VF-UK 2013: The Good, The Bad and The Unsustainable

After what has been yet another successful and record-breaking year for the not-for-profit Voice Festival UK, having successfully overseen five Regional Rounds and a Final of a University Competition, a Community Competition and a Big Weekend, it’s time to take a step back and have a look at what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved for next year.

The University Competition

The Good:

More Groups Than Ever: This year saw 27 groups competing in the university competition, one more than last year, with debuts coming from Vive, The Houghtones, The Scopes, The Treblemakers, The Augmentals, and Illuminations. What’s more, these debutants added two new institutions to the VF-UK repertoire: the Birmingham Conservatoire and the Guildhall School for Music and Drama, evidence that collegiate a cappella is expanding further afield.

High-Quality A Cappella: There is no doubting the quality of a cappella at every single Regional, and indeed the Final, was much higher than in previous years. Relatively new groups are learning fast from American (and indeed, British) role models and embarking on crucial tours to enhance their stage presence and group image, while groups who had never won awards before picked up awards in several different categories, closing the gaps between themselves and the groups traditionally ahead of them. The competitive side of UK a cappella has never been so fierce, and this can only encourage groups to step up their game even further.

The Bad:

The Judging System: One criticism that has been seemingly forever lodged with the competition side of the Voice Festival is that of the judging system and criteria. While VF-UK have continually argued against having a points-system, because the judges felt in the past “they spent more time looking down at their adjudication forms trying to decide on point values than they did actually watching the performances, which often meant that they would miss out on funny or memorable parts of the performance.” However, whilst at the Final, I sat pretty much next to the judges, and while they were watching the groups for the most part, a great deal of time was still spent jotting down notes on the performances, in order to give the groups feedback at the end of the evening, both orally on stage and privately in paper form later on.
According to an experienced American collegiate singer who was at the London Final, the advantage of the points system not only allows transparency and clarity in the results, and therefore less scope for accusations of bias and subjectivity, but also saves time. This year, at both the St Andrews Regional and the Final, the judges took almost a full hour to deliberate and come up with a result, and at the latter, despite a lengthy half hour interval, pro group and MCs Overboard had to work overtime (and jetlagged, might I add) to continue to entertain us until the judges were ready (not that I’m complaining, though, because they were awesome.) In America, the judges simply tally up their collective scores and declare a winner, and it is all done within ten minutes. While the American system is admittedly not flawless, and controversial decisions are still made at certain times, the system has been tried and tested successfully for years in the States and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be employed over here.

The Awards System: Perhaps even more fiercely debated, particularly on this blog by numerous commenters, is the awards system in place throughout the competition. While awards for Soloist, Arrangement, VP and Choreography are a given (and indeed, the ICCAs religiously stick to these awards), there have been several previously unheard of awards that have seemingly been created on the night to honour certain aspects of performance. While I am not against giving credit where credit is due, I feel it is a little unjust to give out awards when the availability of these awards have not been explicitly written in the Voice Festival Adjudication Guide (sent out to each group before the competition).
I refer specifically to two occasions: initially, the Sons of Pitches claiming the ‘Outstanding Stagecraft’ award at last year’s final, which has now been incorporated into the rules but at the time was a brand new award, and doesn’t seem to be very different to the award for ‘Outstanding Choreography’. One opinion at the time discussed where the line should be drawn: “If the judges are going to just make up awards on the night, then what’s to say that in three years’ time, there’s not going to be an award for the craziest outfits?”, while another believed that it is “inherently wrong to create an award at random.” The second occasion was at this year’s Birmingham Regional Round, where a member of The Augmentals won the award for ‘Outstanding Audience Interaction’, which seems even more arbitrary, and prompted another comment claiming that the Voice Festival UK was “a total farce.” Indeed, quoting from the Adjudication Guide for the award for ‘Outstanding Performance’: “This award recognises a group that demonstrates outstanding performance and presentation, including stagecraft, stage presence, engagement with the audience, and professionalism.” Why weren’t both groups just given the award for ‘Outstanding Performance’, which incorporates both Stagecraft and Audience Interaction? There is clearly some disgruntlement at the way in which the awards are distributed almost willy-nilly at Regional Rounds, and this gives rise to another arguable flaw of the Voice Festival…:

