Making a cappella sing

Chris Crawford, left, and Jesse Avshalomov, founders of A Cappella Records. To hear songs in the A Cappella Records music catalog, go to (photo by Jim MacKenzie)

Chris Crawford and Jesse Avshalomov are two very inspiring music nerds who have accomplished a most unusual feat: They've turned their obsession into a revenue stream and escaped the drudgery of a day job before they've even left campus.

The plan?

Make you a huge fan of a cappella music.

Crawford and Avshalomov are the founders of A Cappella Records, the first all-digital, all a cappella label, devoted to a musical genre that uses only voices as instruments.

A cappella is finding a voice at UCSC

"People have these notions of a cappella, that it's something you only do in college--like ultimate Frisbee," Crawford says of his favorite music. "That's not the case anymore. It continues to grow, and we keep coming across some real gems that have mainstream appeal but have been pushed off to the side because they have the a cappella label."

If the notion of making a killing in a cappella seems far-fetched, consider these facts:

In May 2009, an a cappella-ish version of the Journey song "Don't Stop Believin'" went to the top spot on the iTunes chart.

In June 2009, a bunch of UCSC students went

viral on YouTube with an a cappella cover of a Saturday Night Live rap spoof.

Last winter, an a cappella version of American Idol, called The Sing Off, fared well on NBC.

This summer, a musical version of Glee, the Fox hit TV show about high school singers, is touring the country.

That sounds like a huge latent market the label will be the first to exploit.

"The biggest segment of the market," Crawford says, "is people who would not say they're an a cappella fan, but we're able to prove to them that they like an a cappella cover."

The Glee bump

Most of the credit for the sudden surge in interest goes to Glee, which for two seasons has serenaded millions with the sounds of contemporary vocal music.

The music on Glee isn't technically a cappella, but it feeds the same sensibilities of complex harmonic structures and joyful noise, what Crawford calls "epic choral."

"What Glee has proved to us is that there is a market for really good, primarily vocal covers," he says.

Indeed, since A Cappella Records launched in May 2009, it's sold more than 10,000 digital downloads, and business is growing 25 percent a month. Today, it counts more than 500 songs in its online catalog, and that should double in six months.

The business plan is a simple one: license music from already-produced CDs and distribute the songs internationally over the Internet.

At a dollar a pop, the label and the artist each clear 30 cents. The value to artists comes from A Cappella's handling of complex legal issues, like the licensing of cover songs and ongoing royalty payments associated with digital sales, which are different than LP or CD sales. A Cappella's founders say the complexity of the digital marketplace keeps a lot of music out of iPods and earbuds.

"It's such a barrier to entry," Avshalomov says. "The perquisite knowledge to do it

properly is at a really high level, and if you do it wrong you run the risk of committing a copyright infringement, which could be really expensive."

Partners in success

A Cappella is a four-man venture. Ryland Hale (B.M. music, Cowell '08) and Ross Mourey, a music education major out of UCLA, are the other partners.

Crawford, 22, will graduate in June with a degree in music and business; Avshalomov, 26, is finishing his master's in performance. California natives, they look the part of laid-back Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

A cappella animates them. Crawford, who grew up singing at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and with the globe-trotting Pacific Boys Choir, is a wild gesticulator when he talks about the music, and Avshalomov becomes a mild-mannered truck driver, exclaiming about the "*$@%! triplets" in the background of a favorite song.

Avshalomov has been a fixture in the UCSC opera scene since he was an undergrad, but he was in an a cappella group in high school called, aptly enough, the Testostertones.

"It was," he says, "a bunch of 14- to 18-year-old guys doing odd songs and covers and adding pelvic thrusts where necessary."

Avshalomov doesn't have any formal business training, but he's sipped at success as an online entrepreneur, selling T-shirts.

When the movie Napoleon Dynamite was in theaters, he and a friend made "Vote for Pedro" shirts and pocketed $5,000.

"I realized there was all this money to be made in pop culture on the Internet," he says. Now the goal is to "create something solid, something in the real world, something with actual structures and an office."

Planning the business

They've honed their approach through the campus's annual business plan competition. Last year, they made it to the semifinals, and this year they have advanced to the finals with a revised version of their plan. The winning team gets $18,000 and meetings with potential investors.

The contest is emblematic of the interdisciplinary environment on campus, where students can dabble in anything that catches their interest and turn a hobby into a remunerative passion.

"At UCSC, it's discover who you are, explore, and everything will work out," Crawford says. "It's so creative and inspiring."

"I've yet to meet a professor there who does not go out of their way to help students whenever possible," Avshalomov adds. "There also seems to be an uncommon balance and camaraderie among the faculty, across what is often a bitter divide in the emphasis of performance-based or theory-based musical education."

To be a success, a cappella watchers say A Cappella Records will need to grow fast and maintain the personal relationships that are the glue within the a cappella community.

"Prospects for success are good, particularly if they can secure the funding needed to provide more features than one would expect from a traditional label," says Dave Sperandio, a North Carolina singer who's been performing for 20 years and works with the nonprofit Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. "The potential market is pretty substantial."

They're helped by knowing the right people at iTunes, where Crawford interned for three years, a connection that should aid their next mission: getting digital music stores to recognize a cappella as a featured genre, making it easier for fans to find the music.

"It's starting to do what real genres do," Avshalomov says. "You have a central genre, and then you have splinter groups who say, 'We're going to take our own approach,' which reinforces the core as a whole."

The hope is that the genre will be identified with the label, the way record producer Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label, once owned soul and rhythm and blues.

"I tried to model the label after Motown," Crawford says, "because the coolest thing about Motown is that whenever there was a release, you had an idea of what to expect. Motown had a sound, it had an identity.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if a cappella had a label, and when there's a new release coming out from A Cappella Records, you know what to expect and get excited about it?'"

Matt King is a freelance writer living in San Jose.