From its March Madness influence to the stage at Carnegie Hall, the curious and exciting backstory of Varsity Vocals.
By Guang Ming Whitley | November 2, 2018
The 2018 season of Varsity Vocals was exciting as usual, with perennial favorites the SoCal VoCals taking home the top prize in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA). Iris from New York took first in The Open, and Legacy from Los Angeles won the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA).
Varsity Vocals, the world’s premier forum for competitive a cappella, has come a long way since its beginning.
In 1995, the ICCA was nothing more than a concept bandied about by recent college graduates Adam Farb and Deke Sharon. Farb, an alumnus of the Brown Derbies, and Sharon, alumnus of the Tufts Beelzebubs, were both instrumental in nurturing the burgeoning contemporary a cappella scene of the mid-1990s.
Farb loved his time in the Derbies and wanted to make a living in the collegiate a cappella world. "People thought I was crazy," he admits. Sharon was then producing the Contemporary A Cappella News and in the midst of founding the nonprofit Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA).
"Deke and I had a great collaborative relationship. We're both idea guys," says Farb. Sharon was dreaming of a tournament that riffed off the NCAA basketball tournament – the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (NCCA). He also envisioned a compilation album that would build fans for collegiate a cappella and encourage groups to elevate their recordings, which his wife dubbed "BOCA" (Best of College A Cappella). The only problem was that Sharon lacked the bandwidth to bring those concepts to fruition.
"I offered Farb both ideas (BOCA and NCCA) and helped him build them for free, asking for simply a donation to CASA in return," said Sharon. Though Sharon maintained a role in selecting BOCA tracks, his involvement with the NCCA ended once the competition went from idea to action. Sharon remained embedded in the a cappella community, however, and is now known as the "father of contemporary a cappella". He served as a consultant on the Pitch Perfect movies, and the reality show The Sing-Off.
With the NCCA, Farb was a one-man show. "I was only trying to make $35,000-$40,000 a year. I wasn't trying to get rich. I was trying to get by." He described the NCCA as a business with zero overhead. "It was just me. No staff. No equipment. I basically had an 800 number and a computer."
In his first year, Farb used a credit card to put a deposit down on the Lincoln Center. He didn’t have the money to pay the final bill, but had faith in the interest of collegiate groups. He believed that the carrot of getting to perform on a world-class stage would encourage groups to enter the competition. He was right. Farb subsequently held the second and third finals at Carnegie Hall.
During the first two years, Farb traveled to every show and joined in the after parties, which often involved a keg provided by the NCCA. "I was a year out of college. I knew people at every campus. I was having a good time in addition to running the competition." By the third year, the stress of running the NCCA was beginning to take a toll, and Farb hired producers to handle some of the events so he could travel less. "I just wore myself out," he admits.
In 1999, Farb lost steam and the NCCA stumbled. There was no final competition. He produced one show, the Masters of College A Cappella, and then regional producer TeKay produced the Southern Showcase before becoming the regional producer for the following six years. "I wanted out," Farb says, "I had spent six or seven years in the a cappella subculture and loved it. But I was trying to move on."
When Don Gooding offered to buy the NCCA and BOCA, Farb sold and permanently exited the a cappella community. Farb became involved in other projects and eventually became President/CEO of the largest provider of youth baseball tournaments in Northern California.
Don Gooding brought his background as a technology venture capitalist to the NCCA and BOCA. When he purchased the franchise from Farb, Gooding was already working full time in the a cappella world selling CDs (including BOCA) online through Mainely A Cappella. He had also started Hot Lips Records, and become a partner with Sharon and Ann Raugh in Contemporary A Cappella Publishing.
"I insisted that I buy BOCA and NCCA together. The NCCA wasn’t making a whole lot of money other than paying Farb some, but BOCA on the other hand looked like an opportunity." The purchase became part of Don’s private joke that he wanted to have an "a cappella empire". Don described the NCCA as an "early stage company" and "classic small business" where Farb was making an income by doing all of the work. Gooding instead chose to hire an executive director.
The search for a director led Don to Jessika Diamond. Diamond was the founder and producer of Northern Harmony, the first and at the time only Canadian a cappella competition. She was also working part time for Gooding at Mainely A Cappella, prodiving editing, writing, and web-related support. Diamond relocated to the Bay Area and immediately instituted changes to the NCCA. The after-party keg framework became a thing of the past: regional staff were instructed to stay away from post-show parties to avoid potential liability related to underage drinking. Because Diamond hired recent and current collegiate a cappella singers as regional producers, she instituted a conflict of interest policy to protect the NCCA’s reputation. She also required groups to audition to become part of the competition. Diamond was the only full-time employee. In her first year as director, the NCCA had a full slate of 25 shows with over 200 groups vying for 106 slots. In Diamond’s second year as director, the NCCA went international, with Canadian groups competing for the first time. The program was then rebranded as the ICCA. The ICCA consistently features groups from Canada and the United Kingdom, and in the past has had a few participants from Asia and South Africa.
In 2001, Don’s wife, Kate Gooding, contributed to the a cappella empire by founding the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) to run in parallel to the collegiate-level competition. For the first five years, the program held regional shows only, and had a small, dedicated following. The program has since grown to more than 200 competing groups and 30 shows each year, including both regionals and a final competition.
