innova Recordings Celebrates 40 Years of Putting Artists First

This year marks the 40th anniversary for innova Recordings – a record label that has gone through many phases as their focus has expanded to embrace a dynamic range of artists, genres, and styles.

Recently, record labels, streaming platforms, live tours, and the music industry as a whole have been under fire for being unaccommodating to artists at all levels; failing to treat them holistically and instead engaging in predatory and capitalistic ventures that ultimately cause financial (and creative) harm. innova seeks to combat this exploitative field by “offering artistic and technical guidance throughout the recording and publication process,” helping artists bring forth their visions as authentically as possible, while also implementing wide-reaching distribution and marketing practices that bring work to global audiences. 

innova began as a means to document the work of the McKnight Composer Fellowship winners in 1982 – back when American Composers Forum was known as the Minnesota Composers Forum – and soon after moved to releasing CDs from ensembles featured on ACF’s concert seasons. Early albums include Heartbeats: Songs from Minnesota for the AIDS Quilt Songbook (1994) featuring commissioned vocal works “articulating the range of emotions occasioned by the impact of the AIDS epidemic,” a compilation of traditional Vietnamese music Stilling Time: Người Ngồi Ru Thời Gian (1994), and Libby Larsen’s Dancing Solo (1997).

Branching out from its exclusive affiliation with ACF artists, the label became widely known for releasing the Enclosure Series, an eight-part series featuring the work of American composer and inventor of unique musical instruments, Harry Partch, with Parts 1-6 released between 1995-1999, and the remaining two releases in 2006 and 2007.

Through the 90s and early 2000s, innova began investing in practices that were common in the hardcore/punk music scene. This era saw an explosion of the genre as it began creeping into the popular music sphere with artists like Green Day and Fugazi. DIY (“do it yourself”) ethos became more widespread as the movement gained momentum, ushering in more sustainable and communal ways of sharing new music with new audiences across the globe.

Working hard to broaden their community beyond their immediate and local scope, innova launched the Recording Assistance Program in 1994, which allowed for an “artist-first” business model that rejected the profit-based nature of most “mainstream” record labels, seemingly welcoming the DIY spirit into the domain of experimental and contemporary classical music.

Since then, the label has grown to over 700 titles, all while focusing on nurturing ongoing relationships with the artists involved. The range in projects remains vast; each one individualistic and bending genre labels. innova is largely uninterested in artificial labeling or notational constraints, and more so in championing work that is intuitively compelling. Browsing their catalog, you can discover balloon instruments blending with a string quartet in Judy Dunaway’s Mother of Balloon Music (2006) nestled beside Korean-American Bora Yoon’s surreal experimentation with sonic space Sunken Cathedral (2014); or several releases from Carnatic Saraswati veena artist Nirmala Rajasekar, who currently serves as ACF’s Board chair. 

True to their philosophy of putting artists first and cultivating a sustainable business model, innova develops long-term relationships with artists showcased on the label and often supports several projects throughout their careers. Rajasekar has released three projects with innova – Song of the Veena (2007), Into the Raga (2011), and most recently, Maithree: The Music of Friendship (2018). Each album is a snapshot of her artistic practice: the first album being innova’s first release of Carnatic music performed by Minnesota-based artists, and her second album coming after she had become known as an international ambassador of Carnatic music. The albums feature South Indian Classical music with ghatam, tabla, mridangam, and violin along with Rajasekar on veena.

“A lot of my music has highlights of improvisation that Indian Classical music is known for – I try to stay true to the ragas and my authentic self,” Rajasekar says. She has dedicated a large amount of her artistic career to engaging Western audiences through performance, education, and collaboration. Her 2018 release bridges many genres and styles, blending Indian instruments (veena and guru) with Western instruments (cello and clarinet) and non-Western percussion. Maithree demonstrates not only Rajasekar’s commitment to facilitating community through art, but innova’s dedication to backing artists as they experiment and open out to new ideas or modes of creative presentation.

“The arts landscape has changed in a big way – though I still feel there is a hesitancy in terms of women composers of color,” Rajasekar says. She hopes that organizations continue to cultivate in the ways that innova and American Composers Forum have to support her over the past 15 years.

innova is constantly reflecting and exhibiting growth as the music world (and world in general) changes. Their Bay Area Pilot program was a long-coming project as the label internally thought through ACF’s broader equity goals and growing sentiment for institutional reform. Amid national calls for explicit anti-oppressive commitments, the 2021 program allowed for artists to come to innova with projects in any stage of the creative process. They put together a diverse curatorial panel of artists to oversee this selection process.

The success of this initial program allowed them to branch out further through the announcement of their first National Call in December 2021. The ongoing initiative boasts no application or administrative fee; technical, distribution, and marketing support; connection to services like mixing, recording studios, and manufacturing; and best of all – artists receive 100% of sales profits. This model, made possible by fundraising and contributed support, puts innova among the ranks of younger labels like People Places or Redshift that similarly allows artists to put out releases with little-to-no cost. 

Distinctive works have been supported through innova’s 2021 and 2022 National Calls. Ayanna Woods’ expansive R&B EP Yadda Yadda; Kinan Abou-afach’s coalescence of Arabic maqam, jazz, and musique concrète Damascus; and Jessie Cox’s Afrofuturistic Cyborg-Stories are all forthcoming with innova. Cox’s project is a collaboration between the composer and writer Nana Nkweti, who “uses a myriad of Black diasporic vernaculars, and has an incredible sense of sound and prosaic rhythm.” The record will explore “space-time travel as a musical technology,” with Cox’s “cyborg” instruments navigating sonic space, relations, and the unknown.

For Cox, the cyborg became an important figure in his work as a way to think through “the notion of technology as progress,” and a “larger critique and refiguring of the notion of the cyborg, the human, and sound that thinks alongside Blackness,” he says. Cyborg-Stories features Yuma Uesaka on the cyborg clarinet (augmented with a 3D-printed loudspeaker adapter) which allows the performer to feed electronic sounds into the instrument while simultaneously playing it. Cox is appreciative of innova’s support, noting that this initiative offers “a community for artists and creatives to meet and exchange ideas,” and a chance to amplify a piece that is so deeply rooted in his artistic practice. 

What started as a local archival project has grown to an innovative national platform to magnify artists across all identities and artistic philosophies. As far as arts organizations responding to the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape – innova has proven attentiveness and awareness of the faults and needs of the field. It is exciting to think about the wide-ranging and groundbreaking projects that will find their home in innova Recordings in the next 40 years.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to 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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