The music education nonprofit is adapting its program amid the pandemic — and launching an innovative new label in the process.
In November 2019, former major-label recording artist and Eurovision competitor Tamar Kaprelian was sitting with a circle of local female songwriters in Malawi, who were getting to know each other before a writing session. She organized the trip through her foundation Nvak, which sets up a variety of music education programs including songwriting classes and mentorship every summer in countries where those resources are slim.
“There was not a single dry eye in that room,” Kaprelian recalls, as the women, many of them orphans, told stories about struggles in their lives. “In that moment, I was like, ‘This is the reason I’m doing this work.'”
The idea came to Kaprelian in 2015 after an eye-opening trip to her native Armenia (Nvak means “to play music” in Armenian). The foundation has since served 1,500 aspiring musicians across three countries — Armenia, Malawi and Israel — and in March, released its first compilation album featuring nine songs by songwriters in Armenia and Israel, distributed by Warner Music’s ADA. Nvak has garnered wide music industry support along the way, counting executives from Interscope Records, Atlantic Records and Gibson on its board of directors.
But when the coronavirus pandemic put an end to safe travel for the foreseeable future, leaving those communities in jeopardy, Kaprelian — like countless others in the music industry — realized she would need to shift strategy entirely. “The first thing that goes through your head is, ‘I hope they’re OK,'” she says. “The second thing becomes, given these circumstances, how do you keep helping people that need the help?”
She quickly came up with a multi-part plan. First and foremost, Nvak will split into two entities: The existing Nvak Foundation and the new Nvak Collective, a female-focused record label that will operate as a certified B corporation, meaning it is for-profit but has a social good mission attached. While 70% of the signees will come from under-developed countries, the remaining 30% will come from Western markets and donate their time and talent to help mentor the larger group. A percentage of profits from royalties, synch licensing and other revenue streams will fund the foundation, so that “one feeds the other,” Kaprelian says. “We’re trying to create an ecosystem.”
To support its global community remotely, Nvak is also teaming with hit songwriter Ali Tamposi’s Creative Waves music education foundation to release a free e-curriculum in early 2021. That will cover songwriting, music production, music marketing and music business, employing recent graduates from New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and Berklee College of Music to help create materials. “Given the current state of the world, it’s more important than ever for people to have access to creative outlets,” Tamposi says. “Our goal is to provide underrepresented musicians a place to learn and to self-express through the power of music.”
Simultaneously, Nvak is testing a remote version of its usual summer program with a local community manager in Malawi, which Kaprelian says will eventually roll out in Nvak’s other regions.
Kaprelian is now fundraising to jump-start the new plans and says she’s raised $200,000 in verbal commitments of her total $1 million goal. Ultimately, she believes the shift will only make Nvak stronger.
“When you have to adjust, it makes you think outside of the box,” she says. “For us, the shift is going to help our business, because we’ll be able to impact more people. And we want to be able to help as many people as possible.”
“Woah, what is going on here?”
Before she was a foundation leader and soon-to-be label head, Kaprelian was an aspiring artist herself. She began writing songs as a teenager, inspired by the classic Billy Joel and Carole King records her musician father loved. She was 18 years old when a well-connected manager landed her a meeting with Clive Davis, who signed her to her first record deal with RCA Records.
Though Kaprelian speaks highly of Davis, her time at RCA didn’t go as planned. “When you sign to an A&R person, they try to shift and mold the project to their image,” she says. “It can be good if you have the right person on your project, but it can be detrimental if you don’t.” She was eventually dropped from the label and signed anew with Interscope Records, but quickly felt stranded and disillusioned by the label system.
The idea for Nvak came several years later when, during her three-month stay in Armenia to compete in Eurovision in 2015, Kaprelian realized how few resources are available to musicians in countries facing economic, social or political strife. And particularly women. “I got to meet people, especially the young people, and I was like, ‘Woah, what is going on here?'” she says. “The youth was so talented, so smart, but the average monthly income in Armenia is $400. I realized that I had a platform to start changing the landscape.” Nvak kicked off in summer 2018 by hosting songwriting classes in the Armenian city of Yerevan, and by 2019, expanded to Jaffa, Israel and Lilongwe, Malawi in partnership with Madonna’s Raising Malawi foundation.
Pre-pandemic, students applied online for around 25 spots in each 18-day summer intensive program (while the program focuses on women, some programs also accept men). Each program is hyper-localized: “We don’t copy and paste what we teach,” says Kaprelian. “We use culturally-relevant songs [to teach songwriting] in addition to what is on the Hot 100.” Other classes cover business topics like music marketing and publishing, as well as other “practical” applications, Kaprelian says, like writing music for television series and commercials. Classes are taught by Kaprelian, recent music school college graduates and top-tier songwriter and producer volunteers like Cook Classics (Ava Max, Panic! At The Disco) and Mike Sabath (Lizzo, Jonas Brothers). At the end of each program, Nvak leaves behind a mobile recording studio, so students can continue to work on their music.
More than 150 songs have been written and recorded through Nvak. One particularly successful student is Armenian singer-songwriter Brunette, whose single “Love the Way You Feel” was featured on MTV series Ex on the Beach. In April, Nvak released its second project, I Cannot Come Out And Play, in which Armenian female musicians reimagine a collection of songs by the world-renowned Armenian composer Father Komitas.
All the while, Kaprelian is adamant that investing in global musicians is not an act of charity, but a vital need to strengthen the overall music business.
“It’s a great premise to unearth songwriters and artists in countries that one is not looking in,” adds Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, who serves as an advisor to Nvak. “As Tamar is proving, there are talented people in so many markets that are challenging to have artist discovery happen [in], unless you have something like Nvak creating opportunities where there are none.”
The path forward
The pandemic may have catalyzed Nvak’s reinvention, but Kaprelian says she has been mulling over the idea of launching a record label for some time. “At a certain point, we realized there’s next-level talent in these markets that are just not being served because there’s no infrastructure,” she says. “So how do we help them beyond education?”
Nvak Collective will tout other rare benefits for signees, including healthcare and paid parental leave, along with financial management services. “If a marketing guy [at a label] gets healthcare benefits, why wouldn’t artists get the same?” Kaprelian says.
She also hopes the label will provide a safer environment for female artists to thrive, after facing situations in her own career where she was placed in rooms with, as she puts it, “predatory producers.” Those experiences are another part of the reason Nvak remains female-focused, and why Kaprelian is reaching out to female artists and songwriters as potential investors, with some big names soon to be announced.
“I’m hoping our ecosystem will inspire the major label system to also adopt these changes,” Kaprelian says, and the pandemic offers an opportunity for reflection and change to happen. “There’s a global sense of empathy that wasn’t necessarily always turned on.”
This doesn’t mean the Nvak Foundation’s in-person programs are gone forever, though. Once travel can safely resume, Kaprelian plans to use geographic analytics from the e-curriculum to help decide where to host the program next.
“I think if you want to see change, you have to start implementing the change yourself,” Kaprelian says. “And then hopefully, other people follow suit.”