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Innova: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

About reaching out to the entire USA
We were producing occasional sampler albums of winners of the Minnesota-based McKnight Composers Fellowship and those were to be found in record stores across the country. Later we exploited recordings of our concert series (that played works by members of the parent organization, the Minnesota (now American-) Composers Forum). That brought other composer members to our door saying they had recordings in the can and could we find a way to release those? Being a service organization, we analyzed the barriers that artists were having in getting published and came up with a plan to minimize those. Thus was born the uniquely artist-friendly innova model, where we hold artists’ hands through the tortuous world of production, marketing and distribution, while aiming to keep costs low and not risking our own survival by relying on sales income.

About being USA-exclusive

It started out for practical reasons (our McKnight Foundation Recording Loan Fund, that covered initial production costs later paid back through sales and installments, could not lend money outside the US). Now it is more of a branding thing where people know we stand for the best in new American music. We also want to have effective partnerships with artists who are touring and have some likelihood of getting attention; it’s harder to do that if you are unknown and also based overseas.

About the state of the American contemporary music scene

We are lucky to be in an exciting niche where every day we hear musical ideas we never heard before; it’s a great education. Many of the pressures of music to be determined by perceived commercial demands don’t apply to our artists. While much of what comes in is undeniably of solid quality, not everything is bubbling with personality and in need of our kind of help. It’s heartening to know there is so much fresh stuff out there waiting for a champion, but we lament how hard it is to get people to notice our field as a whole. We constantly slip between genres and classifications that are optimized for the commercial industry. What about all our gifted misfits?

About innova's philosophy of artistic partnership
We heard from several artists who had fine recordings on other labels that had gone out of print or out of business and would not let them have their rights or masters back. That was easy to fix.
We assumed at first that our artists knew their market better than anyone else; this was overly optimistic. Over time we built up more relationships with radio and other media so we acted as a more knowledgeable hub and could offer marketing and promo help, too. That will never replace artists selling from the stage at their own gigs, so it became an easy partnership model where we both do our best to get them into the right hands, noticed, and even sold. The artists own all the physical stock so in a sense they are licensing innova the right to exploit their music on their behalf for eternity. It’s clean, non-exclusive, and we are more artists at heart anyway.

Most artists operate in partial isolation. While they may have nurtured their own fan base they look to us for reaching the great unknown public beyond their own circle of friends. We have rapport with a wide range of people who devour new music so innova packages are often opened first when they arrive on reviewers’ piled-up desks. Also artists should be good at making music. They don’t have to be great self-marketers, too; they can outsource that to outfits like us.

About expectations and reality

Some composers don’t perform or tour, and are content with whatever we do for them; sending along reviews and playlists for their resumes and tenure efforts. Others are very active playing their music and need to know their release will be available everywhere they are performing. We share our promo lists and complement each other’s plans. We do find that many artists have high expectations for media coverage but little idea of what goes on behind the scenes to make that happen: ads, payola, graft, long lunches, etc. Part of our job is to manage expectations so we can rejoice with every little success.

About great and not so great marketing ideas
We have a collection of boutique-packaged items (hand assembled, non standard materials); they work on the theory that people will buy them instead of an MP3 because they are so special. They don’t, though.
We have super cool releases like: a CD in an army canteen bag with original artwork and a nut inside, do it yourself crayon coloring covers, an optical theremin in a cigar box, a circuit-board CD holder … but they don’t fit easily in anyone’s shelf units. One (Stuart Hyatt’s The Clouds, cardboard case with a cotton wool ball) was nominated for a Grammy for packaging. For a while we tried CD Hobos: these were CDs without identification or wrapping, left in public places like bus shelters and sidewalks, with a note to the finder asking them to listen and then pass it on in the same way. We heard from someone in Australia who picked one up; it tapped into humanity’s radical capacity for generosity and the fact that sometimes we can’t even give this stuff away.

About quality standards
The recording and performance quality must be top notch, the musical concepts must be innovative, forward looking (-hearing?) and offer a singular voice. On top of that we need to feel that our list of media contacts is a good match for the music; we often turn down projects that we feel another label could promote more effectively. We don’t want to take artists’ hard-earned cash (in the form of our admin fee) if we feel we can’t earn it through our labors and contacts. We know our database of contacts better than anyone else so it is rare that we ask anyone outside the label staff or the Forum for approval.

About finding suitable promotion partners
There’s plenty of media outside Hollywood and Nashville; enthusiasts who run college radio shows, bloggers who love to discover what’s happening, Facebook fans and stalkers. We poach new contacts all the time from all kinds of sources, tease them out with a title or two, and see who nibbles. Those we cultivate and try to psychoanalyze their musical tastes so we send them the right releases later on.

About releasing a professional product
Most artists have a better sense of sound than of visuals. We often send their final edited versions out to our stable of mastering geniuses and they come back sounding like a million dollars. Some have a specific idea of imagery they want for the cover, and we can work with it to make it interesting. Some use their own designers with good effect, some dismal. We usually end up with something we can agree on, that truly reflects the music inside, but it can be hard because composers are not used to working that way. Sometimes we have our friends at Naxos and iTunes weigh in to determine if something is likely to fly off the shelves or be rejected by the consumers.
About innova's landmark releases
No single recording is responsible for us having achieved total stardom; rather a regular stream of notable releases that give us sporadic street cred in certain communities then we wallop the world with something else cool a while later. One trajectory goes: Stilling Time (Vietnamese Music), Enclosures: Harry Partch, the Henry Brant Collection, the 43 titles supported by the New York State Music Fund, GVSU’s Steve Reich and Terry Riley remix albums, Maya Beiser’s Provenance, the NYFA Collection with 52+ New York artists … Of course, there are many others that hold the whole thing together.

About the success of digital downloads
We have no plans to abandon physical CDs; they are still the currency of the industry. What else do you put in someone’s hand when you want them to pay attention to your music? Physical and digital formats are complementing each other nicely, about 50:50 at this point. We always have the problem of having a catalog of great music to share but few people know who these artists are. Podcasts, radio streams (we have five Live365 streams), Reverbnation and Soundcloud services are all helpful. Facebook is the first time we have felt that there is an interested community out there we can reach day or night when there is news to share about new releases, samples to check out, or reviews to crow about. We’ll be keeping our fans there up to date with all the scoops.

About the financial aspects of innova productions
Most artists have already spent a lot of cash during the recording phase before we ever hear the work so very few will make that money back in three years or so. Maybe half will make their manufacturing, mailing, and innova admin costs back in the same time period. We only take on projects that we believe might pay for themselves, if the world had good enough musical taste. We don’t want to waste our time, or our distributors’, with projects that are destined for oblivion: we aren’t a vanity label. If a project doesn’t sell well or get much notice it’s not because we don’t love the music. Life is just unfair sometimes.


About CDs turning into mere promotion-tools
To a large extent that's what they are now. But putting that album into the right hands can reap far greater rewards than merely selling a few units: licensing for film and TV, commissions and performances, job offers and promotions, gigs, exposure, and new audiences are all beneficial spin-offs from having a CD. That’s why we are part of the service organization, the American Composers Forum; we are part service and part business. Our first concern is what will have positive repercussions on the artists’ career. Everything else follows from that.

Homepage: Innova Recordings

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