Voice Festival UK 2014 Line-Up Analysis

Exciting news! The line-up for next year’s Voice Festival UK has been announced in the last couple of days, and as an early Christmas present, we thought we would take a look at those competing, revealing the ins, the outs, and the usual suspects in the competition.

2014 will see 27 groups compete, the same number in total as last year, and each group will submit an 8 minute video to the Voice Festival, reminiscent of the International Wild Card round of the ICCAs. The best groups will proceed to two Semi-Finals and then a final, taking place on one weekend in March, where the best group will be crowned VF-UK 2014 University Champions.

So without further ado, here’s the line-up:

The Usual Suspects:
The Sons of Pitches – VF-UK Finalists 2012, 2013; ICCA Finalists 2013
The King’s Chicks
All the King’s Men – VF-UK Winners 2011, Finalists 2012, 2013; ICCAs – 3rd, 2011
The Ultrasounds
Sweet Nothings
Semi-Toned – VF-UK Finalists 2013
Illuminations
The Imperielles
The Scopes
The Techtonics
Score (formerly Voice Versa)
The Uptone Girls
The Treblemakers
The Accidentals – VF-UK Finalists 2010, 2011
The Alleycats – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2010
The Houghtones
The Songsmiths
Aberpella
Choral Stimulation – VF-UK Finalists 2013

The Debutants:

The J Walkers (University of Birmingham) – a brand new group from the University of Birmingham, The J Walkers make the number of entries from Birmingham up to 5, alongside the Sons of Pitches, Uptone Girls, the newly named Score and last year’s debutants, The Treblemakers. We don’t know much about them just yet, but look forward to seeing what they have to offer.

The Cosmopolitones (University of Leeds) – Leeds’ second a cappella group after The Songsmiths, The Cosmopolitones are an all-female group founded this year, 2013, and having made a couple of public performance in October and over the Christmas period, they’ve been quick to rack up the on stage experience. Will they make the Semi-Final? Watch this space…

A Patella (University of Aberdeen) – Aberdeen’s all-medic group have been around for a while – they formed in November last year but did not take the chance to compete in last year’s competition. This year, however, they join the only other all-medic group, Oxford’s The Ultrasounds, in the competition and will be hoping to impress in their début year.

The Polyphonics (University of Warwick) – Warwick’s first group already has a slick website and some matching jackets, so if their singing is as solid as their organisational skills, they could well be dark horses going into the competition this year.

Durham University A Cappella Choir (University of Durham) – the originally named Durham University A Cappella Choir (are we calling them DUACC for short?) were founded only a couple of months ago, and will have their work cut out if they’re to progress to the Semi-Finals amongst such an illustrious cast of groups against them.

The Returnees:

Out of the Blue (University of Oxford) – the winners of the very first VF-UK competition back in 2009, Out of the Blue’s phenomenal record of making every final was dashed last year only due to their withdrawal from the competition. With the boys back to set the record straight, they will certainly be a name to watchgiven their previous pedigree in the competition.

Cadenza (University of Cambridge) – After two years away from the competition, Cadenza will be in the remarkable of being the only group in the competition to have won the competition the last time they competed. Cadenza won in 2011 and haven’t competed since. In a way, therefore, they will be defending their title, especially given the absence of reigning champions Vive (further information below).

HotTUBBS (University of Bristol) – After reaching the Final on their début performance in 2012, HotTUBBS chose not to compete last year due to other commitments. However, they’re back in force this year and will be hoping to do just as well second time around.

Notable Absences:
The Oxford Belles – VF-UK Finalists 2009
The Oxford Gargoyles – VF-UK Winners 2010; ICCA Finalists 2007
The Oxford Alternotives – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2013
In The Pink – ICCA Semi-Finalists 2006
Fitz Barbershop – VF-UK Finalists 2010; ICCA Semi-Finalists 2006
The Fitz Sirens – VF-UK Finalists 2010
The Other Guys – VF-UK Finalists 2009, 2012
The Hummingbirds
The Augmentals
Vive – VF-UK Winners 2013
Aquapella

Verdict:

While the new format seems to have pleased some, there are a lot of absentees from the competition this year, some from groups that have been a staple in Voice Festival UK competition in past years. The Belles, Alternotives and In The Pink have joined the Gargoyles as Oxford withdrawals, while The Other Guys and The Hummingbirds have chosen not to continue their long-standing presence as part of the Scottish contingent. Even more poignant is the absence of the reigning champions Vive, who judging by their Facebook feeds, have taken their talents on to new projects. Other groups withdrawing from last year are Aquapella and The Augmentals, while groups like Fitz Barbershop and the Fitz Sirens will be absent for the second and third year running respectively.

