Reimagining the “Record Label” with innova’s National Call for Artists

Over the past few years, many of us have had to redefine our relationships as they expand and contract in unexpected ways. With the pandemic, we’ve had to navigate complexities that may not have existed before — or perhaps those complexities were already there, just not as obvious. I think for many of us, myself included, relationships are the most important thing in life, and approaching them with a generosity of spirit is hard but vital work.

In both my personal life and as Director of Recordings at American Composers Forum (ACF) and innova, having a closeness and intimacy with people makes life resonate. Getting beyond the topical layer of a person takes time, care, and trust. It’s delicate. Relationship building, like music, is a time-based art, and learning about people’s stories, goals, and motivating factors can be a joyful practice.

At innova Recordings, the in-house label of ACF, we’re committed to applying this mindset to our work with music creators, which is why we’re excited to announce a National Call for new artists and projects. By extending this open invitation for U.S.-based music creators to send us their ideas, we hope to break down the barriers between artist and label and demystify the process of releasing musical content or an album.

innova has been a steady presence in our musical ecosystem for close to 40 years now. Founded in 1982 when ACF was the Minnesota Composers Forum, the label began as a way to document the McKnight Composer Fellowship winners. Since then, we’ve dedicated our effort to sounds and concepts that push and challenge the boundaries of contemporary music, without being concerned about genre constraints or typical notions of marketability. Instead, we’ve focused on the integrity of the work as defined by the artist, not some arbitrary notion of “excellence.”

Recent albums from the innova catalogue

Recent albums from the innova catalogue

From 2003 to 2020, the label’s catalog grew from around 70 to close to 700 titles. We were producing 25 to 30 or more releases a year encompassing different genres, concepts, and approaches — all somehow non-conformist, individualistic, and often groundbreaking. The big goal was to be a home for visionary sound/music makers, and to get as much great music “out there” into the marketplace as we could. We offered up artistic and technical guidance throughout the recording and publication process, and we amplified the reach of new musical ideas through access to our marketing and distribution networks. We wanted healthy relationships, where artist and label work together, taking advantage of each other’s strengths, to provide both the tools of an established record label and the freedom of artist ownership.

It’s easy to forge ahead with the status quo when things are seemingly working well. But over the past few years, we’ve taken an intentional and introspective look at our business model. Specifically, we focused on what we were doing well in our relationships with artists, and what we were falling short on.

Until now, innova has been 100% reliant on a submission-based model. Folks had to already know about us, understand our unique artist-friendly approach, find and initiate contact with us, and apply with an all-but-finished product to be on the label. We were basically asking people to find a proverbial chair and pull it up to our table instead of extending an invitation ourselves.

Taking the time to…be honest about our values and see where we were falling short of our mission allowed us to think about what we can do differently.

Intentional or unintentional, we realized that our methods of operation were boxing out folks we would have loved to work with, so we needed to make a change. Taking the time to look at all of this, be honest about our values, and see where we were falling short of our mission allowed us to think about what we can do differently.

How do we reach folks who didn’t feel welcome? How do we partner in deep and meaningful ways to recognize the artist as a full human being, not just an album to work on for six months? How do we continue to lean into an artist-centric cooperative model where both label and artist work closely to achieve the artist’s goals?

By asking these questions and listening to artists’ answers, the work we seek to do at ACF and innova became clearer. We needed to support artists in their creative process as well as promoting their final product. We needed to be a collective of open-minded listeners who welcome all kinds of musical expression. We needed to facilitate a support network of artists to provide guidance and feedback to each other throughout the process. Through relationship building, conversation, and reflection, we began to really understand what people wanted and needed.

innova Bay Area Pilot Program artists Eki’Shola Abrams, Melinda Martinez Becker, Nicolas Lell Benavides, Lisa Mezzacappa, Beth Schenck, SHENSduo, Lewis Jordan, Julie Herndon, and Anne Hege

innova Bay Area Pilot Program artists Eki’Shola Abrams, Melinda Martinez Becker, Nicolas Lell Benavides, Lisa Mezzacappa, Beth Schenck, SHENSduo, Lewis Jordan, Julie Herndon, and Anne Hege

In March 2021, innova announced an open call for submissions through our Bay Area Pilot program, which was the first step forward in implementing our new direction. An outgrowth of the label and ACF’s commitment to anti-racism, the Bay Area program was explicitly designed to support artists in both the creation and promotion of their music. Its existence was predicated on wanting to build and support a community of diverse artists and help them amplify their music. We invited folks to come to us with projects in any stage of completion rather than requiring finished masters. We encouraged artists to apply in whatever media format they felt most comfortable with, including written submissions or recorded audio or video. innova staff made time to give all artists feedback during and after the application process. We wanted to be clear that we are striving to be part of an inclusive musical ecosystem that seeks, nurtures, and empowers creative energy.

We also wanted to involve more people in the decision-making process, so we employed a curatorial panel. The panel was composed of folks who have diverse approaches and ways of thinking about music, so we could cut down on “blind spots” or bias when reviewing applications.

Bottom line, we wanted to hear stories and ideas. What is the current status of the recording? What still needs to be done? How would you like us to help? By listening to what each project needed and leveraging the knowledge of the people who work for the label, we could tailor a unique and complete experience for every artist.

The Bay Area pilot marked a profound shift in how we work with artists, and we are excited to share that we are now rolling this model out nationally. Whether you have a fully finished album, demo tracks, or just the seed of an idea that you’re passionate about, we want to hear from you. The first application window opened December 2 and closes January 7, 2022. For those unable to apply at this time, a second call will open in April 2022. Our new model will continue to focus on these priorities and will evolve as we learn from each national call.

innova National Call curators Sarah Hennies, Darian Donovan Thomas, Nina Shekhar, and Olivia Shortt

innova National Call curators Sarah Hennies, Darian Donovan Thomas, Nina Shekhar, and Olivia Shortt

Artists selected by our curatorial panel retain 100% of all rights and sales profits and receive a number of no-cost services, including distribution to digital service providers, promotion on social media, opportunities to appear on ACF’s digital platforms, help negotiating licensing opportunities, and access to a cohort of other label artists who are going through the same process.

Through our national partnership network, we are also able to connect innova artists to other reduced-cost services, including recording studio time, post-production assistance, PR and marketing support, cover art design, and physical CD and vinyl manufacturing and distribution.

To send us a project for consideration, please fill out the application in written, audio, or recorded video format. If you’re working with sound in any form, we sincerely want to hear from you. If you have questions about recordings and distribution, you can also contact us through the ACF Help Desk. An abiding value for us at the label is trying to convince all types of people that living music creators are vital to human culture. We’re excited to turn the page and start a new chapter with you.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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