As the Bay Area music scene continues to sort through the destruction wrought by the pandemic, an unexpected jolt of good news has arrived from Minnesota.
In a pilot program offering artists support for documenting, releasing and distributing their music, Innova Recordings is reaching out to Bay Area musicians of various stripes in new music, vocal music, chamber jazz, and beyond. The longtime in-house record label of the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum (ACF) is conducting an open call from March 16 through April 16. There’s no application fee, and the organization is holding an online information session for musicians thinking of submitting their work at 2 p.m. PST, April 1 (visit ACF’s events page to RSVP).
Eager to hear what Bay Area musicians have been working on, Innova Director of Recordings Chris Campbell says the program is designed to break down the barriers that prevent artists from releasing music, while also providing a palette of options to help keep recordings from getting lost in the crowded marketplace. Musicians retain all the rights to their creations, and get all the proceeds from music sales. It sounds almost too good to be true. Why is Innova launching the pilot program in the Bay Area, rather than say, Chicago, Seattle, or New York City?
“We’ve worked with a lot of Bay Area folks, and the impetus for this came from the Bay Area ACF chapter, which isn’t active anymore,” Campbell said on a recent Zoom conversation. “The funding was there for this geographic area. We’ve tried to build up the affiliate structures and want to test this program before doing a national call. I think what we’re offering for no cost to artists and the way we’re trying to reach out to folks will be really impactful, especially with many artists having problems with funding and resources due to COVID-19.”
Open to musicians based in the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma, Innova’s program is unusually open-ended. Rather than soliciting one big project or idea, the label is inviting artists to submit projects reflecting “a variety of musical approaches and at different stages in their recording plans.”
The label has assembled a diverse panel of curators to select projects, and artists tapped for the pilot program will receive no-cost support for both the production and promotion of their music, including mixing/mastering, design, press and marketing, studio time, physical manufacturing, distribution, and licensing.
One goal of the initiative is “to genuinely provide support for emerging and professional artists who might not have had the means, language skills, or the type of character to promote themselves and therefore are less talked about,” wrote Sahba Aminikia, one of the program’s curators, in an email.
The Iranian-born composer, a graduate of San Francisco Conservatory of Music and frequent Kronos Quartet collaborator, sees the program as an all-too-rare opportunity “for artists who feel marginalized [and] less seen” to reach a wider audience.
Innova’s track record is impressive. Founded in 1982 to document winners of the ACF’s McKnight Fellowship, the label initially focused on regional artists (many of whom went on to national stature). Over the years, the label has expanded its purview, building a catalog of more than 600 albums that have earned nominations for Pulitzer, Emmy, and Grammy Awards (the vocal ensemble The Crossing won the 2019 Grammy for Best Choral Performance with the Innova release Zealot Canticles).
The pilot program isn’t Innova’s first foray into the Bay Area’s multifarious scene, which is represented by albums such as Mason Bates’s Stereo Is King (2014), Van Anh Vanessa Vo’s Three-Mountain Pass (2013), Maggi Payne’s Arctic Winds (2010), the vocal ensemble Volti’s House of Voices (2012) and Turn the Page (2019), and four volumes of Music from Stanford (2005–2011). The most recent release by a Bay Area ensemble is last year’s Here I Stand, the debut album by the award-winning all-girls chorus iSing Silicon Valley.
The group had already recorded and mixed the project when the ensemble’s co-founder and Artistic Director Jennah Delp Somers emailed a couple of tracks to Phillip Blackburn, then head of Innova. A passionate fan of numerous groups associated with the label, particularly Volti and The Crossing, Somers didn’t have high hopes for a response.
“I was sure they would say no, that they wouldn’t be interested in a girls’ choir,” she said. “But I heard back from Blackburn the next day. They were excited about iSing and wanted to hear more, and they were excited about the composers we had on our album. One of our commissions, Adam Schoenberg’s Never Shall I Forget, won the Dale Warland Award, which is funded by the ACF.”
As a young organization releasing its first album, iSing welcomed Innova’s full-spectrum support. “They hand-held us through everything we thought was really complicated,” Somers said. “They took care of permissions, mechanical licensing, and even some publicity. They helped us with designing the album and the layout of the booklet. The biggest thing was distribution, getting it out to all the streaming sites. It was such a relief for us.”
Part of what’s striking about the Bay Area pilot program is the lack of parameters. Campbell says Innova aims to be of service to artists, wherever they happen to be in the recording process, and whatever their ultimate goal. The label is open to working on singles, LPs, CDs, Eps, and digital-only releases.
“Magical things happen when you dig into a project for what it is,” Campbell said. “We can do CD releases and we can absolutely do vinyl. If there’s no demonstrable need to print 300 to 500 CDs, why do it? We can do drip content, release a single, or an EP. We can create a campaign that makes sense for them.”
That’s going to be music to the ears of Bay Area musicians staggered by a lost year.