That leaves us with three out of five former Champions – Out of the Blue, All the King’s Men and Cadenza – in this year’s competition, but judging by their latest album release and their performance at last year’s ICCAs, I would have The Sons of Pitches down as favourites – they’re just so unique and entertaining. That said, several groups could win it if their repertoire works: the new 8 minute video format will force groups to hone their sets and essentially cut a song, so it may well end up being the groups who can adapt to this new format (up until the semi-finals, of course) the best who reap the rewards.

Whatever happens, we’ll be present at the semis and the final in March next year to give you all the reviews and results as they happen, and all the build-up along the way. Get excited – VF-UK 2014 is just around the corner.

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.

All-Female A Cappella in Crisis?

As I write, we are a week away from the final of the Voice Festival UK, and the competitors are four all-male groups and one mixed-voice group. This begs the question: where are all the women? It seems all-female a cappella, both in the UK and the US, is facing a crisis.

Let’s firstly look at the stats (with brand new added COLOUR!):

Number of Collegiate Groups:

ALL-MALE: 8 (Out of the Blue, The Ultrasounds, Fitz Barbershop, The Other Guys, Sons of Pitches, All The King’s Men, The Techtonics, Semi-Toned)

MIXED: 17 (The Oxford Gargoyles, The Oxford Alternotives, Cadenza, The Alleycats, Augmented Seven, Voice Versa, Absolute Harmony, TUBBS, HotTUBBS, Choral Stimulation, 95 Keys, Hoi Rhapsodoi, Madrigals (Exeter), Take Note, Illuminations, Aberpella, Aquapella)

ALL-FEMALE: 12 (The Oxford Belles, In The Pink, The Fitz Sirens, The Accidentals, The Hummingbirds, The Birmingham Songbirds, The Lorelites, The King’s Chix, Harmaphrodite, The Imperielles, The Forget-Me-Nots, The Sweet Nothings)

These figures would suggest that it is actually all-male a cappella that is suffering, with all-female a cappella looking a lot healthier, however, when we delve a little deeper, the reason for the decline of all-female a cappella becomes clearer:

Number of groups competing in Voice Festival UK 2012:

ALL-MALE: 8 (Out of the Blue, The Ultrasounds, Fitz Barbershop, The Other Guys, Sons of Pitches, All The King’s Men, The Techtonics, Semi-Toned)

MIXED: 10 (The Oxford Gargoyles, The Oxford Alternotives, The Alleycats, Voice Versa, TUBBS, HotTUBBS, Choral Stimulation, 95 Keys, Aberpella, Aquapella)

ALL-FEMALE: 8 (The Oxford Belles, In The Pink, The Accidentals, The Hummingbirds, The Birmingham Songbirds, The King’s Chix, The Imperielles, The Sweet Nothings)

While this at first seems very balanced, it is important to note that every single all-male group that currently exists in UK University A Cappella is competing. This is one of the key factors in the all-male dominance at the moment, in my opinion – that competitive edge that sees them compete and better themselves every year. In comparison, only two-thirds of the eligible female groups are competing, and even less of the mixed contingent.

Debutants in Voice Festival UK 2012:

ALL-MALE: 2 (The Ultrasounds, Semi-Toned)

MIXED: 5 (Voice Versa, HotTUBBS, 95 Keys, Aberpella, Aquapella)

ALL-FEMALE: 1 (The Imperielles)

This statistic represents the progress of a cappella in the UK. While it’s amazing to see 8 brand new groups in this year’s competition, the fact that over half of them are mixed groups means that progress is being made in some places ahead of others. While there are only two new male groups, more worrying is the lack of all-female groups being created – there is only one all-female debuting group in this years competition.

