Rethinking your group’s image

· Marketing Yourself Through Words and Song ·

January 16, 2017 0 Comments

So, let me get this straight. You’re the “premiere” group on your college campus? Do you sing songs of “every style/genre”? Perhaps you’re also “unique” and “game-changers,” trying to flip this whole a cappella thing on its head?

Let me stop you right there. Here are 3 things to consider when crafting (or updating) your outward-facing group identity:

  1. Be specific. I get it: you’re doing your best to market your group by emphasizing its breadth of ability so that it will appear more attractive to potential fans and clients. You have the best of intentions! But in casting your net too broadly, you preclude any chance of your group being recognized for its genuine strengths, be they musical or otherwise. With regard to image (and given the particularity of what your group actually does), breadth works against you.
  2. Drop “premier” from your bio. To most of the people reading your bio, “premier” has no meaning (moreover, “premiere” probably doesn’t mean what you think it means). Maybe your group was the first founded at your respective university, or perhaps the subtext you want to convey is that it knocks any contending groups out of the park – but which groups? At your school? In your region? Across your country? “Premier” is a relative term, and a self-aggrandizing one at that. Demonstrate your premier qualities in your performance, not your byline.
  3. You aren’t a game-changer. It’s a misnomer to say you want to ‘re-invent the game’ when in reality you just want to play the game well. But take heart: you’re not far off from the image you want to project, as that very game is played well when originality, vulnerability, and knowing the strengths of your ensemble come together in artistic, compelling ways.

Now that we’ve dispelled those myths, I’d like to showcase a few examples of groups who (I believe) project a strong sense of identity:

UCD’s MIX has come to the fore in recent years not only for their strong displays of musicianship, but also theatrical presentations and genre-splicing arrangements. That being said, their musical style is still distinctly pop in character. In the case of the video below, MIX places a chant (O Frondens Virga) penned by the multitalented mystic Hildegard von Bingen alongside Daft Punk’s “Doin’ It Right” in an arrangement that utilizes modern, functional harmony throughout. While the first extended phrase is presented as single line (with the nicely executed added touch of stylistic trills), the implied tonality never deviates from the natural minor scale it outlines. The entrance of drones at :30 reinforce that tonality via the resting tone (the “final” if we’re really talking chant here), but the unabashed landing on the IV at :40 and a dash of chromaticism in the voice leading make for a distinctly non-Hildegard harmonic bridge back to the present. Through clever recasting of non-pop source material, this is, in the end, a pop arrangement performed by a self-described “contemporary vocal group” that achieves a pop/techno sound quite well.

MIX isn’t aiming for historical authenticity, but rather a performance in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: if the songs you typically sing are arranged in a pop style, you are a pop group – and that’s alright! But you are also not beholden to drawing inspiration (musical or non) from pop content.

On a wholly different side of the a cappella spectrum from MIX’s electro-pop style, we have barbershop and its one-of-a-kind, circle-of-fifths-driven treatment of pop songs from a century past. The line spoken at :45 encapsulates what makes this so fun to watch: “It wouldn’t be The Newfangled Four unless…” This ensemble knows exactly who they are, and that persona informs their arrangement and presentation (note: not the other way around!).

Many barbershop singers (particularly those vying for the top spots at the international competition) are some form of “harmony nerd”–especially in regard to locking and ringing justly tuned chords. Compare The Newfin-err, Newfangled Four with the relaxed but spot-on performance by another harmonizing quartet from across the world:

Comfortable and casual. There is nothing ‘put-on’ about these guys, nor do they look ready to walk out on a big stage – and their performance is all the more entrancing because of it.

Pentatonix has easily become the new gold standard for a successful pop a cappella group, and not without good reason: even in a medley of songs by a music/dance group likely unknown to listeners outside of the J-pop realm, their Perfume medley is clearly adapted to match the ensemble style they’ve come to be known for since they sang Katy Perry’s “E.T.” on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing-Off. This particular arrangement features tropes that we have heard in other PTX covers: pulsating offbeats, dedicated close-harmony moments (including a homophonic burst toward the end over a half-time breakdown), as well as moments that showcase Mitch’s falsetto, Kevin’s EDM-flavored kit, and balances Kirsty’s idol-esque performance (かわいい!) with Scott’s grittier solo sound. Their ability to play the game well is reflected by the consistency of their sound; the PTX brand is as aural as it is visual, and the product is dependably on-point every time.

To close (and to leave you with an example perhaps most relevant for collegiate groups as we head into ICCA season), here is Vassar Devils’ winning BOSS set. Unified behind their soloists and overarching theme, it is clear they know who they are, what they’re singing, and why that is relevant to them.