As of 2014, just under 23,000 men in the United States and Canada were 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. In June 2018, the society announced it would allow women to join as full members.
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 and many other organizations) being white-only at that time; SPEBSQSA officially lifted the requirement in 1963. Several international affiliate organizations, in countries around the world, add their own flavor to the signature sound of barbershop harmony.
The original name SPEBSQSA was intended as a lampoon on Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet agencies. Because of the 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 Societywas an officially recognized and sanctioned alternate. Members were encouraged 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 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.
A key aspect of the Society's mission is in the preservation of barbershop music. To this end, it maintains the Old Songs Library. Holding over 100,000 titles (750,000 sheets) this is the largest sheet music collection in the world excepting only the Library of Congress.
The "Barberpole Cat Program" is a collection of 12 songs (commonly known as "polecats") that are considered standard repertoire for every barbershopper ("Let Me Call You Sweetheart", "My Wild Irish Rose", etc.) Every member receives a booklet upon joining the society. The purpose of this collection is so that whenever any barbershoppers meet they will always have something ready to sing. The society has also published collections such as Strictly Barbershop.
Harmony Foundation International, a 501(c) not-for-profit organization, was incorporated in 1959 as a charitable subsidiary of the Barbershop Harmony Society; it raises financial support for the society's programs.
In 2003, in preparation for a new headquarters location, the Society sold both Harmony Hall, a historic lakefront mansion in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 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 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.
In June 2018, the society announced it would allow women to join as full members, with each chapter deciding whether to remain all-male or add a mixed or all-women's chorus. Since 2009, women had been allowed to join as associates.
To promote and improve barbershop singing, the society annually runs international and district-level contests for choruses and quartets.
When a quartet wins the international gold medal, the foursome are considered champions forever and may not compete again. A chorus that wins the gold, however, must sit out of competition for only two years and thus may compete for the gold medal again in the third year following their win.