Number of Awards Recieved at Voice Festival UK 2012:

ALL-MALE: 10 (Outstanding Performance x4 [Techtonics, Sons, Ultrasounds, Other Guys]; Outstanding Vocal Percussion x2 [Ultrasounds, Semi-Toned], Outstanding Choreography x2 [ATKM, Sons]; Outstanding Soloist x1 [Techtonics]; Outstanding Arrangement x1 [Semi-Toned] )

MIXED: 7 (Outstanding Choreography x3 [Alternotives, HotTUBBS, Alleycats]; Outstanding Musicality x2 [Voice Versa, Gargoyles]; Outstanding Arrangement x1 [95 Keys]; Outstanding Vocal Percussion x1 [Alleycats])

ALL-FEMALE: 4 (Outstanding Soloist x2 [Belles, Accidentals]; Outstanding Arrangement by Friend of the Group x1 [In The Pink]; Outstanding Performance x1 [Sweet Nothings])

This shows two things: firstly, the male groups are really dominating this year’s festival award-wise, with almost half of the awards going to all-male groups – in fact, the only all-male group who failed to win an award in the Regional Rounds was Out of the Blue, who made up for it by qualifying for the final. On the other hand, only four awards have been won by all-female groups, one of which for an arrangement done by a man.
Secondly, the performance of the brand new groups has been particularly good – The Ultrasounds picked up two awards, and mixed groups 95 Keys, Voice Versa and HotTUBBS also picked up an award each. Missing? The female debutants The Imperielles, who failed to win an award.

Final Appearances 2009-2012:

ALL-MALE: 10 (Out of the Blue x4, All The King’s Men x2, The Other Guys x2, Fitz Barbershop x1, Sons of Pitches x1)

MIXED: 9 (Cadenza x3, The Alleycats x2, The Oxford Gargoyles x1, The Oxford Alternotives x1, Augmented Seven x1, HotTUBBS x1)

ALL-FEMALE: 4 (The Accidentals x2, The Fitz Sirens x1, The Oxford Belles x1)

Again, this says it all – all-male and mixed groups are a fixture in the final more often and have more representatives on average per year than the all-female groups.

So, what’s the problem?

As I briefly mentioned above, it seems that part of the problem is the lack of competitiveness from the all-female contingent. Although that does partly refer to a couple of groups pulling out of this year’s Voice Festival, it also refers to what each group does outside of VF-UK:

Out of the Blue went on Britain’s Got Talent; The Other Guys recorded the ‘Royal Romance’ video and put it on YouTube; All The King’s Men have just returned from their second East Coast Tour of the US; The Techtonics competed in the Vocal Marathon in Croatia in September; and All The King’s Men, The Techtonics and Cadenza all performed at the London A Cappella Festival. While these kinds of things don’t make you better singers, it does bring vital experience and establishes more of a fanbase, which in turn gets you more gigs and more experience performing under pressure.

The Oxford Belles are one of the all-female exceptions: In recent years, to coincide with Fringe runs, they have been featured on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Three, and, if we go further back, have performed the National Anthem at Madison Square Gardens in 2009. But unfortunately, few other female groups are as active as the Belles: while In The Pink have had recent stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and The Fitz Sirens have recently performed at the House of Lords, it has been at least two years since any of the three were involved in the VF-UK Final. Even The Accidentals, who made the final two times in a row in 2010 and 2011, have been sadly inactive outside of St Andrews for the majority of the academic year so far.

Also, only three groups have released an album since last summer: Out of the Blue, The Other Guys and All The King’s Men. All male groups. Recording an album not only allows fans who otherwise can’t see you live to hear your work, but also makes you come up with new tracks, new arrangements, new potential competition songs.

But perhaps that’s not the only problem. Men and mixed-groups have a distinct and perhaps unfair advantage over all-female groups – that of vocal range. Men are blessed with their falsetto, which in some cases allows them to sing almost as high as the best soprano, while being able to hit notes in the very depths of a chord too. Mixed-groups have a mixture of voices, which allows them to achieve similar ranges. However, all-female groups don’t really have a real “cheat”, like men do, to reach those very low notes. Do these limitations make all-male and mixed-voice a cappella automatically “better” or “fuller” than all-female a cappella? Do all-female groups therefore have to work harder to produce a broader sound than other groups? Is it significant that the highest placed all-female group in this year’s The Sing-Off were 6th placed Delilah, with 3 mixed and 2 all-male groups ahead of them?