The Festival is ‘Too Nice’: Being ‘too nice’ is a very British problem, something my Russian girlfriend is quick to remind me of every time I apologise for something completely out of my control. While the Voice Festival UK predominantly exists to further a cappella in the UK, the competition element of it is just that – a competition. Awards should be distributed to those groups deserving of them and not dished out to everyone in the interests of making sure everyone gets some sort of recognition (as was discussed in the aftermath of last year’s Final). To be fair to this year’s competition, only three groups received awards at this year’s final, all of which were, in my eyes, just and deserved awards, so perhaps this lesson has been learned.
However, perhaps there is another thing to be discussed here: is the judges’ feedback on stage before the revelation of the winner really necessary and/or in the best interests of the group or the audience? Each group at the end of the competition is sent detailed, tailored feedback forms from their performance, so do we really need the evening to be stretched out even further by the judges saying only nice things about every single group, when this discussion sugar-coats the judges’ real views on each group’s performance, and all everyone really wants to know is the winner? It’s definitely something to consider cutting a little shorter on the night.

The Reward Isn’t Big Enough Anymore: While no official partnership has ever existed between the Voice Festival UK and the ICCAs, for the first four years of the competition, the winners of VF-UK were invited to perform in New York alongside the best collegiate groups in America at what can only be described as the single most exciting opportunity that any UK university group has at its disposal. This, as evidenced by recent developments, is no longer the case, with the Sons of Pitches qualifying ahead of VF-UK Winners Vive in the International Wild Card round.
What place does the VF-UK University Competition therefore have in the wider a cappella world? Aside from the rewards on offer to the winning group of VF-UK, now that there is no guaranteed higher stage on which to showcase the talents of the winning group, what is there to play for? Big name UK groups relish the opportunity to put themselves to the test against US groups, and the fact that the Voice Festival no longer provides a means to do this is definitely a negative progression.

High-Profile Drop-Outs: Certain groups have made decisions in the past couple of years to abstain from competing in the Voice Festival, perhaps due to a combination of the factors mentioned above, or perhaps for other, unknown reasons. While not wishing to do any discredit to any of this years Finalists or indeed, the eventual winners, Vive, but it is inherently more satisfying to win a competition that has a full strength field than it is to win one that has a couple of big hitters missing. Not only that, but groups like Out of the Blue, The Oxford Gargoyles and Cadenza are all previous winners and big collegiate presences in the UK a cappella world, and it is a huge shame for Voice Festival fans to miss out on the opportunity to see these groups perform at the top of their game. I believe the Voice Festival should be doing all they can to reincorporate these groups into the competition in whatever form it may take next year.

The Unsustainable:

The Regional Round System: Despite everything said above, it must not be forgotten that the Voice Festival is run by a team of volunteers, all of whom have full-time jobs to hold down alongside the significant effort that the Voice Festival requires on top of all that. With that in mind, I understand why the initial intention was to cut the Regional Rounds all together and incorporate the entire University Competition into the Big Weekend in London. The decision to have members of the groups themselves organise the Regionals was a good one, but as proved in Oxford when the organising committee pulled out and the VF-UK team had to organise everything themselves, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.
Added to this is the ever increasing number groups popping up around the country, these Regional Rounds will become ever more unmanageable as more of them require organisation. Can the Voice Festival team really be expected to put so much unpaid time aside while sacrificing significant chunks of their personal lives in the process?

The Big Weekend

The Good:

Great Turnout: One thing that was very prominent during the Big Weekend was the great turnout of groups, from both university and community backgrounds, and even some members of the general public or simply a cappella fans. Clearly the event captured the attention of musicians around the country and it was great to see so many people sharing the same passion in one place. On a similar note, the Big Weekend allowed people from all walks of life to come together and sing, something which can be considered a real triumph of organisation.

Productive Workshops and Discussions: The spirit around the City of London School for Girls was great, and there was a lot of productive and stimulating discussions and workshops from all kinds of people, which would have been a huge help for many of the singers present on the day, myself included. Whether it was a debate about all-female a cappella, a jazz workshop led by newly crowned champions Vive or studio recording workshops led by Overboard, the Big Weekend workshops were truly a success.

