Started in 2011 on a shoestring budget with seven enthusiasts, SING! Toronto Festival has become the largest a cappella festival on the planet and is now lending its expertise and the SING! brand to a cappella festivals in the US, Mexico, and the UK.
Today, in its 8th year, the Toronto festival spans 10 days, running May 24 through June 2, with hundreds of singers performing at free and ticketed concerts and workshops in downtown venues, but centred in the quaintly chic and fashionable Distillery District.
The most visible face that is driving the SING! brand is Pat Silver, an iron-willed woman with seemingly inexhaustible energy and a natural gift for forging alliances.
An American who came to Canada to further a romance, her background had its start as a radio and TV producer. With an ability to play multiple instruments, she toured as a musician in Canada, and then worked at the CBC publicizing Glenn Gould (when he was producing radio docs for the Corp.). She has also played the part of a professional clown and went on to open her own talent agency (Sphere Entertainment), which she sold before retiring to devote herself to promoting the interests of a cappella.
Truth be told, this commitment also involves promoting son John-Michael (Erlendson), who performs in not one but three all-vocal groups, along with his wife, Elana Steingart (both of whom also maintain full-time professional careers outside music).
The premise behind SING! is to promote a form of music that “illustrates that the voice has no limits – knows no constraints of genre, language or cultural background” and “foster new and revitalized patronage for the vocal arts.”
Last year, the Toronto events attracted audiences numbering 17,000 and, by the organizers’ numbers, had an economic impact of $3.5-million.
Not bad for a festival held together by two part-timers, alliances with a wide net of suppliers, media sponsors and the support of Canadian Heritage, Ontario Creates, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. Slaight Music is in again this year as the sponsor of the SING! Festival Legacy Award.
Bottom line, SING! Festival starts its year without any firm commitment of funding and has to start from ground zero. It’s no easy task.
But that’s only half of it.
Last year, SING! launched its brand within the hugely successful Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The SING! tent, so to speak, works in partnership with theSpaceUK, the largest presenter of programming to the Edinburgh event that works across eight venues in Scotland’s capital city. It is also an organization that has made a significant commitment to a cappella. Silver approached the production company specialising in live theatre, music and event production a few years back “and they were very supportive and have turned out to be fabulous to work with,” says Silver.
The SING! component within Fringe is self-organized, with the Toronto team responsible for booking acts, logistics, funding, marketing and advertising, and selling tickets directly through venue box-offices, and through the Fringe Festival ticket outlets. Silver has made sure that other a cappella acts appearing at the festival from various countries can benefit from the SING! marketing and advertising brand, but the SING! bookings are entirely made up of Canadian a cappella groups and singers.
Earlier this year, SING! expanded its reach with concerts in Puerto Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta and Mexico City, working with local media and some of Mexico’s a cappella singing groups. In the relatively small town of Nuevo Vallarta, the concert included the 40-person PV Chamber Orchestra, attracting a paying audience of more than 500, and in Mexico City, SING! partnered with Comunidad Betel–one of the largest synagogues in that country. For this, SING! augmented Canada’s Ruach Singers, an eight-voice vocal group that specializes in performing traditional Hebrew songs set to contemporary arrangements. Plans are afoot to expand SING! footprints in Puerto Vallarta soon.
There’s also a whole lot of SING! singing festivals taking place in Texas, where the SING! Toronto board-of-directors has an agreement with an independent organization with its own board. SING! Toronto has two of its members on the Texas edition of SING! and an agreement to employ as many Canadian singers as possible. So far, SING! Texas has staged festivals and events in cities that include Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.
Over the past eight years, the SING! board has created a brand, and with-it expertise in organizing staging, marketing, booking and advertising a cappella festivals. Each market it works in uses a different mix of elements. Future expansion of the brand and its aims in promoting the music style and Canada’s a cappella community is under discussion with Asia included in its global ambition.
“The idea here is to mine our expertise and innovation of ideas of what we have here and take it across borders,” Silver explains. "The benefits and beneficiaries are the groups, which is wonderful. Our mandate is to support Canadian artists and have them being paid to perform across the globe. Each territory they perform in means more downloads, more Facebook ‘likes’, more people looking at them on Instagram, seeing them perform. That’s one piece of it.
“The second piece is that in a larger sense we are helping to support and develop an audience for a cappella music worldwide. We are really the only game in Canada. There’s nothing near what we do here anywhere else. There are some three-day festivals, and a one-day festival in BC, which was ours by the way. So, we have 17 board of directors here with a vested interest in the arts, and we have made a big imprint that can only become even bigger in promoting Canada’s a cappella singers and expanding global audiences for a cappella singers to appear in front of. It’s a win-win situation.”
Beyond this, a number of emerging artists who started at SING! have gone on to tour internationally and earned accolades in the media. Countermeasure is a great example. They started in the first SING! as a young ensemble. They now are headlining festivals in the UK, Japan, and the US, playing major concert halls including the Kennedy Center in Washington.
On a final note, Silver pumps the fact that “a cappella is a rising trend. Disney is now touring its own a cappella production, DCappella. Octet, a new show is opening off-Broadway, the three Pitch Perfect movies brought in more than US$500 million at the box office, and Pentatonix continues to hit the top of the charts.”
– SING! Toronto Festival opens tonight with shows at Young People’s Theatre and The Jason George, and runs through June 2. Further information about the schedule of events, festival passes, and event tickets can be found on the org’s website.