The problems don’t stop there: Mouth Off maestros Christopher Diaz and Dave Brown conducted an interview with CASA [Contemporary A Cappella Society of America] President Julia Hoffman in one of their more recent podcasts, and Hoffman commented on the stark difference in quality between all-male and all-female submissions for the latest CASA award nominations:

In [the] female collegiate category, there are so few to pick from, because [...] comparatively few songs are arranged by people who are actually in the group, which is super lame and unacceptable, from my perspective. [...] I’m calling them out, and I’m saying get better, do different. [...] These girls need to step it up. There is no barrier that keeps women from arranging, it’s just crazy to me. And then the arrangements that get nominations, if you put them up against the male or the mixed arrangements, it’s like ‘Meh’. I mean, it’s embarrassing. [...] Get it together ladies.

Is this another problem – are the arrangements in general sub-par? It is worth noting that the award that In The Pink won for ‘Outstanding Arrangement by a Friend of the Group’ was arranged by a man. Is this significant? Do our female groups also need to ‘step it up’?

I’m not an expert, and as such cannot say conclusively why the all-female groups have been so poor competitively for the last couple of years, but I do urge them to be more entrepreneurial, to reach out to the public more, and to organise more gigs and tours outside of their university and the surrounding area. Experience is key, and it’s no coincidence that we now see three of the most active groups in the country – Out of the Blue, The Other Guys and All The King’s Men – now facing off in the final of the Voice Festival.

I understand that some groups sing a cappella for pleasure rather than to perform in front of large crowds and win competitions. To those groups I say keep doing what you’re doing and enjoy it, and you can largely ignore this article. But for those who want to win competitions and sing in front of large crowds, then its about more than just singing good music.

It’s time for the girls to step it up.

Who will reach the Final of the Voice Festival UK? Poll Results!

For the last month and a half, our readers have been voting on five separate polls, one for each Regional Round, and giving us their opinion on who they think will be competing in the final on 10 March in London. With the first Regional Round taking place tomorrow in London, our polls have finally closed and the results are in.

With a total of 206 votes cast in total, we firstly want to thank everyone for voting and sharing their opinion!

In the Oxford Regional, the overwhelming fan favourites are Out of the Blue, who received almost half of the entire share of votes. The 2009 Champions, who ended up finishing 2nd in the ICCA Final in New York that same year, have never failed to reach a VF-UK final and they must feel confident of maintaining this record, particularly with their success in Britain’s Got Talent in April and another sensational Edinburgh Fringe run in August. The group are really setting the standard for a cappella in the UK, and must be considered one of the favourites for the entire competition. Following them are the The Oxford Gargoyles with one fifth of the vote, and as I commented in my initial preview, are probably Out of the Blue’s main competition. They won the competition more recently than Out of the Blue, in 2010, but were beaten by the boys to the final last year and will be looking to even the score. Their unique style of a cappella will bring something different to the Oxford Round as always, and on their day, they are one of the best collegiate groups in the country and absolutely stand a chance. The Oxford Belles, The Alternotives and new boys The Ultrasounds all finished with a similar number of votes, but with only the Belles having reached the final before, all three groups will need to be on top form to progress in probably the toughest of all the Regionals. In The Pink gained the least amount of votes, and the girls in pink will be hoping their new blood will help them to spring a surprise.

 

According to our readers, the favourites to progress from the St Andrews Regional are The Other Guys, who secured one third of the overall vote. The group will feel confident after recent successes, particularly their viral video, Royal Romance and the resulting album, but the group have not qualified for the final since the inaugural competition in 2009, and therefore must up their game in order to progress. Their main rivals are officially the best all-female group in the UK, The Accidentals, who were the winners of this Regional last year and will feel confident of repeating this success, having now qualified for two years’ running. The Hummingbirds and The Alleycats are similarly favoured, with the Alleycats having qualified twice before. Interestingly, the two non-St Andrews groups, Choral Stimulation and newbies Aberpella, are the least-backed groups, but Choral Stimulation did win ‘Outstanding Performance’ last year and may well have a chance.

