FIRST THREE ACTS
Pop trio consisting of all-star football player Josh Davis, “American Idol” alum Spencer Lloyd and son of iconic CCM artist Kim Hill Benji Schuler; debut is being produced by Bernie Herms
Reality TV star who appeared on two seasons of Lifetime’s popular network series “Preachers Daughters”; currently in the studio with GRAMMY®-winning producer Drew Ramsey
Nashville native and Brentwood High School freshman
GMA Industry Executive Interview: Mitchell Solarek
By Lindsay Williams
After moving to Nashville in 2000 to connect his successful modeling agency with the music industry, Mitchell Solarek spent the next 15 years building Maximum Artist Group, a company that offers a wide range of artist services, including management, publishing and now record label services through the newly-minted Maxx Recordings. Solarek was the mastermind behind Christian vocal super group Plus One—one of the most successful new artist launches in CCM history—and today manages Natalie Grant, Donald Lawrence, Danny Gokey and Bernie Herms. He also serves as the executive producer of Mary Mary’s popular reality show on We tv. Last month, he announced the debut of Maxx Recordings, a full service record label, whose first three signees—3for3, Kolby Koloff and Riley Clemmons—will intentionally fill a gap echoing Top 40 sensibilities within the CCM genre.
In the midst of a hectic travel schedule, Solarek recently took time to share his vision behind Maxx Recordings, how hip-hop is the new pop and why he’s more excited than ever about the present state of the music industry.
You already have so much going on with your management business and the publishing arm of what you do, so why did you decide to add a full service record label on top of that?
I don’t feel like I’m walking in here and doing anything different than what I’ve been doing for 15 years. We are in the business of partnering with my clients and helping them to expand, build and broaden their platforms. So by adding a label component, it enabled us to have another vehicle to get their music out in addition to the labels we currently work with. To be honest, sometimes I just have fewer phone calls because I don’t have to check with so many people. From a synergy level, in some regards, it is a little easier, because I don’t have to get approvals from a lot of different parties.
[Recently] we were doing our first retail meeting for 3for3, and the buyer said to the sales guys and myself, “So, do you guys want to check with your label, and let me know if we can do this?” I smiled and looked at all of them and said, “Who do I need to check with? Yes! The deal is done. Let’s do business.” It was just the most amazing day for me because I walked out of there going, Oh my goodness, that was just painless and fun. And that’s our biggest goal. I love this business. I think it’s a phenomenal time to be an entrepreneur in the music business, and I’ve honestly never been more excited about what I am doing then right now.
Maxx Recordings is focused primarily on creating artists for Top 40, right?
Yeah, that’s right! One of our biggest challenges has always been that we really love a Top 40 musical sensibility. We have always gravitated toward that. That has not always been the most popular music format for our industry. As a result we have struggled in getting our artists record deals. We would have management and publishing and everything lined up, but we wouldn’t be able to find a record label. For example, Natalie Grant was passed on by every Christian label in this town two or three times. Thank God Mike Curb stepped up and said, “Hey, we would love to do a record with her.” … We feel like we have some really phenomenal options when it comes to existing record labels, but stylistically, what they do doesn’t always fit with the musical direction we are working with at the time. So in order to support our clients and make sure we can put their music in the market, we started Maxx.
Has there been a key person in the industry who’s inspired you professionally as you’ve built your new business model for Maxx Recordings
I have to say that one of the most inspirational people in the music business I see today is Scott Borchetta, who started Big Machine. While everyone was running around talking about how bad the music business was and how the sky was falling, Brochetta just walked around and quietly built the most successful music business there is today. So it’s really your perspective. I choose to see this as the most amazing time of opportunity in my lifetime. For me, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life.
The three artists you’ve signed so far are pretty young. Is your goal to reach a younger core demographic?
I think you are going to see that in the next five years we will be much broader from an A&R perspective than we are today, but this first round really comes from what we see as the greatest need for new talent right now.
