This is a Recording

Local labels are redefining the way to make music

Ultimately, Innova stands as something of an odd duck in a pond full of strange birds. The shining emblem of that difference hangs near the office door---past the CDs in long cardboard boxes, the rock posters (including Kiss!), and all the other typical trappings of indiedom. It's a color Xerox of a check for $1 million---a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

While a million dollars is a mere pittance to a major label (one-thirtieth the cost of Michael Jackson's last album), to an indie, it's a fortune. According to Philip Blackburn--the person responsible for landing the McKnight million and the program director for Innova's parent nonprofit, the American Composers Forum--it's also a dream come true. "That check should keep us going for a long time to come," he says, "assuming the stock market keeps McKnight's endowment more or less intact."

Just as its funding is unusual, Innova bankrolls recording projects in a unique fashion. In a manner that bears a superficial resemblance to the old-school advance, Innova lends its artists enough to finance the manufacture and distribution of a CD run--usually a thousand copies. (The robot will make even smaller runs possible.) The musician's initial sales will go toward repaying the loan. But once the loan is paid off, which involves selling only 300 or so discs, all the additional revenue goes to the artist. This represents a major departure from the old model, which allotted only a small percentage of sales revenue to the creator. And the deal works out for composer and label; last year, Innova sold close to 18,000 CDs.

"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

Artists also benefit from Innova's hard-won marketing expertise--the label has been around since 1976--and a distribution scheme that pushes records into both retail chains and hipster mail-order outfits, and indie stores. Innova also has its own energetic online presence. Its Web site (www.innovarecordings.com) offers five streaming music stations, divided by genre. The site also offers listeners the option of downloading tracks in the Liquid Audio format for a buck apiece.

Both Blackburn and Strouth see the online audio offerings as strictly supplemental. "People want stuff," Strouth contends. "They want something they can hold in their hands. They want to see graphics, take out the booklets, see the photos, and look at the liner notes--even if they don't read them."

Innova's commitment to stuff is such that they're moving into a new arena--DVDs. They'll be making their DVD debut this fall, with a "Sonic Circuits" compilation. A production of composer/activist Fred Ho's Black Panther Suite will follow.

DVDs are a hot item among indies, and for good reason. The cost of making a DVD is comparable to that of making a CD, and DVD players are now commonplace. According to Recording Industry Association of America figures, DVD sales actually rose in 2001, even as CDs tanked. And as the means of production have become more affordable, more and more artists--composers and musicians included--have taken up the camera and the laptop.

Strouth sees a revolution just around the corner: "In the Fifties, everybody wanted to be a poet. Then everybody wanted to be a painter for a while. And after the Beatles broke, everybody wanted to be a rock star. That lasted until around 1998, when everybody decided to become a DJ. Once people figured out that having the letters D and J in front of their names wasn't going to automatically get them laid 24/7, they started losing interest. Now, everyone wants to be a filmmaker."

 

In his white button-down and crisply pressed slacks, Kevin Weinke blends in with the happy-hour crowd at Eli's Bar and Grill in downtown Minneapolis. He could easily pass for a mortgage broker, or some kind of consultant, which is actually what he is.

A trained archaeologist who got sick of "walking around in 90-degree heat with a shovel and staying in hotels," Weinke now spends his weekdays doing things like securing various permits for energy firms. "I work for the enemy," Weinke quips. "Not Enron, but some firms that are pretty closely associated with Enron. As you might guess, business is pretty slow these days."

At night and on weekends, though, Weinke rolls his sleeves up a cuff higher and digs into Alluvial Recordings, a label stationed at the very outer rim of experimental music's asteroid belt. Most Alluvial artists--such as Daniel Menche, Augur, Seth Nehil--generate works that rely on the sort of silence and space you'd expect to encounter just west of Pluto. Even though it has only been around since 1999, Alluvial represents the fruition of a dream Weinke and roommate/business partner Scott Flaherty have nurtured since their high school head-banger days in Buffalo, New York.

Though they previously schemed to create a label for 7-inch bootlegs, so far, the label has been CD-intensive, with only one LP to date. But they're thinking about switching over. "Every time we put something out," Weinke notes, "it's on one or more file-sharing services right away. If we did extremely limited, nicely packaged, slightly overpriced vinyl, it wouldn't matter. Everything would probably sell out whether it was downloadable or not."

Despite the online leakage, the label pays for itself. (Last year Weinke and Flaherty took in $10,000.) And it has a solid distribution setup, which extends into Europe through Staalplaat and V2, two esteemed online and mail-order dealers in the Netherlands. Europe, where listeners tend to be more open-minded than their Yank counterparts, is an important market for Alluvial. Important enough that one of their artists, John Hudak, shared a gallery space with Laurie Anderson in Lyon, France, earlier this year.

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