Straight No Chaser

 Did you read Rich Greenfield’s report on A&R?

This guy is on a tear. Seemingly every week this Pali Research analyst tears the major labels a new asshole. It would have to be an outsider, because those involved in the business are convinced their shit doesn’t stink. But it does.

In his most recent report, Rich breaks down the source of the Top Ten SoundScan albums and reveals that only three were A&R driven, found and developed by the major labels. Rich ask the question, "What do all those label A&R people actually do at the major music labels these days?"

We know the era of the all powerful A&R man is history. Shit, does any A&R person even have signing power anymore? Seems like deals are made between Chairmen/Presidents and attorneys. Which begs the question, WHAT ARE THEY MISSING?

Have you gotten the e-mail about Straight No Chaser?

You wouldn’t know it from the major labels, or the music television stations, but a cappella is burgeoning, seemingly every institution of higher living has a group, which competes. And those songs, readily available P2P, are GOOD! Shit, I’ll add what I wrote about college a cappella at the end of this missive, just ONE of many times I wrote about this music during the Napster era (you can cut to the chase by starting with chapter 6). Why is VH1 promoting shows with faded celebrities when they could feature an a cappella competition a la "American Idol"!

Despite the ignorance of the powers-that-be, a cappella is breaking big this holiday season, on YOUTUBE!

You don’t need to be approved by an executive afraid to say yes, you don’t have to play the game, you just have to put your music up on the Web, and if it’s good, people will FIND IT!

As of this moment, Straight No Chaser’s rendition of "12 Days of Christmas" has been viewed 4,519,158 times. Shit, developing artists at major labels don’t have anywhere NEAR this exposure. Why couldn’t anybody at a major label sign THIS??

Because it’s not cool. But it’s oh-so-great.

Fire up your browser, go to:, check it out.

The album is out of stock, the track is not available on iTunes. It should be on sale at the Apple Store. But it’s not only about sales, people aren’t watching this video because they hate it, they’re excited. There could be an a cappella Christmas tour, a la Trans-Siberian Orchestra, if only there were some innovation in this business, if only people were willing to think outside the box.


"Best Of College A Cappella"
(written 11/2/2000)


In 1962 my parents build an addition to our split level house.

My father said he didn’t need a fancy home up on Skytop Drive. He didn’t need to move. He could make our house big and fancy enough. And with the money he saved we could have a high quality of life. Since life was really about going out to dinner and traveling.

Suddenly in our backyard we had a miniature construction site. A mini-backhoe came and dug a hole. I was waiting for it to be trapped inside like Mike Mulligan. Alas, this did not happen.

A frame was erected. Concrete was poured. Walls went up. Holes were punched with axes from the kitchen and living room into this new space. And after a few months, there was a glorious area behind our home that to this day is known as the "new room".

Of course, the edifice is only half. You’ve got to fill it up with furniture. To assist us in this process, my parents hired Arnie the interior decorator. Arnie had a boyfriend before anybody was out of the closet. It was clear that he was gay, but forty years ago, this wasn’t discussed out loud. One just referred to it obliquely, with a snicker. But this wasn’t the characteristic that made the biggest impression on our family. Rather that was the bathtub serving as a planter in his front yard. We couldn’t get over this.

Arnie would come to the house. Furniture arrived. And didn’t arrive. My father got frustrated one evening on the phone and told him something my older sister has never forgotten. "Arnie, when you were circumcised, they threw away the wrong piece!"

But eventually an accommodation was reached. I don’t think my parents were ever really happy with the furniture, but they were through arguing.

There was this one table that sat next to the faux leather couch. It had a big round leather patch. Which I could never figure out. Upon this, a lamp was placed. On the lefthand side, magazines were laid out in two rows. "The New Yorker". And "Time".

Not long thereafter an issue of Henry Luce’s weekly arrived with only a question on the cover. Upon a black background. "Is God Dead?"

That was the sixties for you. Everything was up for grabs. You think the nineties were forward-looking, with all the technological gains? This was nothing compared to the sixties. Where on EVERY front progress was being made. Social as well as technological.

Not long thereafter I started to read "Time". They’d have an occasional article on the Beatles. On a popular culture trend of interest to me.

In high school I read more of the magazine. And in college got a subscription.

But in 1977 I switched allegiance. Turns out that magazine with the funny name, which was referred to in a Paul Simon song, was MUCH better. I dropped "Time". I became a "Newsweek" subscriber.


I still miss "Time". I used to read it on AOL when it was available, before they ankled their deal, realizing that AOL was building a megabrand on their back. I still check it out when I see it at people’s houses, at the library. And what’s stunning is that "Time" seems to have realized that "Newsweek" is better. Because they’ve gone on to rip off every one of "Newsweek"’s concepts. There are winners and losers listed up front. And a compilation of quality humorous material from other publications.