New Opportunities: The weekend also gave exciting new opportunities for groups and group members alike. The studio sessions allowed groups to get a taster of the techniques involved with recording a professional studio track, as well as giving them vital experience within a recording environment. Let’s hope this experience prompts yet more groups to release their own albums so that we can enjoy their music on demand.

Big Names From Abroad: One of the highlights of the weekend was the performances and workshops from American super-group Overboard. Despite having worked with the group externally on several recordings with The Other Guys, I had never seen the group perform live and, aided with a pretty slick sound system, they blew me and everyone else away while filling time at the Final of the University Competition. It also gave Overboard themselves an opportunity to perform to a brand new audience, and also to impart their experience and knowledge onto others who would fill their shoes this side of the pond.

Fan of the Year: On a more personal note, it was great to see one of UACUK’s own pick up the new award for ‘Fan of the Year’. We’d like to think John’s work as our ‘Festival Maestro’ has gone some away to helping him claim this award. 🙂

The Bad:

London-Centric: A murmur of discontent at the location of the competition Final and the Big Weekend has been steadily growing stronger over the past few years, especially given the growing number of groups springing up significantly outside of the capital. While I appreciate London is ideally placed in terms of access, there are many other places where a cappella is arguably more popular where a Final would go down like a storm. The Regional in St Andrews sells almost 1,000 tickets every year. Perhaps one way of pleasing everyone would be to change the location every year – have a Final in St Andrews one year, Oxford another, Exeter the next… It would not only allow blossoming audiences in those areas to further develop a taste for top quality a cappella, but also gives each group a chance to perform to a brand new audience year after year.

The Unsustainable:

The Weekend Itself: Certain clues throughout the VF-UK year led many aca-folk to believe that The Big Weekend was the main focus of this year’s calendar, with the competitive side of the Festival sidelined slightly: VF-UK were initially wanting to scrap the Regional Rounds and hold one large competition at the Big Weekend; this was eventually modified after consultation with groups across the country. The result, however, was that groups themselves would organise the Regional Rounds (under VF-UK supervision), while the VF-UK team themselves focused their efforts on making the Big Weekend, as I have indicated above, a huge success. However, having spoken with many of the team (who, I will remind you again, are all volunteers) during the weekend, they were exhausted, pushed to the limits for time, and stretched for numbers (hence their recent #bestself recruitment launch). Can such a monumental event, however successful it was, be sustained year after year in its current format?

The Fringe

This year’s VF-UK Fringe presence was questionable. Having managed in previous years to organise and set up (despite however last minute it may have been) some relatively successful showcases and socials thereafter, this year, after some sustained efforts to rekindle it, for whatever reason the showcase never materialised, and instead groups were invited to a VF-UK social, with mixed success. Out of the Blue, The Alternotives, an All the King’s Man and some Accidentals were in attendance, but all-in-all it did not achieve the same scope as previous years’ efforts had done. Perhaps a hangover from all the hard work put in for the Big Weekend?

What Next?

Perhaps it is time to ask that question again: is the Voice Festival UK an a cappella festival or an a cappella competition? And with more and more groups forming in brand new regions of the country, can it realistically be both for much longer, given the time (or lack thereof) and resources available to the hard-working team of volunteers?

I believe it is time for those at VF-UK to make some difficult decisions, and to fall on one side or another. In order to continue to provide the excellent standard of Big Weekend that they managed to achieve this year, they either need to recruit significantly (which they appear to be in the process of doing at the moment) or to cut back in their ambitions.

Judging by events in the past year, I am inclined to believe that should this cutback occur, it will be the competition element that suffers, as the VF-UK team have been leaning quite significantly towards the Festival side of their work this year. If this does happen, perhaps it’s time to invite the ICCAs back to Britain and once again give the British champions a guaranteed shot at the international Final.

The work that VF-UK does to promote a cappella is hugely beneficial and is well deserving of praise. Without its impact on the UK a cappella scene, several groups may not exist, this blog may never have come into being and several people, including myself, may have never gotten involved in a cappella. But with success comes the need for change – and the time has come to make a big decision.

As always, we appreciate your comments. Do you disagree with anything written above? Feel free to share your views.

To apply to be a part of the Voice Festival team, click here.

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