That the record industry is in trouble is hardly, as the 21st Century nears 10% completion, a revelation. Sales are down, labels are closing and industry-wide people are scrabbling for new business plans, new means of distribution and any way to stay afloat. Cost-sharing models, once considered as anathema to the making of art as "pay to play" nightclubs, have become increasingly accepted as a viable way to get one's music heard and labels catering to relatively narrow audienceseven some of the larger ones within markets on the marginsare finding new ways to divide costs and profits.
Minnesota's Innova Records is one of the more prolific and longer-standing independent labels working in the US. An extension of the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum, Innova has been issuing a healthy number of discs in a surprising array of styles since 1982. Formal and quirky composed works sit alongside extended improv and teenager radio dramas in the label's catalogue of over 700 titles. But as with any healthy eclecticism, it isn't the point but a byproduct of people following their instincts.
"We don't premeditate and say 'OK, now we're going to do XYZ," said composer and digital media artist Chris Campbell, who also serves as Innova's operations manager. "If we get a submission on our doorstep and we love it and we think we can do a great job on it, we'll do it.
"We listen to a lot of music here and if something sticks out, for us, that can be a good thing," he added. "We have audioplays and pop records on our label as well as Harry Partch and Anthony Braxton, so it runs the whole gamut. The through-line or the glue that holds everything together is quality and 'voice.' Something that uses its time well and isn't something you've heard a thousand times before. It's got to be a listening experience. Our main genres are experimental, jazz, classical, electronic and world but so much of our catalogue could be classified as 'no-genre,' or just really good, mind-blowing stuff."
The label operates as a registered non-profit and with a bare-boned staff of five employees. Under the support of a $1 million endowment granted by the McKnight Foundation in 2001, however, they have been able to share production costs with artists while returning 100% of profits to artists for their recordings. Musicians whose work is accepted by the label make a one-time payment of $3,300 plus manufacturing costs. From that point on, the label covers all costs associated with physical and digital distribution, marketing and publicity. The artist also becomes a part of a forward-thinking organization that not only has set up a subscriber program, offering substantial discounts to listeners who make pre-release purchases, but one that runs thematic "web radio" streams, has set up a YouTube channel and free ringtones and even Twittersand one that includes Henry Brant, Fred Ho, Neil Rolnick, Joan La Barbara, George Crumb and the string quartet Ethel on its roster. It's an eclectic mix aimed at listeners always on the lookout for something new.
About half the titles on the label could be classified as "new classical," according to Campbell, with another quarter of them being jazz releases. The remainder might be filed under experimental, electronic and world music. But most of those releases, he's quick to add, straddle such categories.
"I think our core audience is people who are hungry," Campbell said. "I know when I was 15 or 16 I started to really get curious about different types of music, not just the ones presented to me on a silver platter. Easy to find music is good and there's nothing wrong with it, but when you start to dig deeper into your own interests and get into musical deep waters and don't just listen to jazz or classical or metal or hiphop but really get in there and refine your own inner ear and psychology, it's amazing how much wonderful stuff is out there."
"Being a non-profit allows us to champion music and artists in a way that a for-profit label never could," he added. "While we're concerned with sales and marketing and press, it's fair to say we're more concerned with artists' professional and artistic development. We're concerned with service to artists and how best to articulate and execute their vision while offering up our expertise and connections. Basically, we're all music lovers/makers/practitioners here and we take our mission very seriously."
Founded in 1982 as a way to document the work of composers who had been awarded McKnight Fellowship grants, the first decade of the label's life was focused on the work of Minnesota composers. But in 1994, Innova began offering distribution to artists with finished recorded works. The label now boasts more than 25 releases per year and is starting a distribution relationship with Naxos.
Campbell's excitement about the label's work is more than evident when he talks about the releases the label has planned for 2010.