Some music critics have predicted that the appeal of contemporary Christian music would decline permanently in the digital era. However, two record labels based in Nashville are defying the trend and expanding the genre's boundaries.
According to Nate Rau of The Tennessean, one of them is Maxx Recordings, launched by music industry veteran Mitchell Solarek. His "artist management firm" has represented well-known Christian music superstars such as Natalie Grant, Danny Gokey, and Donald Lawrence.
"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 anymore."
According to Rau, Solarek created his full-service record label after running a modeling agency in San Francisco. Solarek also pointed out that the Christian music genre, along with the rest of the music industry, has been wrestling over their futures and worrying about the sky falling.
"Labels were resistant to trying new approaches or pushing new, outside-the-box artists," Rau wrote, citing Solarek. "Solarek hopes Maxx Recordings can step in and take the risks that established labels have been resistant to take."
Rau reported that Solarek is also working with new artists such as boy band 3for3 and young female singer-songwriters Kolby Koloff and Riley Clemmons. He emphasized that he was in the "content creation business," not the music industry.
"With 3for3, a group of three young male pop artists, Solarek is returning to his strengths," Rau wrote. "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."
According to Rau, Maxx Recordings has partnered with Sony RED and New Day Christian for distribution. Barry Landis, former president of Word Label Group and current president and chief executive of Ribbow Media Group, thought Solarek could help save the Christian music industry.
"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."
Rau reported that the other Christian music upstart came from Storysong, which is structured as a nonprofit organization. It spins off from 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," Rau wrote.
Wagner elaborated on how he and his wife, Kalle Wagner, created Storysong after a conversation with Leadership International founder Larry Warren.
"Three and a half years ago, Larry and I reconnected and he said he had 100 kids in Zimbabwe who were all students who were orphans," Wagner said. "He said, 'I have these kids, and we don't have any support coming in for them. If you can figure out a way to raise money to keep these kids in school, let's do that.'"
According to Rau, Storysong released its second compilation, featuring mainstream Christian music artists Jars of Clay, TobyMac, Newsboys, and even Wagner himself. Music industry veteran Buddy Greene, who also contributed to that compilation, loved that both Wagner and Warren keep the focus of their organization on ministry first.
"It's hard to keep an effort like this clean in every way because there are all these other entities involved," Greene said. "Usually there are labels and middlemen and stuff like that. I love the way they structured it."
While Rau pointed out that Maxx Recordings and Storysong take different goals and approaches, both stand to reap the benefits from Christian music's popularity. He cited a report published by the Gospel Music Association in June, finding that 68 percent of Americans indicated that they listened to Christian or gospel music in the past month.
"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," Landis said.