a business card 2.0 :).

Theoretically, it builds buzz, gets press and hopefully starts a fan base especially in areas you can't tour. And duh, the album is getting replaced by the Web. But that's natural b/c they are both "mediums" (in the traditional sense of the word).

As far as semi-pro v. college, uhhh the only thing I'll add for now is that the list of pro groups that have "broken through" really hasn't changed in a decade or more ... The Bobs, The Nylons, Rockapella, Sweet Honey, Take 6 and few others. Whereas the college group "break throughs" are growing. (The one possible exception is Kid Beyond -- but that jury is out at the moment.)

College a cappella groups are similar to the unsigned "college circuit" bands. They are popular, sing mostly originals and for whatever reason can generate a large fan base. Ain't nuthin' wrong with that.

By the by, we're talking alot about artistry -- what about sheer popularity and fan engagement?
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Postby dekesharon » Fri May 11, 2007 8:59 am

Many things to respond to (forgive my ascii quoting):

***"Why are people paying so much money to make the CDs in the first place?"

It's not unusual for a professional band to spend upwards of $300,000 to make an album, so why is $30,000 an unreasonable amount of money? Heck - I'll bet there are more than 20 college groups that drop that.

Let's assume a 12 song album, with $24,000 going to studio costs: that's 20 hours per song at $100 an hour. Let's say 5 hours per song to mix (not including mastering here), leaving 15 hours to record (and edit). Frankly, that's not all that much time! Great rock bands will/have burn/ed up far more studio time.

And I approach this as a rock musician (and thought we were being pretty damned frugal!)

Yes, you can record on your own. But then you're demanding that to make a great album you have to be a great musician AND a great engineer. Not always the case. Like expecting a great pilot to also be able to fix his plane. Different skill set.

And yes, you can save a little money by selling online. But CD pressing was never the major cost, and the margin to the band is less when you sell through someone else (although it bears saying: acatunes takes an ALARMINGLY low percentage of the total sales price, paying groups something like 10 times more than iTunes and the like. As such, those guys are heros).

***""what an idiot! He'll never get that back, and he knew it from the start"."

If people were still buying albums en masse (as opposed to free downloading) he'd/we'd have his money by now, no problemo.

Hindsight is 20/20, but you can't assume someone was an idiot 5 years ago for not assuming that digital downloads would become so pervasive that people morally justify it (as on this blog) and think nothing of it such that it becomes the dominant paradigm for music aquisition (people's default setting for acquiring a recording now it to obtain it for free - not buy it, as was the case for almost 100 years).

It's actually rather amazing how quickly this perspective has changed in our society. Recorded music is free now. In fact, I'll bet people's perception around this will soon be (if it isn't already) that when they do pay for music, it's that they're paying for the convenience, not that there's a specific amount of money owed the recording artist et al.

***"The CARAs, BOCA and RARB lead to a competitiveness which is making A Cappella music economically unsustainable."

I can speak with complete confidence when I say that the House Jacks do not make albums primarily for competitive reasons. Nice to be recognized, but I just don't think it drives the pro contemporary world. Do rock bands record so that they can win a Grammy?

***"CDs are nothing more than really expensive business cards."

They didn't use to be. And, frankly, they shouldn't be, any more than any artist "should" give away his art and receive no compensation.

Indeed - there are expenses that are purely promotional (like making a 3 minute promo video, or a snippits recording for corporate gigs), but a full-length album of original music has not historically been one, and I don't think it "should" be (or, if there's a sea change, then all art should be free, which then makes me wonder - should I have free medical advice? Car repair?)

***"It seems it would benefit these groups to really gain a regional following and try and make their living from live performances and merch sales"

This statement is a little like saying "oh - you're not getting paid as much for your work because people are stealing from you, well, go get a second job."

Touring already is and has always been a significant part of any pro group's income stream. But merch sales (which include CD sales for unsigned acts) have traditionally played a very significant role in the bottom line. A 10-15% sell through rate on CDs was very common (especially because it's hard for people to find your music in stores). No mo. Significant pay cut now for every live gig (ticket prices have not risen to compensate).

(and personally with 2 kids at home, I'm not interested in doing 250 shows a year as I did back in 1994, fun as it was. The House Jacks is only a limited percentage of my a cappella income, so it's not ruining my lifestyle - but that percentage of my income has taken a significant hit).

Also - selling CDs right after your show is the #1 best place and time: people are excited, still have the tunes in their head, then they get it signed by the band and feel they have something special. Who knows how many have that same connection to tracks they pull down from the internet.

BTW - if those of you reading this think it's only effecting a cappella, think again. I'm not speaking as an a cappella musician. I'm speaking as a popular musician. This is across the board.

***"While semi-professional and professional groups go the way of barbershop (and other relatively restrictive genres, such as bluegrass)..."

I don't see this happening any time soon. Barbershop is a "preservation" form - people intentionally keep things the way it was (not unlike bluegrass). Contemporary pop groups are making music informed by and on pace with current pop music, which is why it keeps changing, and continues to grow artistically.

I'm not sounding any death knells for pro a cappella, any more than I am any other niche music or unsigned band. Asked why there's a lull in pro group recordings, I pointed out the reason as I see it.

BTW - I've noticed a slow decline over the past several years, but it really seems to have accelerated lately, and that's what I hear from other bands as well.

Pro groups will still record, no doubt. But it's already proving to be something that's less frequent with fewer songs per disc and less money spent on production.

Which brings up one more thought:

A Cappella groups were not rolling in money before this happened. It's not like making a recording was a huge cash cow and we're all just being forced to tighten our belts a little.

Self-made albums are a significant expense for bands, and the number of a cappella acts signed to major (or even indie) labels are few. I've seen it from both sides (during the HJ on Warner Brothers days) and I gotta say - it's a different level. You have 10 times the money (and yet 10 times the bull$#!%...)

But back to my point: if a cappella groups before the download craze were making at best only a modest profit (and most were), then to take away, say, 50% of that gross profit means they're not breaking even.

Enough. I apologize if I'm perceived as whining. I don't mean to be. Bitching, perhaps.

But more over, I want to make sure the people here clearly see what is happening - the effect that their actions are having on an industry that matters to them. This stuff does not make the local news, and people's rationalizations here have already proven largely bullet proof.

Nonetheless, the truth needs to be told.

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