 

Last year’s finalists All The King’s Men are the favourites to qualify out of this weekend’s London Regional, managing to acquire over half of the overall vote. With the group set to go on tour to the US a week after the Regional, they will be hoping to go there with the prospect of a final to look forward to upon their return. They do, however, have more competition than this poll suggests. The Techtonics competed in the Vocal Marathon in Croatia last summer, and have also competed in the Voice Festival longer than their King’s College compatriots. They also won ‘Outstanding Performance’ last year and could stand a good chance. The other group who have reached the final before, Fitz Barbershop, will be hoping their migration from the defunct Cambridge Round will carry them to their second final. The King’s Chix and The Imperielles are the two all-female groups (interestingly no mixed groups in this Regional) and will want to defy the odds and impress enough to reach the final themselves.

 

In Birmingham, unlike the other three rounds, the fan favourite is less than obvious, although it does appear to be a two horse race between The Birmingham Songbirds and Sons of Pitches, with both groups claiming all but one vote in the course of the poll. And understandably so – both groups, unlike Voice Versa and 95 Keys, have competed in the competition before, albeit only once, and this experience could be absolutely crucial to their chances. It would be nice to see the Songbirds qualify, as the three favourites so far have been all-male groups, but it’s really a tough one to call. The two newcomer groups will undoubtedly learn from the experience and may even be good enough to make the final… Only time will tell.

 

The final Regional in Bristol also has an all-male group as the favourite – Semi-Toned have been working very hard since their inception, and despite being a relatively new group and first time competitors, are highly favoured, even over previous competitors The Sweet Nothings and The University of Bristol Barbershop Singers, who received the least amount of votes, alongside Bath’s first group Aquapella. Semi-Toned’s biggest competition is the competition-focused HotTUBBS, who seem to be favoured over their parent group, but in this brand new Regional, anything could happen.

 

So, according to our readers, the final on 10 March will consist of four all-male groups and one all-female group: Out of the Blue, The Other Guys, All The King’s Men, Semi-Toned and The Birmingham Songbirds. Surely our mixed groups will have something to say about that? Whatever happens, we wish every group the best of luck in the coming weeks, and look out for our event reviews as we find out our Final line-up!

The Sing-Off in the UK – A Viable Prospect or a Pipe Dream?

By looking at the statistics of this website, I am able to see several things: how many hits we get every day; which links on this site are clicked on; which posts have been viewed the most; and most interestingly, which search terms directed users to this website. There have been some obvious ones since we began in August – “Voice Festival UK 2012″ being the term most used to direct browsers to this particular site (closely followed by “UK University A Cappella Blog” – which should probably be top really, but that’s another issue) – but there have also been some strange ones along the way, such as “How to place a cappella singers on stage”, “Bruno Mars in UK” and, one of my favourites, “The Other Guys’ Not So Regal album”, either stemming from a disgruntled fan’s discontent at the St Andrews-based group’s new album, or from a confusion about the name, “Barely Regal”.

Either way, there have also been some very interesting and thought-provoking searches made, in order to get to this site. None so much as the latest one that popped up yesterday – “The Sing Off UK”. This got me thinking – how viable would a show such as The Sing-Off be in the UK, given the considerable gulf in quality and popularity between a cappella in the US and the UK?

Let’s firstly look at the stats. Reliable sources (i.e. that old Chestnut, Wikipedia) inform me that while Season 2 of the US version of the show consistently saw on average 8.5 million viewers, coming either 1st or 2nd in its timeslot every week, the third season was less successful, holding the attention of around 4.5 million viewers and falling to 4th on average in its timeslot, perhaps due to the longer season duration, with 11 episodes instead of 5 the previous year. Despite this decline, however, that’s still a lot of viewers, and indicates that there could be scope for a similar level of popularity in the UK.

Just look how other talent shows have fared – Simon Cowell’s empire, funded mainly by shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, has grown and grown in the past few years, while on the other channel, Strictly Come Dancing competes toe to toe every year with the former, and even beating it last year (which is probably fair enough, as the so-called ‘talent’ on the last series of The X Factor genuinely made me squirm every 5 seconds due to awful harmonies or off-pitch money notes). Such shows get 10 million viewers consistently every week, and regularly gain the most number of weekly viewers across the nation. And with newer shows set to be hits, such as BBC’s The Voice, based upon a thoroughly successful franchise that began in Holland a couple of years back, talent-based reality TV is (still) not going anywhere.