Diamond ran the ICCA for four seasons. Each year, "I worked seven days a week from Labor Day to finals in mid-April," Diamond says. That included booking 25 shows, finding 75 judges unaffiliated with the competing groups, making program books, conducting PR/marketing, and making travel arrangements. Like Farb, Diamond became burned out and ready to change her career path. She exited the a cappella world. Diamond eventually returned to Canada, where she now works as an event manager and awards producer.
In 2003, Amanda Newman was serving as the ICCA Midwest regional producer. When Gooding posted a job opening for executive director, she applied and was hired. "I really wanted to build something that was prestigious and big and authoritative, but still have shiny happy vibes of bringing groups together and having them network," Newman says.
Since its beginning, the ICCA struggled to turn a profit. When Newman came on board as executive director, she was determined to change that. "I hustled and scrimped and saved," she said. Back then, the Internet was nascent and there was no social media, so programs and advertisements had to be printed. Newman found the cheapest printer possible. She raised the entry fee for groups and ticket prices for attendees. "I did a lot of research into what other competitions did," Newman says. "No one likes to compare to show choir, but they were charging $25 a ticket."
Amanda also instituted a more granular judging rubric and changed the venue for the final competition. "Putting on a show at Carnegie Hall is a $100,000 expense. It wasn’t a sustainable model." The 2004 Finals were held as a Sunday matinee at the more reasonably priced Town Hall Theater. She also reduced performance time from 15 minutes to 12 minutes, enabling more groups to participate in each show and encouraging groups to cut down on transition time.
"Don entrusted me with a lot," Newman recalls. Gooding had also made it clear that he was going to exit the a cappella world in 2008. This gave Newman five years to run ICCA as its executive director before she was presented with the opportunity to purchase the ICCA, BOCA, and the growing ICHSA, all under the new umbrella company Varsity Vocals.
Newman bought the company. "I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to learn how to run a business without owning it first," she says. "Don let me take the reins."
Newman continued to serve as the ICCA executive director for two more years before moving to the role of executive director of Varsity Vocals. She then hired former Mid-Atlantic producer David Rabizadeh as ICCA Director. The role is now part-time. "During busy season it can be about 20 hours a week," says Rabizadeh. "Since 99% of the work we do is emails/phone calls, it can be done throughout the day. I think every one of our producers has full-time jobs and they coordinate events on lunch breaks and in between meetings. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it." Other than Newman, every employee of Varsity Vocals is part-time, and serves in part because of a passion for a cappella and a desire to stay connected to the a cappella community. "We’ve been lucky to have employees who love what they do and I expect them to be around for a very long time," says Rabizadeh.
As much as he loves a cappella and working with groups, Rabizadeh understands that he must view the ICCA as a business. "Once upon a time, all our events were at universities in large lecture halls. Now we’ve moved to professional venues. It is a much bigger responsibility to make sure we have all the technical requirements in these larger spaces. And keeping it within a budget that makes sense." Though regional competitions vary widely in attendance, Varsity Vocals ensures that every performance has a professional venue with a sound technician, as well as wireless microphones.
Rabizadeh initially managed this by fine-tuning where groups are assigned geographically and ensuring that "every group is assigned to somewhere that makes sense for their fans and audiences. We saw shows jump from 200 to 500 attendees literally overnight," David recalls.
It was an exciting time for the a cappella community, which was just then hitting mainstream. The movie rights to the 2008 book Pitch Perfect had been optioned and a screenplay was picked up by Universal. "They used ICCA in the script," Newman says. "They wanted an accurate representation of the a cappella world. We got to approve the use of name and likeness in the script and visited the set." In fact, Newman has a cameo as a judge in the opening scenes of Pitch Perfect.
Pitch Perfect became a surprise hit upon its release in 2012, and the ICCA received a significant bump. "An additional 60 groups applied to compete that year," Rabizadeh says. The season also had a boost in attendance. "People didn’t know it was a real thing." The ICCA pivoted to welcome newcomers, updating the website to be more accessible to the a cappella layperson as opposed to providing information for competitors. The ICCA was also featured in a docuseries. From 2014-2015, POP Network produced Sing It On, which followed collegiate groups as they prepared for and navigated the ICCAs, with Newman as co-executive producer.
In 2015, Varsity Vocals introduced the Gooding Cup, named in honor of Don Gooding and his wife, Kate. It bears the names of all the champions of the NCCA/ICCA dating back to the competition’s inception. Newman notes that, "Don was one of the first people in our community who had money to throw at it and was willing to. He was truly a benefactor for a cappella."
With Newman at the helm, the ICCA has tripled in size to 300 participating groups and moved from lecture to music halls. So what’s next? In 2017, Varsity Vocals introduced The Open, a summer competition that features the winners of the ICCA and ICHSA, as well as professional and semi-professional groups. Some groups formed just to compete for the $25,000 prize. "I want to give people an excuse to sing," Newman says. She most certainly has achieved that, with young singers "growing" through the program from ICHSA to ICCA to The Open. Newman emphasizes that providing high quality performance opportunities and offering fair and professional competitions are key. With these factors at the forefront, it's no wonder that Varsity Vocals has become an integral part of the a cappella experience.