This is the can’t miss page of "Newsweek". Just before the hard news. About twenty five pages into the magazine. It eclipses the "Conventional Wisdom" chart. It’s the one thing I look forward to every week. It’s entitled "PERSPECTIVES".

This week at the top of the page there’s a cartoon of Cheney and Dubya. Dick is asking "Are you worried about the electoral college?" Smiling, beaming, out of it George looks off into intermediate space as he’s wont to do and says "No. I’ll join a frat."


The apotheosis, the peak, the high water mark. Was May 1970. Kent State. That’s when it was all crystalized. That despite all youth protest, the old men in suits in Washington still had contempt for them and really weren’t listening.

As a result, students went nuclear on campuses from coast to coast. Classes stopped. In many cases, finals were cancelled. Students may not have been able to take over the government, but they did a good job of taking over academia. By time they were done they’d wrestled all kinds of concessions from the protectors of the Ivory Tower. Women’s studies. African studies. Not only curriculum changes, but graduation requirements.

The materials mailed to me with my college acceptance contained science and language requirements. But that was before the revolution. They were all cast aside and when I entered in September 1970, all one had to do to graduate was take one semester of English, fulfill one’s major requirements and take the required number of credits.

Attending college in this era one was confronted with a schizophrenic environment. You had the freshmen, who’d been living the revolution of the sixties in the suburbs and cities. Yet at academe, in the middle of nowhere, there were students seemingly lost in the early sixties. With sweaters and Weejuns.

A group of these college relics appeared at some function during orientation. It may have been the bogus bash up at Breadloaf. As the late summer sun sunk, after we’d picnicked on paper plates, eight upperclassmen appeared and sang classics from the forties and fifties a cappella. If I was really thinking, I would have dropped out at that very moment. This was not somewhere I belonged. The odds of me fitting in here were almost nil. This may have only been three hundred miles from the Fillmore East, but it felt like two thousand light years.


And now we should have the obligatory update. How the backwoods people were pulled into the future. How change was complete.

Ironically, in the ensuing thirty years, the opposite has occurred.

God is not dead, he’s more alive than EVER! Despite science proving evolution a fact, complete states refuse to acknowledge it. Every public figure, whether it be politician or basketball player or singer, thanks God for their success at every opportunity.

God came back in the late seventies. That’s about the same time the pendulum swung back in academe. Graduation requirements are more rigid, more heinous than EVER before. At my alma mater, under the aegis of the concept of "core curriculum", one has to take a slew of courses in numerous disciplines.

They may have abolished fraternities at my school, but elsewhere it’s no longer the sixties and the seventies. When no self-respecting, hip teenager would go Greek. Rather people CLAMOR for admission to houses, their acceptance or rejection seemingly as important as getting into the institution to begin with.

And stunningly, a cappella groups are back too.


Before one of the World Series games, the national anthem was sung by ‘N Sync.

The act was announced to a chorus of boos. Mets fans wanted none of this prissy bullshit. But when they were done, there was a thunderous applause. Much heavier than one EVER gets for "The Star Spangled Banner". Because these kids can SING!

Now maybe in concert, these boy bands are singing to tape. So they can dance. But then you’ll see them alone on a stage. On TV. Some awards show. And it will be like a chorus of angels come down from heaven to serenade us. It’s SO good that one wants to believe it’s not real. And they didn’t write the songs. The lyrics can be vapid. But somehow it’s incredibly satisfying.


Sometimes when you’re searching for something on Napster you come across something you’ve never heard of. Now song titles can’t be copyrighted. Therefore, you end up with many songs that have the same title that sound nothing like what you’re familiar with. However, there is a law saying that once something is recorded and released, anybody can do a version of a song, as long as they pay a license fee. This is called a compulsory license. As in you MUST grant it, you’ve got no choice. Now we all know there are multiple versions of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". The original by Gladys Knight. The monster remake by Marvin Gaye. The swamp rock version played by Creedence that rock radio plays more now than when it was current. But did you know there’s another version of the Backstreet Boys’ "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)"? Neither did I. But searching for the original version of this newly classic version I came across one by the UVA Hullabahoos.

At first my eyes tricked me. I saw the word "Hullabaloo". I thought of the midsixties music show. But no, this was different.

I downloaded this track. After all, it didn’t cost me anything other than a minute or two. Then I double-clicked on it and heard a group of male college students doing an a cappella version of the boy band hit.

And it sounded almost as good. A bit of the magic was gone. Yet all the ersatz instrumental vibe was absent. It was just the SONG!

So then I went back to Napster. And just plugged in "a cappella". And then I came up with my favorite track of the week. More satisfying than anything I heard on the U2 album. It’s the Rochester Yellowjackets’ version of "Sweet Home Alabama".