However, how many of you remember a little show called Last Choir Standing that premièred in 2008? Well, if you’re an Alleycat or a member of Cadenza you might have a recollection, but for the rest of you it probably passed by quietly without ever really affecting your life. Same here. Don’t get me wrong, Last Choir Standing is NOT The Sing-Off and differs in many ways, but essentially it was a very similar concept, which involved fifteen ‘choirs’ from around the UK battling out for a chance to perform at the Royal Variety Performance that year. The final, despite attracting 4.4 million viewers, was well behind The X Factor series of the time and was not renewed for a second season. While 4.4 million isn’t to be sniffed at, it didn’t quite catch the nation’s attention as much as other similar shows have done in the past.

This could be a simple marketing problem though – The Sing-Off is a catchy, competitive name, whereas Last Choir Standing, while retaining that competitive edge, mentions the word ‘choir’, which could well have led to a loss of hundreds, maybe millions of uninformed and uncultured viewers, who stereotype choirs as ‘boring’, ‘churchy’ and about as far from entertainment as possible. In fact, although it’s sad to think, such people make up the majority of modern day Britain. Alienating your average viewer before they’ve been given the chance to sample the show, which was actually quite far removed from what you might expect from a stereotypical ‘choir’ and closer to the type of talent we see on The Sing-Off than you might think, is not the best marketing strategy I have ever seen. So perhaps a show entitled The Sing-Off would have more success in the UK.

However, while talent shows are rife across the world at the moment, with everyone jumping at their chance to grasp their five minutes of fame, there is one important ingredient needed, and the clue is in the name – talent. And by this, I don’t mean that the quality of a cappella in the UK is lacking, despite the obvious deficiences in comparison to the US, but rather the quantity of a cappella in the UK. It’s all well and good for the US to air The Sing-Off, because every high school and college you can think of over there has a cappella groups coming out of their ears, and due to the popularity of the genre in the States, more and more graduates are forming their own groups post-university, as evidenced by only 6 of the 16 groups on last season’s show being based at a college or high school. However, such is not the case in Britain. While both the ICCA and VF-UK University Competion had a record number of participants this year, that record number is 150 in the US, while it’s only 26 over here. That’s a massive difference, especially when thinking about more than one series of a show – The Sing-Off. And yes, we do have non-university groups, like In The Smoke, The Swingle Singers and The Boxettes to name but three – but that number is nominal compared to what they have in America.

Another point is – do we really need another competition over here? It cannot be denied that a cappella is most popular in the UK at collegiate level, and so one would assume that the majority of groups applying for such a show would be collegiate groups, who have been competing against each other for the last three years in the Voice Festival (and in some cases in the ICCAs in 2007 and 2008). With one annual competition already established, is there enough room for another one, given the relatively small a cappella community in the UK?

However, there is one crucial element that ought to be taken seriously. A show like The Sing-Off would put a cappella firmly on the map in the UK. When Out of the Blue competed in Britain’s Got Talent, they were described as “completely different” to anything the judges had seen before and it was a travesty that they didn’t get through to the final, a statement echoed by irate Facebook fans, who created not one but two Facebook pages urging ITV to “Bring Back Out of the Blue!” The Other Guys also gained some modest publicity from their YouTube video ‘Royal Romance’, so clearly the public appreciate good a cappella and there is an audience for it – it’s just very few people know about it. Surely a show like The Sing-Off, even if it were only one for one season, and even if it were only mildly successful, would boost the reputation of not only certain a cappella groups in the UK, but also of a cappella itself and would most importantly encourage people to create groups of their own. The best case scenario would be a host of new a cappella groups in schools, universities and communities springing up and providing the willing public with a second marvellous season of The Sing-Off, not to mention providing the Voice Festival organisers with several brand new Regional Rounds to sort out.

As far as I know, there are no plans in the pipeline at the BBC (because it would more than likely be a BBC-produced show, rather than one for ITV unless Mr. Cowell got involved somehow) to create a British version of The Sing-Off, and perhaps it is a little early to think that such a show would be viable, given the limited number of groups around to apply for the show – let’s not forget that not all of them would be willing to participate. However, disregarding financial issues, something like The Sing-Off would only be a good thing for British A Cappella. It would build the reputation of the genre and groups within the genre, and essentially bring a cappella into the mainstream. I just doubt that the BBC are aware enough that a cappella exists to bring such a show to the table, and as such we may have to wait a little longer.

