This is a Recording

Local labels are redefining the way to make music

While the corporate-music assembly line continues to churn out a string of humanoid talent, a tiny St. Paul record label is poised to do the industry one better: It has signed a robot to the roster. The robot's skin is a kind of eggshell plastic with just a hint of gray here and there, and its overall appearance is that of a silicon-driven bagel maker. The look is sort of early 1980s, which doesn't exactly fit in with the marble look of the downtown bank that is home to Innova Recordings.

Fashion aside, the robot doesn't really have an artistic statement to make--though that never stopped Creed. Luckily, the Future of Minnesota Music (to coin a fatuous nickname for the 'bot) is responsible only for burning tracks onto compact discs--not for recording the music in the first place.

"It's a really simple process," says Innova's director of artists and product, Chris Strouth, as he commands the contraption to go to work through a PC keyboard. But, then, like even the most docile industry pop star, the drone occasionally seems to have a mind of its own.

"People want something they can hold in their hands": Innova Recordings' Chris Strouth with the merchandise
Richard Fleischman
"People want something they can hold in their hands": Innova Recordings' Chris Strouth with the merchandise

The robot whirs into action and, like something out of Terminator 2, a mechanical claw lifts a blank CD from the robot's right-hand spindle and swings around while the burner drawer pops open welcomingly. Instead of gently lowering the disc as it's supposed to do, the arm just drops it from a foot or so above. The disc clatters around in the tray drawer for a moment, then plummets to the carpet.

Strouth swivels around in a chair that seems a size and a half too small for his six-foot-plus frame, picks up the disc, and puts it in the drawer, which proceeds to close right on cue. "We just got this thing a couple of days ago," Strouth says dryly, like a Little League dad whose kid just beaned the umpire from the pitcher's mound. "We're still in the process of making it all work."

That sentence could apply not just to a single machine, but to the nature of Innova Recordings--and the independent-label scene at large. Ten years ago you wouldn't have found a robot, or any kind of CD duplicator, in the office of an independent label. They didn't exist yet. Indies, including local legends Twin Tone and AmRep, had their CDs made at factories, just like major labels. In fact, they tended to emulate the majors pretty much whenever possible.

The indie label signed an artist to a multiple-record deal. The label gave the artist an advance (in effect, a loan), which the artist used to buy studio time and hire a producer. The artist made an album, which went on a master tape. The label sent the master tape off to a factory, where it became CDs, cassettes (which were still healthy), and maybe vinyl (a format that was already on hospice care).

Then the label shipped the finished product off to one or two distributors (the bigger the better), mailed out a whole bunch of promos, and took out as many magazine and zine ads as possible. And, budget permitting, the artist made a promotional video or two. Meanwhile, the artist toured like crazy---ideally, enough to generate a buzz, move some product, and get a major label interested enough to buy out the balance of the artist's contract. The system worked a lot like major and minor leagues in baseball, with the indies acting as farm teams. Just as the gaudy economies of Major League Baseball have flirted with ruin in the past decade, the corporate-music industry has begun to founder. And while baseball's minor leagues have thrived by offering a different kind of entertainment, independent music seems to be finding its own fresh business model. This dynamic is readily visible in Minnesota labels like Innova, Alluvial, Heart of a Champion, and DeStijl. Though none seems poised to break into the commercial big leagues (or make their artists the next Alex Rodriguez) this quartet can be seen groping toward a new method of distributing music: through in-house manufacturing, DVD and vinyl releases, collector packaging, and nonprofit financing. Efforts like these suggest that today's local labels have abandoned the fool's errand of trying to break into the mainstream. Instead, they're finding a way to thrive on the margins.


Given Innova's roster, which is heavy on modern classical, ambient, jazz, experimental, and world music, it's highly unlikely that the majors are going to be knocking on the label's door anytime soon. (Innova's biggest seller, microtonal maverick Harry Partch, did have a stint on Columbia a few decades ago---back when he was still alive.) And sound/text wiseacre Eric Belgum, weapons-grade jazzbos Fully Celebrated Orchestra, or master music-box manipulator John Morton seem unlikely to be turning up in Entertainment Weekly any decade soon.

On top of that, Innova rarely, if ever, runs ads. According to Strouth, "Ads are a great way to build a relationship with a magazine, but it's highly unlikely that someone is going to see an Innova ad and go, 'Oh, ambient tuba music by Tom Heasley! I'm gonna run out and buy that right now!'"

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