innova Recordings’ Bay Area Pilot Helps Artists in the Creation and Promotion of their Music

In one of the most cutthroat entertainment sectors that has countless stories of 360 deals, shelving projects, payment inequity, and more, innova Recordings is redefining its role in the development, creation, distribution, and marketing of its artists.

Established in 1982 when American Composers Forum was still the Minnesota Composers Forum, innova was originally a platform to showcase the McKnight Composer Fellowship winners but evolved into a home for genreless music creators, for musicians who don’t fit into the “mainstream classical” model, and especially for artists who might not have the financial resources to realize their latest or developing project.

As a first step in implementing an even more collaborative and accessible operations model, innova’s Bay Area Pilot program was launched in March 2021 as an “outgrowth” of the label and a commitment to ACF’s anti-racism policy. This 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,” says ACF and innova Director of Recordings Chris Campbell. “We invited folks to come to us with projects in any stage of completion rather than requiring finished masters.”

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

Two artists who have benefited from this pilot program at differing stages in their creative process are San Francisco-based saxophonist, composer, mother, and educator Beth Schenck, and a “newly minted” Northern California ensemble, SHENSduo, consisting of award-winning Pipa performers and composers Shenshen Zhang and Sophia Shen.

Schenck applied to the pilot program after finishing a home recording she had originally composed for herself, but didn’t have any immediate plans to release. As she looked for ways to elevate her work, the pilot program caught her attention. “I thought, well, I’m not really even sure what to do with this thing that I have, but it became bigger than I thought it was going to, and maybe other people would want to listen to it,” Schenck says.

Because Schenck didn’t have a lot of experience formally releasing music under a label, working with innova has been about learning what to do after the creation process is completed. She says her focus has been on finding an audience for her music, working with a graphic designer for album artwork, and making her work accessible to audiences and reviewers. So far, she says, the pilot program has been a catalyst to where she truly wants to be.

Music entered Schenck’s life as a toddler because her mother was a church organist and began teaching her how to play the piano, which then led to picking up the violin. Her school didn’t have an orchestra program, but it did have a band program, which meant she needed to choose another instrument to study.

“It was the ’80s, and there was a hair gel commercial on TV where a lady with spiky hair went out and played a saxophone,” Schenck says. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I don’t think I’d ever seen a saxophone in real life, but I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ So…it was a love at first sight sort of thing, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Beth Schenck--Photo by Dyanne Cano Photography

Beth Schenck–Photo by Dyanne Cano Photography

Her ultimate goal is to live her life in a way that reflects her authentic self. She says whether she’s actively making music or just navigating the world, she wants her creative work to be at the center of all she does. Her album Above and Below (out April 22, 2022 on innova) is expected to be a compilation of eight “fully-formed pieces” that are “mainly short.” Each piece is like a diary entry, where sounds and ideas were recorded from week to week through the pandemic, starting in 2020 through winter 2021.

“They’re not super technical,” Schenck says. “I didn’t try to, because I didn’t have this forethought to put this recording out. I didn’t make them perfect. I didn’t do many takes of things. I just wanted to get down a feeling and an impression. So, I feel like they’re raw in a good way and that they convey just really important little ideas and thoughts that I was having during a time that was pretty, pretty stressful in a lot of ways, and sorrowful in a lot of ways, but also beautiful. You know, it’s a pretty meaningful record to me, more than maybe anything else I’ve done.”

SHENSduo, unlike Schenck, is still working on their “genre-bending” debut album, set to release later this year. Shenshen Zhang and Sophia Shen’s project is comprised of compositions featuring the pipa duo as one integral voice, which they say is very complementary and delicately interwoven.

“This is our first time releasing an album, which is exciting, and working with innova really is an honor and a very significant debut opportunity for us,” Shen says. “It’s the first step towards reaching our goal, which is to establish our new voice as a duo and further expand into more large-scale, cross-cultural collaborations in the future.”

Before becoming SHENSduo, Zhang remembers music being brought to life by her mother, who put the pipa in her hands, encouraging her to learn how to play. She was 9-years-old at the time and held disdain for the pipa because she had to practice every day. However, each year, she grew to like it more and more, which allowed for a real connection to form. Shen, on the other hand, played the piano at 4-years-old, then learned pipa around age 10 while living in China. She eventually migrated to the States to study composition at the University of Virginia. After completing her program, she went to Mills College for an MFA in electronic music and recording media. She began composing for her own projects, writing for pipa solo until she came across Zhang’s performances and a new possibility revealed itself.

SHENSduo (Shenshen Zhang and Sophia Shen)--Photo courtesy of the artists

SHENSduo (Shenshen Zhang and Sophia Shen)–Photo courtesy of the artists

“All of a sudden, I discovered this entire sound world of pipa duo as a possibility,” Shen says, “and whenever we got together, we started to rehearse new ideas, and we wrote bits of compositions just to try it out on the two instruments to see how it sounds. Then we finally found this common interest, which is deeply rooted in preserving classical traditions while continuing to seek creative freedom in this contemporary world. It’s a classical instrument of 2,000 years of history. However, composers have seldom really explored the pipa duet as a genre group or explored its immense possibilities. So, we decided to explore these new sounds and the potential of its specific instrumentation.”

The pieces on their album are a combination of different influences from ancient pipa masterpieces, traditional music from Zhang’s hometown, Wenzhou, and traditional Jiangnan sizhu (“silk and bamboo”) music – it’s fusion and contemporary. “We are very proud and very excited to get to the ground floor of this point,” Zhang says, “and to have such a great potential to not only impact my life, Sophia’s life, and many other musicians in the Bay Area [but] to develop new worlds to be pushed out, to be listened to, and enjoyed. It’s really an exciting place to be. This is new, innovative, and we really applaud [innova’s] project going forward.”

Schenck and SHENSduo aren’t the only artists who will benefit from innova’s new model. There’s currently a national call for artists to submit finished albums, demo tracks, or the seeds of an idea that they’re passionate about.

The first application window opened December 2 and closed January 7, 2022, but the second call will open in April 2022. Artists are selected by a curatorial panel and will retain 100% of all rights and sales profits and receive a number of no-cost services, which includes, but is not limited to, “distribution to digital service providers, promotion on social media, opportunities to appear on ACF’s digital platforms, help to negotiate licensing opportunities, and access to a cohort of other label artists who are going through the same process.”

Artists can learn more about innova’s national call for projects on their website. The next round of applications will be announced on innova, ACF, and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN’s social media.

Made possible through funds from ACF’s former Bay Area chapter, the pilot program was open to Bay Area artists based in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma counties.

innova Recordings’ national call is supported, in part, by the Elizabeth and Michel Sorel Charitable Organization, a 501©(3) private foundation committed to expanding opportunities for women in music, amplifying the voices of underrepresented composers, advancing gender and racial equity, and broadening the classical music canon for future generations.


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