At a time when Christian music reaches more people than ever, two creative new Nashville record labels are stretching the genre’s boundaries.
Seeking to connect with fans of Top 40 pop music, Nashville music industry veteran Mitchell Solarek launched Maxx Recordings with an initial artist roster including boy band 3for3 and young female singer-songwriters Kolby Koloff and Riley Clemmons.
Solarek, whose artist management firm represents mainstays Natalie Grant and Danny Gokey, is banking on his new label filling a void in a Christian music landscape that is heavy on established acts appealing to older listeners.
Another Nashville upstart, Storysong, is challenging the Christian record label archetype because it didn’t start as a record label.
Storysong is the music division spinoff of Leadership International, a Christian education organization that serves pastors and church leaders in Africa. By structuring Storysong as a nonprofit organization, co-founder Mark Wagner is able to assure fans who buy his label’s music that the vast majority of their money will provide orphans in Africa with education, clothing and other basic needs.
Maxx Recordings and Storysong have different goals and approaches, but both stand poised to capitalize on the popularity of Christian music.
A report released in June by the Gospel Music Association found that 68 percent of Americans report having listened to Christian or gospel music in the last month. Artists from the genre have become stars of reality television shows, and music companies have parlayed their artists’ popularity into lucrative corporate partnerships with companies like Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
“In the midst of the success that Christian music is enjoying right now, you’ve got these two new models, and they are fresh and they are different,” said Barry Landis, the former president of Word Label Group and current president and CEO at Ribbow Media Group, a social media and marketing firm focusing on faith-based entertainment.
Maxx aims for younger audience
Solarek took a roundabout path to creating his full-service record label, headquartered in Green Hills. He ran a modeling agency in San Francisco before relocating to Nashville and eventually opening Maximum Artist Group, which counts Grant, Gokey, Donald Lawrence and producer Bernie Herms among its clients.
Solarek said that over the past five years, as the music industry as a whole and the Christian industry in particular have wrestled with their futures, many of his lunch meetings were with Music Row executives worrying about the sky falling.
“I’m a guy who needs a lot of challenge,” Solarek said. “We were in a place, because we represent so many Christian music artists, where it just wasn’t fun any more.”
He said labels in particular were resistant to trying new approaches or pushing new, outside-the-box artists. Solarek hopes Maxx Recordings can step in and take the risks that established labels have been resistant to take.
Whether it’s his management company or publishing company, Solarek has viewed himself as being in the “content creation business,” not the music industry. That’s why he was able to smoothly step into the role of executive producer for the WEtv series “Mary Mary,” a reality show about the popular gospel duo.
With 3for3, a group of three young male pop artists, Solarek is returning to his strengths. He was part of the team that launched Plus One, one of the most successful contemporary Christian music debut artists ever. His other newly signed artists, Koloff and Clemmons, have fresh pop sounds that are closer to Taylor Swift than anything popular on Christian radio right now.
Maxx Recordings has partnered with Sony RED and New Day Christian for distribution.
“I think (Solarek) is probably right that there’s a void right now in Christian music, and I think he’s probably the right guy to pursue this,” Landis said. “He’s had great success with Plus One, he’s had great success with Danny Gokey. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build a young artist’s career, but he’s got the experience and the eye for talent.”
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