A cappella groups go commercial

Channel-surfing Yalies may soon be surprised to hear the familiar tones of the Duke’s Men at the beginning of a new show on CNBC.

The all-male singing group recorded a jingle for the network’s business program “Fast Money” at the CNBC international headquarters in New Jersey on Monday evening. The CNBC performance is part of a growing trend among campus a cappella groups, which reported an increase of commercial gigs in their itineraries that marks a break from their typical schedules of campus concerts and private performances.

The Duke’s Men (shown rehearsing) will appear on CNBC this month, part of a new trend of commercialization among the University’s a cappella groups.
Lea Yu
The Duke’s Men (shown rehearsing) will appear on CNBC this month, part of a new trend of commercialization among the University’s a cappella groups.

While many a cappella singers said they hope to have more commercial opportunities in the future, some said they doubt all singing groups can share this spotlight because the entertainment industry is primarily interested in groups that embody the old Ivy League aura. Other students expressed reservations over the commercialization of Yale a cappella in general.

The Duke’s Men business manager Adam Metzger ’08 said the group’s performance of “Carol of the Trades,” a parody of “Carol of the Bells,” will air on CNBC in December.

“This will doubtless open many doors for us,” Metzger said.

But Metzger, who worked at CNBC last summer and helped to arrange the collaboration, said the challenges the group has encountered along the way — including recording studio sessions during the approaching exam season — makes it less likely that a large number of a cappella groups will partake in similar commercial opportunities.

“It requires already-formed connections and a lot of finesse and persistence,” he said.

The Duke’s Men, who usually perform at schools, country clubs and private parties, are currently featured on the CNBC Web site.

Elliot Watts ’09, a member of the Duke’s Men, said the experience has been exciting for the group, but some aspects of the filming — including being asked to repeat the same 10-second sequence of their jingle for over an hour — were more tedious than he expected.

“Getting prepared for the filming was really my favorite part of it,” he said.

Watts said opportunities such as the CNBC experience are stepping stones for singers who aspire to work in the music industry.

“People can use this as a springboard for successful careers,” he said.

Metzger said “Fast Money,” which was launched this summer and will move to a daily primetime slot in January, may be interested in featuring the Duke’s Men next year as well.

The Duke’s Men television debut is just one example of a broader trend toward more Yale a cappella appearances in the popular market.

The Whiffenpoofs, an all-senior, all-male a cappella group, made their second appearance on the CW primetime drama “Gilmore Girls” in November. The group has also been featured on the NBC political drama “The West Wing” and NBC’s “The Today Show.”

“As the group has been getting more exposure from our far-reaching tours, we have been getting noticed by a lot more people in different media industries,” Whiffenpoofs business manager Mark Wittman ’07 said.

The all-senior, all-female singing group Whim ’n Rhythm recently performed on a New Haven news station, the group’s business manager Jessica Thomas ’07 said. The group was also featured this year in a controversial DVD produced by HBO sexual therapy talk show hostess Susan Block ’77.

Nika Hasegawa ’06, who was a member of Whim ’n Rhythm when the footage for the DVD was shot, said the opportunity was pitched to the group as an informal event for Yale alumni in Los Angeles. She said the group was not informed of the nature of the production — which required the singers to appear in revealing period costumes — or the provocative marketing plans for the DVD.

Hasegawa said the group is currently involved in “legal issues” concerning the event.

While several members of other Yale a cappella groups said they believe commercial opportunities will provide exposure for the a cappella style, many said these opportunities are generally offered only to certain singing groups.

Rachel Butler ’08, the music director of the Jewish singing group Magevet, said some a cappella groups are not tailored for appearances in the entertainment industry. Because Magevet’s mission is centered on spreading culture, it is an unlikely candidate to be offered such opportunities, she said.

“I can’t imagine anyone even wanting anything like that,” she said. “It’s a different scene.”

Cassie Mitchell ’09, the business manager for the all-female group Something Extra, said the entertainment industry’s recent interest in a cappella reflects a renewed interest in “Old Yale.” But Mitchell said this interest will likely only benefit all-male singing groups, because the general public does not associate female groups — which only started appearing on campus after the University began to admit women in 1969 — with an aura of college tradition.

“People who see a men’s a cappella group from Yale will immediately draw a connection between the group and what the Ivy League used to look like,” she said.

Mitchell said she hopes that female singing groups will start getting the same opportunities as their alumni bases become more established.

Some students said these commercial gigs will spark a negative effect on a cappella if it causes groups to drift far from campus.

Nick Bayless ’10 said that although he thinks commercial opportunities are a good way for a cappella groups to promote the singing style beyond the perimeters of college campuses, he hopes the attraction of the entertainment industry will not influence groups to cut down on the number of concerts they hold on campus. He said groups like the Yale Alley Cats or the Yale Spizzwinks(?), which have the University in their group name, need to stay grounded in their college identity.

“They need to maintain a link to campus if they’re going to mark themselves as being from Yale,” Bayless said.

Please see http://pantheon.yale.edu/~shm22/unediteddukecarol.mp3 for the Duke’s Men rendition of the “Fast Money” jingle.

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