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Robert Dietz has an excellent blog in which a recent posting urging a professional arranger category in the CARAs has created a bit of a flurry of discussion. Probably because I said it's a bad idea.

Yeah, me and my big mouth.

What could be wrong with a best professional arranger category? Wouldn't that be a good thing all around?


Let's start with the fact that artistic awards of any kind are incredibly stupid. You can like Mozart more than Beethoven, but you will never prove that one is superior. Even the apparently harmless act of trying moves one ever closer to a belief in ultimate standards and measures for art, which is a selfish, misguided, elitist premise. One person likes a painting, another doesn't. Don't give it a second thought.

Yes, there is a way to measure science, and math, and even to some extent history, but these involve finite measures and rules. Facts. Music is an affair of the heart, and no one should tell anyone else what chord they should love or what lyric they should despise.

However, there are two limited reasons why an artistic award is of value: promotion and motivation.

Winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards means increased ticket sales in perpetuity. Vox One used to create "CARA winner" stickers for their albums, which helped them stand out at jazz festivals and boosted sales. All good.

Moreover, having a cappella awards legitimizes our form in some people's eyes. Proves it's established, organized, thoughtful, with it's own code of standards and accepted practices. That perception promotes a cappella in general, regardless who wins.

As for motivation, I'm speaking primarily of scholastic awards. We all know that the kid who wins the spelling bee hasn't really done anything that benefits humanity, but having thousands of kids work on their spelling has value.

You can't get good grades in a cappella, but you can win awards for the hard work you put into your group's album. And we do want college groups putting work into their albums. Does anyone remember collegiate albums before the CARAs? Pretty much everything was a yearbook: one or two takes, gathered around a few mics, sung in the school chapel or small studio at year's end. A yearbook photo. Not something you'd want to buy if you didn't know the group members.

Now collegiate groups take deep pride in their recordings, and if there are 1,000+ collegiate groups out there and each learns 20 songs a year, if the CARAs award motivates just 5% of those songs on upcoming albums to be original arrangements by group members (a modest percentage) then we're looking at 1,000 new arrangements that wouldn't have been there before.

And that's why I started the CARAs 20 years ago: promotion and motivation.

A professional arranging award serves no purpose, other than to shift a little future work in the winner's direction... but probably not generate more overall work. In this way I see it as different from the academy awards: people will go out of their way to see the Best Picture, whereas I don't think anyone is going to say "hey, let's commission an arrangement now. I wasn't thinking of doing that, but this guy won an award."

Which means it's all ego stroking.

And I'm thinking professional arrangers don't need their egos stroked. Moreover, I would hate to systematically reinforce any kind of tiered system of arrangers (e.g. those who won, and those who haven't.) I hear barbershoppers introduced all the time by the awards they've won. Yuck.

But how is it fair if there's a scholastic category and not a pro category? We don't have professional spelling bees. Once you're a professional, you have all the motivation you need: your paycheck.

And shifting funds from one arranger's paycheck to another's is no reason to have an artistic award. Don't get me wrong - I'll bet I'd benefit - as would a handful of other pros. Same with pro a cappella producers: the same five or so guys would probably win 80% of the awards. What does that get us? A more insular community. I'm against that. Our work stands on its own: we have recordings and videos. We don't need trophies.

Let the open market bring new arrangers every year, and let's not have a handful of well meaning CARAs voters from within our closest ranks reinforce "the best" from their insider perspective. Just as we don't want teachers to teach to a test, we don't want arrangers to make any decisions based on what they think the awards committee will like. That's the kind of thing that begins to stifle creativity and risk-taking.

Perhaps I think about awards a bit too much as a steward of the a cappella community, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. As such, I think any awards should be limited to cases where they provide significant value, and the rest of the time we should remain in the big, happy, messy world where some people like something and others don't.

And if I want another trophy (who doesn't?) maybe I'll join my daughter's soccer league. I'm not gonna lie: I'd be a heck of a goalie. Have you seen those little nets?

[Agree? Disagree? Post your comments below.]