Interview with Chris Campbell, founder and director of Innova Recordings

Innova Recordings is an American record label devoted to the discovery and the enhancement of contemporary music; a label which for years has received a close attention by Kathodik mainly by means of reviews of several of the label’s recordings. Innova’s approach is to give emphasis to those artists who strive to expand the boundaries of contemporary music, by supporting them effectively with the help of competence and professionalism acquired over the years, and by allowing artists to freely manage their own musical offering. After having listened to, and reviewed, a large amount of Innova’s CDs, I thought – along with Filippo Focosi that it was time to have our usual “digital talk”with Innova’s founder Chris Campbell, in order to let him speak about the label, from its beginnings up to its future projects. Here it is what he told us:

Here you can find the Italian Translation

How did the idea of founding Innova Recordings come about? What circumstances, even practical ones, made the birth of the label possible?

Innova® Recordings began in 1982, when it was founded by the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum) as a way to document the McKnight Composer Fellowship winners. So it literally came into being in order to record a moment in time that was important in the development of an artist’s practice. In its early years, innova produced compilation or sampler LP’s featuring the works of several Minnesota artists, including Eric Stokes, Libby Larsen, Paul Schoenfield, Steve Tibbetts, and Steven Paulus. With the advent of the CD, innova began releasing selected highlights from local ensembles (the Dale Warland Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Alexander String Quartet, and others) that had been on the Forum concert seasons. Fast forward to 2022, We now have over 700 titles in our catalog and have recently changed our model in order to take a highly personalized approach to the work of managing a project with an artist or group and bringing it to fruition.

Your productions, while focusing on the so-called contemporary classical music (mainly from the American area), also encompass jazz, world, and electronic music. Do you think there is any particular connection between American composers – and more generally contemporary composers – and these other, non-classical musical styles?

I like that you say “so-called”. I think that points to the oftentimes arbitrary notion of all these designations. Of course, there’s a marketplace and “ease of use” reference point that requires us to talk about things like genre, but to me the more interesting thing is talking with a little more granular detail about what’s happening. How are different musical vocabularies cross-pollinating? What’s pulling from this, borrowing from that. It’s very fluid and I don’t think that has much to do with nationality. Framing things as “classical” and “non-classical” is an artistic trap to be conscious of.

There is, in the United States of America, a considerable amount of record labels dedicated to the enhancement of contemporary music written mainly (but not exclusively) by American composers (think of, e.g., New World, Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, Neuma, Navona, and so on) . What do you think is your most distinguishing trait – if there is any – with respect to these other labels?

We have so many amazing and distinguishing traits, it’s hard to boil it down to one! Kidding aside, we are in the business of serving creative practitioners and we’re quite good at it. We take a lot of joy in partnering and actualizing the vision of those practitioners. We tailor everything to the person, and we’re deeply interested in the relationship we have with that person…not just “release a record, perform some mechanical actions and see what happens” type of approach that is so common. We want to be part of a journey with that person or group and see what opportunities and new paths (licensing to film/video games/online, new gigs or residencies, etc.) emerge along the way. That’s the difference. A tailored experience, deep listening to the person and their relationship to the music, and alacrity in embracing the long tail of a release.

Among the many composers and musicians that are featured in your extensive catalog, are there some ones to whom you are particularly attached or who are most representative of your (so to say) musical/artistic mission?

I’m not even trying to be politic when I say this- but each one is really offering up its own set of rules or mode of operation or approach. Pick a release, and you really can turn it around in your mind like a jewel. Different facets, different angles of interest. What’s fulfilling to me is that multiplicity of approach. It’s also satisfying to actively work against notions of “canon” that are so prevalent in western classical music. Instead of having an ossified, pedestalized notion of some music, why not have have a living, breathing reality that we actively engage and encourage? Let’s grow and thrive, not be stuck behind glass, dead at a run-down museum.

Innova Recordings’productions are in cd, vinyl, and digital format. Which of these formats is gaining more success?

We have hundreds of thousands of listeners monthly, all over the world and digital has certainly helped that. At innova we look at each of those listens as a potential pivot from a listen to a deeper engagement with an artist. I always beat the drum that our artists get 100% of sales profit. Our artists retain publishing, copyrights etc. When you buy an Innova recording, you are directly supporting that artist—one to one.

What do you think about co-productions between record labels? Do you think it is a viable option for Innova Recordings?

Pooling resources, being transparent with communications and access, leveraging different types of opportunity…these are all good things, and if a team of multiple parties can do the job in service to the artist, why not? Again, our point of view is always what will actualize the artist’s vision most effectively. If it serves the project and the artist…sure!

What is Innova Recordings National Call?

Marking a paradigm shift in the way the business operates, we’re excited to announce our first national calls for recording artists and their projects. The national call and its curatorial process provides a new, more transparent, equitable process for artists from diverse backgrounds and musical approaches to be supported by the label. Funding from the Sorel Organization is providing important additional support for artists of underrepresented genders on the label.
innova Recordings is evolving. The new model fosters collaboration with artists throughout the entire process of recording projects, from conception, to release, to promotion. As part of ACF, innova also offers free resources, access to affiliate networks, and a wonderful community of peer artists.

Do you have some direct relations with conservatories and universities for your record productions? Have you ever being supported, in some way, by the US government, or do you rely mainly on private funding?

This points back to your question about partnering. We have affiliations with many conservatories and universities, in that our artists are sometimes coming from those places. Our affiliate network reaches beyond those places too. We work with designers, engineers, studio owners, and artists from other fields. When folks feel they have a seat at the table and are able to contribute and offer perspective, beautiful things often happen. We rely on generosity of spirit. Whether that’s a financial contribution to an artist, or to us as a label or to ACF, or whether that’s an engaged listen over the internet or at a show. All of that is what’s needed to keep this working.

Do you think that social media may help the promotion of contemporary music?

Of course! It’s a tool in the proverbial toolbox.

How do you imagine the future of contemporary music, especially from the point of view of record labels such as yours?

It’s going to work out! Creativity goes where it can and where it must. That energy is in no danger of being extinguished. That said, there must be attention paid to what is causing damage to our musical ecosystem. Boxing people out, relying on very old notions of “excellence”, unhealthy attachment to old modalities and systems that no longer serve…these things need to be opened up, addressed and engaged with. But bottom line, the creative energy may change shape or name, but it’s going to be just fine.

Could you tell us something about some of your future projects?

We have our national calls continuing to come up and we’re very enthusiastic about this new direction. Some amazing projects are on the horizon line. The artist leads are Anne Hege, Julie Herndon, Lewis Jordan, Beth Schenck, SHENSduo, Melinda Martinez, Becker And Nicolas Lell Benavides, Lisa Mezzacappa, Alexa Dexa, Anil Çamci, Ayanna Woods, J.E. Hernández, a group consisting of Melanie Dyer/Todd Capp/Anna Gruman/Kurt Ralske, Music Research Strategies LLC, Shara Lunon, and thinNY (Rick Burkhardt, Gelsey Bell, Andrew Livingston, Paul Pinto, Erin Rogers, Dave Ruder, Jeffrey Young). It’s all very exciting work.

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