So if one of the artists you currently manage is out of their current record deal in a few years, would you consider signing them to Maxx?
We are very supportive of our artists and the relationships they currently have; and if those are working, then we are going to continue to be the partner we have always been with the labels that our artists are already signed to. However, if something changed and it wasn’t working, and they wanted to be at Maxx, then by all means, we would love to see that happen… We would [also] love to be working with managers who have great talent and be collaborative. It’s really just a matter of what best serves the artist. If we can best serve them by being their manager, then great. If we can best serve them by being their publisher, great. If we can best serve them by being their record label, great. We just want to serve them well and help them achieve everything they feel called to do.
You were responsible for breaking Plus One, who experienced enormous success right away, and a lot of it was really good timing because mainstream boy bands were blowing up, and we didn’t have an alternative to that in Christian music. Do you feel that you have the same type of scenario working for you in the market currently?
100 percent. A lot of things I do come from personal experience. I have a 13-year-old daughter. I am having dialogue with her every day about what gets played in the car, and when we don’t have music that sonically fits the pocket of what she wants to listen to, then that’s a problem for me. And I think it’s a problem for all of us. I want my children and their friends listening to Christian radio. I want them listening to things that will encourage them and edify them, but if we don’t deliver our music in a way that doesn’t respond to what’s going on at Top 40 radio, then we are just going to continue losing them.
I find it funny in this business that every time someone talks about music for youth, the Christian music industry is famous for throwing everybody a rock band. But when was the last time rock was the primary Top 40 musical genre? Hip-hop is Top 40 today. That is why Lecrae is the No. 1 selling artist. That’s why Reach Records is succeeding… If you’re under the age of 30, you have never known music without hip-hop. Hip-hop is pop music. So our music, stylistically, needs to reflect what is popular at Maxx.
Do you feel like these artists will have mainstream appeal, too?
I think that is always a possibility, but we are not focusing on that in any way. We don’t talk about that with our artists. We just want to focus on being authentic, and if that resonates in a format outside of Christian music, then fine. But we’re not chasing that, and we don’t have an agenda for that. I think from an A&R perspective, we are very aware that lyrically we know who we are talking to and we know who our market is. We may be a little more broad in our subject matter; but at the end of the day, it’s coming from the perspective of artists who love Jesus.
It’s really hard to break new artists, especially right now, so what is your approach to introducing these first three acts signed to Maxx?
We are going to where our consumers are, and that happens to be online… So that is a huge part of our strategy—social media engagement. Now I know everyone says that, but we’ve actually got a bigger social media staff than we do marketing and radio staff. So we are putting a ton of energy there. We have [also] started a very aggressive campaign to get our clients out in front of radio stations.
How many people on staff do you currently have working on the record label side?
There are four people on staff working full-time, then we have an army of independents. Over the course of the next 12 months, as our release schedule grows and we see the need for it, we will keep adding to the team.
When will we start hearing new music?
3for3’s single, “Halfway,” [went] on sale June 9, and the first EP, which will be Maxx’s first release, will come out July 24. Kolby Koloff will be in 2015, although we have not set a release date yet; and then 3for3’s first studio album will be out in the first quarter of 2016.
What will touring look like?
This demo expects great visuals. They expect videos, and they expect a really great live show. They don’t put it in a Christian box, and so therefore, it can’t be mediocre. So we’ve got to come out of the gate swinging. We’ve brought in two creative directors who have worked on a lot of major Top 40 acts and are working with 3for3 on their live show, so when they come out, they will be well prepared to deliver a great show.
With the music industry constantly evolving and revenue models changing, how are you managing expectations?
Well, we are always grateful that we didn’t start this 10 years ago, because I may be having a different conversation. Fortunately for us, we are starting in the here and now, and this is the model and this is the business that we are in, so we have adjusted and created our business model based on today’s economics. And I’m sure in five years we will have to readjust it again.
For more info, visit www.maxxrecordings.com.