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Niche Is Nice

December 21, 2009

beards.jpegSince the publication of Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail a few years ago, niche concepts and organizations have become more accepted and even celebrated in culture. The public isn't so surprised about the existence of tiny splinter groups and weird cultural interests than they used to be. Some niches are nichier than others though. Selling w-scraped oboe reeds made with goldbeater skin or running a dance studio dedicated to a genre from a tiny Pacific island, might seem like losing propositions. But these days -- thankfully -- these kinds of activities are flourishing, perhaps more than ever before. Hooray for the Internet!

The enrapturing 30-strong, San Francisco vocal ensemble The Conspiracy of Beards is a perfect example of a "micro niche" that works.

The ensemble, which I experienced in concert for the first time on Saturday night at The Rickshaw Stop in Hayes Valley, occupies a very specific niche. The group is all-male, a cappella and focuses solely on singing vocal arrangements of the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Despite the narrow constraints of its makeup and mission, the group seems to have a large and enthusiastic local following. The niche serves The Beards well -- it's so precise that it helps the group build a strong image and make a virtue out of its narrow-mindedness. Plus, the singers all look like they're having a terrific time on stage. They look sharp in their ramshackle, "garage sale-chic" suits and assorted fedoras. Many of them, though not all, even have beards. The arrangements of Cohen's repertoire are simple yet soulful. The harmonies are basic and the melodies come out strongly. The vocal parts share the glory - sometimes the melody is in the tenor line, at other times in the baritone, and sometimes it's in the bass. The Beards also make an appealing sound. They sing tunefully, yet the unrefined strength of the voices brings to mind a group of men singing around a piano in a bar after a soccer match. In short, the group is great fun to watch in action.

The Beards' niche is I think the main factor that draws people in. The Rickshaw Stop concert was packed and people reacted thunderously to the ensemble. I was so moved by the performance that I started trying to think of ways to infiltrate the group without having to go through a sex change. And I'd like to date every one of the singers.

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