Innova Recordings is the most unusual record label in the Twin Cities. Not because of what it puts out — at least a dozen local peers share its preference for adventurous fare, its emphasis on artistic merit and its disregard for commercial considerations.
What most sets the nonprofit label apart is its ridiculously prolific efficiency.
Innova's total release count for the past fiscal year is 27, significantly more than any other label in the region, all primarily thanks to three people: director Philip Blackburn, operations manager Chris Campbell and publicist Steve McPherson, musicians all.
"We're a well-oiled team," Blackburn explained by phone from Innova headquarters on the fifth floor of St. Paul's Landmark Center, "and we can adapt quickly to new opportunities that seem interesting and feature music we think we can champion successfully. Also, we're lucky enough to have a business model that allows us to go out on limbs for music we believe in."
A sizable chunk of that model and luck resides in a $1 million endowment the label got from the McKnight Foundation 12 years ago. Along with a few other sources of revenue, the interest alone covers the label's expenses.
Innova owes McKnight its very existence. Formed in 1982, back when its discretionary budget would maybe have covered a potluck, the label initially focused on recordings of the foundation's fellowship winners in composition. A few years later, it started occasionally releasing CDs by the likes of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Dale Warland Singers.
When Blackburn came aboard in 1996, the label had upward of 50 releases to its credit. It now has 450-plus. While the majority of Innova artists still have some kind of connection to the classical tradition, Blackburn and Campbell are willing to embrace anything that meets their criteria for boldness, originality and quality, no matter how challenging it is — or not.
"One thing we need to put behind us is the widespread assumption that experimental music is intrinsically difficult to listen to," Blackburn said. "Sure, some of what we put out is going to strike some people as noisy or chaotic. By the same token, a lot is extremely easy on the ear."
Examples of the latter stretch back at least as far as 2002's shockingly voluptuous "On the Sensation of Tone" by ambient tuba master Tom Heasley and continue through Campbell's Americana-enhanced 2013 collaboration with Grant Cutler, "Schooldays Over," right up to Bora Yoon's hauntingly surreal "Sunken Cathedral," released in May.
Granted, not many of the label's 2014 releases offer those sweetness or shoegaze factors. A probable long drink of water for anyone unfamiliar with contemporary operatic strategies, Anne LeBaron's "Crescent City" posits a situation in which 19th-century voodoo queen Marie Laveaux returns from the dead in the hope of saving her beloved New Orleans from a final disaster. Even richer in dissonance and angularity, Peter Van Zandt Lane's "Hackpolitics" celebrates some of the recent triumphs and failures of hacktivist groups Anonymous and LulzSec.
Blackburn's own "Music of Shadows" is the strongest release of this year's crop and one of the label's most profound to date. The composer and multi-instrumentalist masterfully blends drones, various kinds of field recordings and percussion to provide us with user-friendly ports of entry into our own psychic terrain and the worlds of mystery lurking behind everyday life. Some people might have a hard time recognizing the album's contents as music, but that's a small price to pay for going boldly forward where no artist-administrator has gone before.
In other words, the boss is a good role model.
"Maybe a lot of what Innova releases doesn't match up with consensus expectations," he said, "but to the best of my knowledge, we haven't yet gotten the final word on what music is supposed to be.
"Every generation brings new people doing outrageously beautiful things that don't conform to the conventions of their time. Still, they eventually find an audience. It's our job to help the last part of that process along any way we can."