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Avante Records Interview with Marshall Zacharias and Amanda Falk

Big record labels are all about marketing who sells, who gets listened to, and artists are signed and dropped without most music industry executives batting an eye. It is therefore refreshing to find that upstart independent record label Avante Records based in Winnipeg, Canada, has built a family atmosphere among its staff and artists. In our continuing expose concerning the state of the Christian music industry in Canada, The Phantom Tollbooth sits down and chats with Marshall Zacharias, the president of Avante Records. We also caught up with one of the label's brightest stars, Amanda Falk, who was first featured in The Phantom Tollbooth during the summer of 2005. 
Although Avante Records first opened its studios in 2003, it has quickly accomplished what nobody else has been able to do for decades in Canada. The label has kept its artists on torrid touring schedules, produced quality albums and stayed the course of remaining ministry focused. Avante Records has served as the launch pad for twice Grammy nominated rapper Fresh I.E. and Juno Award winner Amanda Falk (the Juno is Canada's equivalent to a Grammy). Falk has also been the recipient of numerous major Canadian music awards.  
Avante Records began with a vision held by Zacharias and his wife Malynda who had just retired as touring artists. They felt God had given them a plan to use their experience to disciple, mentor and develop aspiring young artists. They soon partnered with Family Life Network in Winnipeg and with the assistance of Delbert Enns reopened a studio that had been dormant for a number of years. "The only request he made was that we had to give up ownership and it had to be a ministry," said Zacharias. 
When asked what has contributed to the success already enjoyed by Avante Records Zacharias was quick to respond, "It would have been impossible to get through the first three years without some major support from the Family Life Network." When pressed for an answer beyond the obvious need for financial backing, Zacharias was just as quick to deflect praise to his staff and artists. One gets the impression that the Avante executive is so ministry-focused that it does not occur to him at times that he has stamped that same image upon the hearts of his people. 

Twenty-one-year-old Amanda Falk who was raised in small prairie town is a shining example of how honoring God's vision for ministry can catapult a music career. In just two years Falk has experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the Canadian music scene and with her Juno Award this past spring beat out some tough competition such as Thousand Foot Krutch and Reliant K. It is not surprising given Avante Records' mandate to hear Falk said, "I know people always want to acknowledge the artist but it is such a team effort. When I was accepting various awards I was just wishing they could all be there to celebrate with me. It is a combination of hard work by so many different people." Falk then goes through various members of the label's staff and tells me how appreciative she is of their efforts on her behalf. 
"We try to partner with the artists. We don't own every piece of their furniture and real estate," said Zacharias. "We work extensively with Fresh I. E. We work with him on bookings, management and producing his records. The partnership is strong," he said. Continuing to talk about the rapper Zacharias said, "He gained a lot of press with his Grammy nomination. He is a hardworking minister and wherever he goes favor follows him."
Every spring Avante Records holds a four week talent search as a means of discovering new talent. The event is a collaborative effort between the label and a Winnipeg Christian radio station CHVN. In conjunction with the talent search artist improvement seminars are held. Topics include; communication, stage presentation and developing songwriting skills. 
Another innovation that has proven successful for Avante Records is The Ultimate Pajama Party For Girls. The ministry was the brainchild of Malynda Zacharias. Falk described the events, "We partner with churches and youth groups to reach the girls in their community, churches and drop in centers. Every church basement is transformed into this ultimate pajama party." Falk described for me a retro style set that is constructed consisting of shag carpets, lava lamps, tube lighting, pillows and pictures.
"We have a speaker who shares her personal story about finding self worth. I tell a few of my own stories along similar lines," said Falk. She talks about the time set aside for open discussion and how one on one or in a group setting girls can talk about esteem battles they may be waging. Falk also performs in a relaxed atmosphere during the evening. 
"There are a lot of fun activities (such as) a pizza party and a chocolate fondue fountain," Falk said.  She joked, "I figured the first day that I was on the tour that if I overdid it on chocolate I would never want chocolate again but that hasn't happened yet."
Not to pose a pun but Zacharias sang the praises of Falk, "She has worked extremely hard at touring and traveling. In 2005 she did 130 shows. She is teachable, moldable and faithful. Those are the things that we can work with. Those are the things that we are going after (in other artists).
Canadian Content rules have long afforded Canadian musicians and singers an opportunity to have their work played on radio stations in Canada. In mainstream music the protectionist tactic allowed time for Canadian grassroots musicians, songwriters and singers to hone their craft and now the public is not short changed on quality when their work airs. The same CANCON rules apply for Christian artists. Zacharias said, "In the past, when you listened to a song you might have said to yourself, 'That must be a CANCON artist because the quality was not up to par.' I believe that is changing and we are hearing artists who are doing better recordings as the (industry matures). I think we are going to see Canadian (Christian) radio embrace the artists not because they have to but as a result of them falling in love with the (quality of their music). I believe we are going to see a different attitude toward the Canadian artist in the next couple of years."
Looking into the future Zacharias said the long term success of a label such as Avante Records will be dependent on the label's ability to retain artists and expanding their horizons. We will without question have to expand our touring into the United States and possibly the British market. That will be our goal. Secondly there may be a need for us to partner with larger distribution and marketing companies."

By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved

Joe Montague is an internationally published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague. 


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