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.

Poll Results and Analysis: Which Type of A Cappella Do You Prefer?

Over the last couple of weeks, readers of UACUK have been voting on which type of a cappella they prefer. Below are the results in full.

All-male a cappella received the most amount of votes, winning almost two-thirds of the entire vote with 63%. Could this be partly to do with three all-male groups having more Facebook fans than the rest of the collegiate a cappella groups? Out of the Blue have the most fans, most likely to do with their recent Britain’s Got Talent success, with 12,848 at the time of writing. The Other Guys are next, following the success of their Royal Romance video, with 4,185. All The King’s Men, despite being newer than some other groups such as The Alleycats and The Oxford Belles, are in third place with 1,146. All these things suggest that all-male a cappella is definitely the viewer’s choice at the moment.

Mixed voice a cappella received almost one-third of the vote, however. Groups such as The Alleycats changed from all-male to mixed voice since their formation, and must have had some reason for doing so. The results suggests that when done well, mixed-voice a cappella can be very popular – for example, Cadenza, the current Voice Festival UK champions, are a mixed group, and their soloists in particular helped them to that honour.

Unfortunately, all-female a cappella received only 5% of the vote. With professional groups like The Boxettes becoming ever popular, why is it that collegiate all-female a cappella is so under appreciated? Indeed, The Accidentals were the only all-female group in the final of the Voice Festival UK earlier this year – could this be saying something not only about the popularity of all-female a cappella, but also the quality and technical proficiency?

Facts and Figures

Facebook Fans (at time of writing)

Out of the Blue – 12,848 (male)
The Other Guys – 4,185 (male)
All The King’s Men – 1,146 (male)
The Oxford Gargoyles – 696 (mixed)
The Oxford Alternotives – 519 (mixed)
The Accidentals – 453 (female)
The Alleycats – 409 (mixed)
The Fitz Sirens – 339 (female)
Cadenza – 294 (mixed)
Augmented Seven – 271 (mixed)
The Forget-Me-Nots – 257 (female)
Fitz Barbershop – 240 (male)
The Techtonics – 234 (male)
Choral Stimulation – 219 (mixed)
The Hummingbirds – 193 (female)
TUBBS – 167 (mixed)
The Oxford Belles – 118 (female)
Absolute Harmony – 100 (mixed)
The King’s Chix – 86 (female)
In The Pink – 32 (female)

Clearly the list is top heavy with male groups, and the most popular mixed groups (Gargoyles, Alternotives and Allleycats) have generally more fans than the most popular female groups (Accidentals, Sirens, Forget-Me-Nots). Could this have had an effect on the poll results?

VF-UK Finalists (winner in CAPS)

2011:
All-male: 2 (All The King’s Men; Out of the Blue)
Mixed: 2 (Augmented Seven, CADENZA)
All-female: 1 (The Accidentals)

2010:
Mixed: 3 (The Alleycats, Cadenza, THE OXFORD GARGOYLES)
All-male: 2 (Out of the Blue, Fitz Barbershop)
All-female: 2 (The Fitz Sirens, The Accidentals)

2009:
Mixed: 3 (The Alleycats, Cadenza, The Oxford Alternotives)
All-male: 2 (OUT OF THE BLUE, The Other Guys)
All-female: 1 (The Oxford Belles)

Several things could be taken into consideration here: firstly, no all-female group has ever won in the competition, which could pose part of the problem. Secondly, only two groups have never failed to qualify for the final – mixed voice Cadenza and all-male Out of the Blue. This would also certainly have an effect on which groups get seen more regularly at the fans and therefore acquire more fans. Thirdly, only 3 all-female groups (Accidentals, Sirens, Belles) have reached the final, compared to 4 all-male (OOTB, Other Guys, ATKM, Fitz) and 5 mixed groups (Augmented, Cadenza, Alleycats, Gargoyles, Alternotives). All telling statistics.

Poll Results

Do you have an opinion? Please please leave a comment below if you wish to express your agreement or your rage at the above analysis.