A Cappella – Competition vs Collaboration

The Sing-Off. The Voice Festival UK. The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. SoJam. Vocal Marathon. And many more.

All of the above are renowned, both in the US, the UK and the rest of the world, as being a cappella competitions with a great deal of vocal talent on show each and every year. But to what extent is a cappella harmed by competitive singing? And wouldn’t the quality of a cappella be better if the best groups collaborated together to form a ‘super group’, or write a ‘super arrangement’, and generally provide a higher level of entertainment?

A panel at the London A Cappella Festival last weekend discussed this issues, and I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

There is a lot to be said for a cappella collaborations. Generally, the most successful a cappella albums tend to be those like ‘Voices Only’ or ‘Best of Collegiate A Cappella’, where the best songs from the albums of the year are brought together to form an album which, after listening to the more recent versions of the latter, is generally full of incredible a cappella. That said, in a way, these albums themselves are competitions in themselves, with groups trying to make the best record possible, so as to be featured on the album.

For anyone who watched ‘The Sing-Off’ this year, female group Delilah’s version of ‘Grenade’ by Bruno Mars was possibly, in my opinion, one of the best live performances of a cappella I have ever seen. Aptly enough, Delilah themselves were formed from a collaboration of unsuccessful group members from the first season of the same show. However, having sung their hearts out in the first week of the show, their next couple of songs were less impressive, and they did not even reach the final of the show, despite having arguably the best set of singers on the show. That said, Pentatonix were worthy winners and are leading the charge of a new electronic style of a cappella that sounds incredible.

Groups collaborate on stage – so why not more so on albums? In recent times, The Sweet Nothings and Semi-Toned of the University of Exeter provided their audience with a great Christmas concert, in which the highlight was probably when the two groups collaborated on stage and the blend of male and female voices that was otherwise missing that evening was brought to the stage. Similarly, some of the best numbers on ‘The Sing-Off’, maybe not musically, but in terms of performance and audience enjoyment, were the large group numbers at the start of the show. You could argue the same for the final of ‘The X Factor’, where each act gets to sing a song with an already famous popstar, usually a big name that Simon Cowell has managed to secure from America, but occasionally some home grown talent like Westlife or Take That. It’s not only great for the audiences, but it’s also a privilege to be able to sing with a brand new voice or set of voices, and especially with someone you admire.

So I don’t quite understand why there aren’t more joint efforts on albums these days. In recent pop history, some of the most successful tracks have come from two artists working together – especially in modern day hip-hop. Tracks like ‘Broken Strings’ by James Morrison and Nelly Furtado, which was by far the biggest hit from his second album, and more recently, ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by two of the biggest artists in the US, Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera, became one of the biggest hits of the year worldwide.

So why doesn’t this happen very often in a cappella? It could be to do with the number of competitions there are, particularly in America, where groups have the chance to compete against each other two, three, maybe even four times a year. In the UK it’s not quite that many, with just the Voice Festival UK, but there is still a sense of competition there, and some groups may be reluctant to collaborate with groups that constantly beat them; groups that they see as “worse” than them due to the latest results in the competition; or even just groups whose members rub them up the wrong way at competition time.

Competitions can sometimes be very daunting, too. It’s all well and good doing a gig with two or three other groups, but as soon as judging, scoring and a ‘winner’ comes into play, some groups began to shy away from performing, which is a huge shame. There are several groups within the UK this year that have chosen not to take part, those who have competed before and those who haven’t. This could be for a variety of reasons, but in my opinion, the experience of performing alongside other groups is so crucial to the development of an a cappella group, and if the competition aspect of a gig is scaring groups off, then I think that’s a real missed opportunity, not only for the group to improve themselves, but also for the concert itself.

Having said that, a record number of groups from a record number of universities have entered both VF-UK and the ICCAs this year, which means these competitions are growing ever larger, which is fantastic news. The growth of a cappella around the world is a wonderful thing, and long may it continue.

I am also of the opinion that competition makes people take things a little more seriously, and often the pressure and the occasion sees groups rise to the challenge and produce better a cappella than they would if it was just a normal, uncompetitive gig. In this sense, competition is crucial to the growth of groups as well as a cappella itself, because it helps them to better themselves.

Also, competitions are just so watchable. The Olympics wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if people were just going on a casual, social jog. Football wouldn’t be so popular if every game was a friendly game. At the same time, competitions, especially broadcasted ones like ‘The Sing-Off’, bring a cappella to the masses, and are vitally important in spreading a cappella across the world, because it’s a competition and regular people just love a good competition. However, as Bill Hare asserted at the LACF panel at the weekend, the vibe at a top class competition is often very similar to that of a friendly, non-competitive a cappella festival.

So while I think competitions can be daunting for some groups, I think they are vitally important to the growth of a cappella and can be used as vast learning curves for groups that would otherwise not have the opportunity to perform with some groups who are, by all accounts, better than them. I believe any group with the chance to compete in the ICCAs or VF-UK should take it, because there’s nothing like a bit of competitive spirit to help groups take their music to the next level.

The question is, do we really want a cappella to hit the mainstream? As it stands, a cappella is a very niche genre, and the a cappella community is one of the most welcoming and comfortable musical communities that there are – Tyler Mattiace noted in our earlier interview that several groups’ highlight of last year’s Voice Festival was the “A Cappella Love”. I believe it would be difficult to maintain such a balance of welcoming community spirit and friendly competition while striving to win worldwide appeal – as mentioned above, some groups are already choosing not to enter competitions, possibly because of the very fact they are competitions. Is it worth sacrificing community spirit for worldwide recognition? That’s a matter of opinion.

So, are competition and collaboration mutually exclusive things? Can you compete against one group one week and then be in the recording studio with them the next? Well, I think it is possible – to take football as an example again, many players worldwide compete against each other at club level one week, before joining up in the national side the next. While some collaborations don’t work, like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, or like ‘Glee’ and rap music, some of them are hugely successful, and I believe groups should be more willing to put aside their differences and make sweet music together. Because, in the end, life is a competition – everyone is trying to reach that ultimate goal, whatever it might be. But sometimes you have to work together to get there.

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One thought on “A Cappella – Competition vs Collaboration

  1. Great blog post – thank you for sharing your views!

    Much of the Voice Festival’s work is, of course, based around competition, and we feel that’s a really important factor for bringing people together to perform and learn, as well as to challenge themselves and strive for an even better level of music-making. But we also definitely agree that that the whole spirit of a good competition should be underlined by an ethos of collaboration and mutual support – that’s what makes it fun, enjoyable and inspiring, as well as enabling the formation of those relationships which last well beyond the competition. And we’re always keen to hear from VF-UK friends and fans with ideas for how to strengthen that atmosphere of collaboration. Looking forward to hearing some comments – and keep the debate coming!

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