The Barbershop Harmony Society, legally and historically named the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA), was the first of several organizations to promote and preserve barbershop music as an art form. Founded by Owen C. Cash in 1938, the organization quickly grew, promoting barbershop harmony among men of all ages. As of 2007, just under 30,000 men in the United States and Canada are members of this organization whose focus is on a cappella music. The international headquarters was in Kenosha, Wisconsin for fifty years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007.
A parallel women's singing organization, Sweet Adelines International (SAI) was founded in 1945. A second women's barbershop harmony organization, Harmony, Inc., broke from SAI in 1959 over an issue of racial exclusion, with SAI (like SPEBSQSA) being a white-only organization at that time. Several international affiliate organizations, in countries around the world, add their own flavor to the signature sound of barbershop harmony. See barbershop music for more on these organizations.
The original intention of the name SPEBSQSA was a lampoon on the New Deal alphabet agencies. Because of name's length and the difficult-to-pronounce acronym, society staff and members often refer to SPEBSQSA as The Society. For decades, SPEBSQSA was the official name, while the Barbershop Harmony Society was an officially recognized and sanctioned alternate. There was encouragement to use the alternate name, because it was felt that the official name was an in-joke that did not resonate outside the Society. In mid-2004, faced with declining membership, the Society adopted a marketing plan that called for using "Barbershop Harmony Society" consistently and retaining the old name for certain legal purposes.
The old official name spelled "barber shop" as two words, while barbershop is generally used elsewhere.
In reference to the acronym SPEBSQSA, The Society has said "attempts to pronounce the name are discouraged". Unofficially, it is sometimes pronounced as if it were spelled "Spebsqua."
In 2003, in preparation for a new headquarters location, the Society sold both Harmony Hall, a historic lakefront mansion, and its nearby facility (known as Harmony Hall West) located in a strip mall which the Society purchased in 1976 and renovated. HHW had housed finance, merchandising, IT and membership. Operations and staff from both buildings were consolidated into a remodeled HHW.
In late 2004, the Society established Barbershop Harmony Society as its new "brand name," with a logo and identity program released in 2005. Although the legal name remained SPEBSQSA, Inc., the decision was controversial, as many members felt that the new name did not reflect a mission of preservation and encouragement of the style. Many members were concerned that the term "quartet" had been dropped, fearing a movement in the direction of choral singing and downplaying quartet singing.
In 2006 the Society announced plans to move its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee. In August 2007, the Society completed the relocation to 110 Seventh Avenue North, in Nashville.
The 2008 International Contest and Convention was held in Nashville from July 2 to 5 with fifty-one quartets and twenty-eight choruses contending. The Quartet Quarter Finals, Quartet Semi-Finals, Association of International Champions (AIC) Show, Chorus Contest, The Bank of America Collegiate Contest, and the Quartet Finals were all webcasted live.
When a quartet wins the international gold medal, they are considered champions forever and do not compete again. A chorus that wins the gold, however, must sit out of competition for two years, and thus may compete for the gold medal again in the third year following their win.
(for a complete list of international champions, see List of quartet champions by year)
For purposes of administration (particularly of local schools and contests) the society is organized into geographical districts as illustrated.