Tapping away on his iTouch, Yaochuan Shao works out the melody to an original Chinese pop song, complete with band accompaniment. Shao, 22, studies finance at New York University, but in between classes, he writes and performs pop, jazz and the easy-going Brazilian bossa nova music.
As something of a guitar prodigy, Shao first hit the Chinese airwaves at 14, after winning second place in a national record label competition. His first music video has more than 13,400 views on youku.com, the Chinese version of YouTube. Now in the United States, Shao continues to record his own songs and play with his new alternative-fusion band, Thin Wall. But few American listeners have heard of Shao.
"I have an online following," Shao, known to his fans as YC, said. "It's mainly in Asia where I spent most of my music career."
Shao is one of several young musicians trying to build his fan base by partnering with a new nonprofit raising money for charity. At a time when social media makes for fierce competition for fans and supporters, the small group of college students behind OneReasonRecordings hopes pairing musicians with causes can help bring more attention to both.
OneReasonRecordings, founded last fall by 19-year-old NYU student Johnathan Chen, gathers musicians together to create albums that can be sold to benefit charitable causes. He approached Shao after learning about him from friends and watching his music videos.
"I think this is a way for me to really to do something with my talents or my ability to help the less fortunate because I think this is more meaningful than just donating money or just putting up posters or something," Shao said.
Chen, a freshman studying pre-med and nutrition, has no plans to work in the music industry. But with OneReasonRecordings, he saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of helping others. Although most college freshman might find starting a nonprofit daunting, Chen's not new to the process. While a high school sophomore in Dallas, Tex., Chen created Reaching OUT, a community service organization for students. During the three years he led the organization, its membership grew from three to 1,800 students, who raised more than $5,000 for various charity groups. Building on that experience, Chen wanted to connect music with efforts to combat social justice issues.
Each album OneReasonRecordings sells will have a different social justice theme. For the first compilation, the recordings will focus on clean water. Six artists so far have contributed songs.
"We wanted to establish a basic foundation for the organization and decided that water would be the easiest idea to implement, since everyone knows about the need for clean water," Chen said.
Although Shao has not submitted his song yet, he has begun working on the melody.
"I'm taking a lot of time to work on it because I want to take it seriously," he said.
OneReasonRecordings hopes to focus on another basic utility-light-with a future album.
"Light is one of those things people often overlook," Whitney Zhou, the group's marketing director, said. Zhou, 19, a freshman marketing student at NYU, heard in one of her classes about innovations such as communal electric lamp chargers for villages without electricity. She hopes to connect OneReasonRecordings with organizations working on those projects.
Chen and his team are taking a tour of schools and churches in the East Coast to generate awareness for their vision. The State of New York officially recognized OneReasonRecordings as a nonprofit organization at the end of January.
"I believe strongly that God wants to change the world through music," said Ray Low, 20, the organization's public relations officer. "I think even just apart from the funds we can give to the charity, the whole reason why we're using music in the first place is because music connects with lots of people emotionally. I think by having our music center around this theme we can raise awareness about the social issue too."
Low, a math major at NYU, is a composer, guitarist and vocalist in his own right. He hopes to attend Trinity Seminary, in Illinois, after he graduates next year.
Although OneReasonRecordings has no explicit religious affiliation, all eight members of the executive board are Christians.
"It's the inspiration to our group, the inspiration behind why we're doing this," Zhou said of the board members' faith. "The only way we can really be meaningful is remember who we're doing this for and why we got started."
One Christian artist, Cate Song, has already submitted her track, "The Well," for the group's first album. She wrote the song three years ago in response to hearing about the need for clean water and learning about the initiatives of organizations such as Charity:Water.
"I'm a huge supporter of these organizations and knowing that OneReasonRecordings is working to raise further awareness of this cause makes me want to contribute," Song said. "To take it further, nonprofits being started by students... well, that's just awesome. To have so much vision and to put action on that vision at such a young age, that's really inspirational."
Despite its Christian origins, OneReasonRecordings welcomes any who support its goals. Shao, whose music usually focuses on relationships, is not a Christian but highly respects OneReasonRecordings' cause: "I think it's pretty cool, and besides supporting their mission and everything, I think it's a good way for artists to get exposure."