Business is looking good for two UCSC students
Fingers were crossed, breaths held in, and nervous smiles exchanged in a silence that seemed to swallow the room. After months of rigorous preparation, seconds separated two UC Santa Cruz students from their $12,000 grand prize.
On Friday evening, May 21, students, faculty and community supporters congregated at Terra Fresca for the final round of UCSC's second annual Business Plan Competition. Founded last year by a group of students in collaboration with faculty members, the competition aims to promote and fund innovative entrepreneurship among UCSC students. This year, the competition began in March with more than 30 submissions of executive summaries. After two academic quarters of working with mentors to develop a complete business plan for the semi-finals, the competition was whittled down to five finalists. At the finals, each team had an epitomizing eight minutes to convince a panel of venture capitalists, bankers, lawyers, and business executives that their business was worth the $12,000.
The final teams and their business plans included eHealth Nigeria's instant electronic medical records systems designed for Nigeria's unique health care system, Team Fortune's auditing service for energy-efficient homes, Geo-Loc's social location-based games, and Danger Barrel's iPhone and iTouch real-time trading card game application, "Stack n' Deploy," which came in second place.
Despite the staunch competition, it was A Cappella Records—the business baby of Chris Crawford and Jesse Avshalomov—that took first place. They not only delivered a flawless presentation, but also wooed the audience in the process.
Their business was initially submitted in last year's competition, but was cut in the semi-finals round. "We put all this work into it," says Avshalomov. "We said, 'We made this thing. We have the plan. Why don't we do it? They didn't believe that this would work, so let's go prove them wrong.'" Armed with a business plan, a diverse team with a wealth of knowledge, and an unwavering passion for vocal music, Crawford and Avshalomov proceeded to create A Cappella Records.
A Cappella Records is an entirely digital record label which not only promotes and distributes a cappella music through their website, but also manages the stickier process of licensing and royalty payments of cover songs, making a cappella music more accessible for consumers to find and artists to record. Through A Cappella Records, Crawford and Avshalomov hope to create an identity for vocal music much like Motown Records has done for soul and Chess Records for blues. "They had an identity," says Crawford. "They believed in the culture and the sound, and they built a company around it. Our goal at A Cappella Records is to do that with an all vocal genre called A Cappella."
Crawford and Avshalomov, who met in UCSC's music program, both come from musical backgrounds. "My father's a composer. And his father was a composer and his father was a composer. And we're not entirely sure, but there's evidence to suggest that his father was a composer," says Avshalomov, who, at the age of four, decided he wanted to play the violin, and has now just completed his masters in vocal performance.
Crawford, who founded UCSC's own a cappella group, Acquire A Cappella, attended the Grace Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco and sang in its world-renowned choir, simultaneously learning piano. He continues to pursue this at UCSC with a double major in business and piano.
Although a cappella is not a dominant genre in mainstream music, it indeed has its own niche, which Crawford and Avshalomov believe is steadily growing. Millions of viewers follow Fox's "Glee," a comedy show featuring a cappella, and NBC's a cappella singing competition, "The Sing Off."
"A lot of people who eventually buy music from us, would never consider themselves a cappella fans," says Avshalomov. "But they hear an a cappella cover of one of their favorite songs and they've done something really interesting with the arrangement."
Currently, A Cappella Record works with 25 clients and manages 42 albums, which, with the help of their winnings, they will continue to expand to meet their audience's growing demands. Their website hosts more than 500 a cappella cover songs, which have come to include covers of artists that widely range from Dusty Springfield to Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
"But of course the big rule is that every sound has to come from your voice," says Avshalomov. "And we can build a type of identity around this very specific type of music, which is defined by this rule."
The cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android” showcases the talents of A Cappella Records' artists who creatively work within this rule. The song originally consists of multi-layers of acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, and electronic effects. The a cappella group that covers the song, The Beelzebubs, conjures up a variety of voices and vocal techniques, which are elaborately weaved together to produce sounds and moods that evoke the original. And like other a cappella songs, the song is an open exploration of the ranges of the human vocal chords.
"This last year has been a huge year of learning," says Crawford. "Learning how to run a business, learning more about the industry, learning actually how to turn stuff from the imagination and dreams into reality."
Despite their continuing success, Avshalomov notes that, "I don't think we ever want to be an enormous company. We want to be a community, rather than just a gigantic business that throws huge amounts of money at problems. We don't want to be the traditional record labels who are now crumpling under their own weights."
"I think our love for the music will help guide us in the direction we hope to go," adds Crawford, "which is staying in touch with the music and never letting ourselves be consumed by the business end."
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