You’ve got one dude singing the bass. A choir singing the riff. And then the imitation Ronnie Van Zant says "TURN IT UP"! Which if you know your rock lore, had nothing to do with the volume of the record, rather this was just Van Zant’s instruction to producer Al Kooper for more volume in his headphones. There’s not an instrument on the record. But somehow the groove is nailed. It’s a weird combo of the record and the song. And it’s pure magic.

And searching the Napster results, I saw that many of the tracks featured the word BOCA. It took me a couple of days and some web-surfing to decode this term. Turns out BOCA stands for "Best Of College A Cappella". You see every year they put out a record. You can buy it on amazon.


Before she became a star. Before she made it and then promptly went back to obscurity. Paula Cole released an album on Imago. And there’s one phenomenal track on it. Entitled "I Am So Ordinary". She’s got a college boyfriend, she loves him, is dedicated to him, would do anything for him. But he’s having a fling with somebody better-looking than she is. Paula sees her on the back of his motor scooter, where she used to ride. He introduces the new paramour not her to his parents. The tune is so real, so heartfelt, you can’t resist it. I downloaded a live version. It works.

A couple of years later, on Warner Brothers, Paula released a track that broke her through. I never liked that one. "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" But there was a follow-up played incessantly that I just loved hearing. There was something about the chorus. The change. The way she sang it so exuberantly.

But as great as Paula’s version is, it’s got nothing on the one by the Tufts Amalgamates.

Oh, that’s not true. Paula’s is better. But even though I’ve seen Paula up close and personal backstage her record is something bulletproof. Something upon an altar I can’t touch. Whereas I can reach out and examine the a cappella version by this girl group from the Boston area’s third best university. I always thought that a cappella was a male bastion. But it seems that political correctness has had one positive effect. Allowing women into the hallowed a cappella hall.

And there’s a girl group version of "You Oughta Know". I played it when I wrote about BMG and Napster. Couldn’t get that line "Did you forget about me Mr. Duplicity" out of my brain.

I loaded up tunes on my Rio. Stretched to "Invisible Touch", which I thought I never had to hear again, but this a cappella version worked. Then there was the version of "True Colours". And "Meet Virginia", where I could make out every lyric. And "Possession". And "Sexual Healing". And "Our Lips Are Sealed". I took my Rio to bed. Lay in the dark listening to these a cappella versions. I felt a member of a tribe. The singers although good were never going to be famous. They were doing it for the pure love of the music. The joy of singing. The incredible warmth in your heart when you sing a great song.


One rainy Sunday afternoon in the sixties I made my mother play every original cast album in search of the track that turned me on to music.

We started about one. But it wasn’t until the sun was setting on this horridly bleak day that I heard it. My mother hadn’t recognized it from my humming. But when it came over the Columbia stereo I jumped up like Mr. Smith in Utah and said THIS IS IT!

That song was "With A Little Bit Of Luck" from the "My Fair Lady" original soundtrack.

That was a different era. Before music blew up. Before it was about self-contained acts writing their own tunes and becoming cultural icons. Show tunes had been around for eons. They were part of folklore. This is how stories were told prior to recording devices. People didn’t need to see Barbra in the role. Just hearing the local favorite belt out the tune was enough.

After all, after you strip away the fame, what are you left with, but the SONG!

A song you can sing to yourself anywhere. Without needing a Walkman, Rio, CD player or Napster. It’s in your brain. You can whip it out in your bed, in your hometown or in the Alps. It works everywhere. And when somebody else knows the tune and is singing along too, it’s one of the all time human highs.

They said karaoke would never work in the U.S. We weren’t Japanese. We didn’t share the same culture. We didn’t want to go to bars and sing, we wanted to go to arenas and listen.

But one of my most hilarious moments of the past couple of years was trying to sing backup between laughing fits as this dude I went to Mammoth with sang "Rock Lobster" in the karaoke bar. Hell, MTV got a long run with "Say What Karaoke?" One of the cheapest shows to produce ever! As cheesy as the price. Yet kids were RIVETED!

Boy bands came back. Because deep inside people know the value of a song.

Back when a cappella was king. The late fifties. Things weren’t that different from today. With everybody joining a frat or sorority and going to costume parties. A cappella has come back too. Only problem is that seemingly no one in the major record business has realized. They need something trendier.

With a reasonable marketing push, an a cappella album could sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Maybe even go gold or platinum. And the singers could tour endlessly. For fifteen to twenty five dollars everyone but the hippest of the hip would go to be amazed at the great voices and arrangements. Of everything from U2 to the Indigo Girls. From Seal to Bruce Springsteen to Matchbox Twenty.

We’ve come full circle. Capitalize on the cultural change.

Or, even if you don’t want to take action, download some of these tracks. You’ll get a smile on your face when you listen. You’ll be satisfied.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.