Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A To Do List For Memphis Music That Helps Our Musicians

This post was previously published in Memphis Business Quarterly's Winter Issue:

Continued from the previous post...

No longer dependent on “artist development” from record companies managing the modern equivalent of the company store, musicians now have the ability to create their own success, build their own value, maintain control of their own careers, and follow their muse. In a sense, when the changes are complete, the music business will have become the musician business.

It’s a new world of customer customization and musician empowerment, and the independence that lies at the heart of it is a fundamental characteristic of Memphis music itself.

The digital wave will inevitably wash away the vestiges of the music industry as we have known it, and with Memphis’ history of entrepreneurial leaps – whether inventing American popular music or modern international commerce – there’s no reason that our city can’t get there first and become a dominant player in music again.

Guiding Principles

Knowing this, what guiding principles should we follow?

Invest in talent.
It’s the mantra in the knowledge economy, and it’s especially true in Memphis, a city with a rich vein of creativity. Rather than put millions of dollars on the line for big ideas, a venture fund is needed to invest in creativity that refuses to be limited by conventional thinking or old business models.

Empower bottom-up solutions. Memphis’ history shows that top-down programs find little traction with musicians known for their independence. (Required reading: the Chips Moman file in the Memphis Room of the Central Library.)

Create musician-centric strategies. With the Music Commission swinging for the fences, musicians often feel like afterthoughts. There is the widespread suspicion that music initiatives aren’t about musicians, but an agenda thrust upon them. Successful strategies need to be defined simply – whether they put money in the pocket of local musicians.


Make Memphis music ubiquitous. Our music should be the thread that weaves together the fabric of the city. When people dial the mayor’s office in Seattle, they hear local bands, and the city website even offers information about bands, their web links, and podcasting subscriptions. That would be a start, but we’ll know we’ve succeeded when our music finally greets people at Memphis International Airport.

Make music a key part of a larger creative worker strategy. Rather than treat music as another economic development program, it should be a way to unleash the creativity that is an innate part of Memphis’ psyche and create the vibrancy that makes cities appealing to knowledge workers.

Pursue distinctiveness as a competitive advantage.
There is a proven economic advantage in difference, and in recent CEOs for Cities’ research of the 50 largest cities about talent, innovation, distinctiveness, and connectivity, Memphis scores highest on distinctiveness. In the report’s “Weirdness Index,” Memphis is #19, and if Memphis wants to emulate Austin in anything, it should be its “Keep Austin Weird” campaign.


Help become the digital standard. Long before anyone else, Memphian Christopher Reyes realized that a change is gonna come, and his musician-centered website, connects Memphis bands directly to consumers. is Memphis’ outpost on the digital frontier, but with the serious financial support it deserves and needs, it could become much more.

Make music strategies transparent.
Programs of the Music Commission and Music Foundation have been dragged down by turf issues, questions about priorities, and lack of dependable communication and involvement with government and community organizations. Yes, it’s a lot of trouble, but ultimately, success depends on it.


Create a nationally televised music show. It’s the long-held dream of all local music aficionados that Memphis will be home to a national television paying tribute to Memphis talent and those drawn by its mythology. A good starting point for this project is considering how Beale Street Caravan could make the shift to video.

Create a digital music resource center. Youtube, myspace, webcasts, podcasts, and blogs are just the beginning of the revolution. That’s why artists need access to a virtual infrastructure that connects them to world markets. A center where musicians learn the principles of a media economy and embrace the opportunities of the digital marketplace is just as essential to Memphis musicians as their instruments, because today, many consumers are seeking the authenticity, the connection, and a sense of community built around their favorite musicians on-line.


Will said...

When I was considering a move to Memphis, my general impression of the city (based on a handful of tourist-y visits) was Memphis is "hip".

In my mind, Memphis was in a group of just a few other cities; Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, and maybe Chicago. I didn't get that impression because of Fed-Ex. It was Beale Street, it was the Music, it was Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Now that I'm here, other than the Graceland billboards, and the crowds every August for Elvis' Death, you'd never know what an influential (and cool) city Memphis has been.

Anonymous said...

Ouch- "has been"

I work in a famous restaurant here in town. Alot of people from out of town will ask about Beale Street. No employee in the restaurant could give visitors an accurate description of the clubs and businesses on Beale aside from Silky's, BB King's, or Blue's City. My restaurant is two blocks away. Almost no Memphian in my age group 24-34 goes to or has a very positive opinion of Beale. Tourists and college students may go to Beale. It's cheesy, a meat market, and you just go to drink.
It is also difficult to tell visitors where to hear blues music. Aside from some older, more wealthy white folks, no one I know listens to blues.
Other than Stax and Sun Studio, I don't know what to tell tourists. Plus, it feels anachronistic. It's like going to Berlin and asking to see some "real" Communist East German stuff. If tourists are in their 30's or younger, I usually tell them to go to Hi-Tone or Young Avenue Deli, neither of which are in downtown.

sherman said...

Well, just cuz you don't know anyone who "listens to the blues" doesn't mean those people don't exist! You could try the Blue Worm on Airways every Fri/Sat. night or the Executive Inn on Sundays for awesome, non-Mustang Sally, non-touristy blues with great crowds every weekend. People come from all over the world looking to hear this stuff. (You can also tell visitors about one of the best tours in town--Gibson Guitar Factory).

If you want to hear great live music in Memphis, there is plenty of it away from Beale St. (One block away, Gibson Lounge is booking some of the top acts in the world--at least in the last 8 months or so). In fact, right now the live club scene in Memphis is as vibrant and the Memphis bands are as good as it has been in 30 years. The mid-town club scene has supported this renaissance for the last 15 years. Downtown, not so much.

I do agree that Beale St. music is the cat's ass, and no local in their right mind would go down there to hear that noise (Try walking down Beale St at night--it's like being assaulted with a deadly sound system--the karaoke bar is particularly annoying and insulting). At the least, the folks who run that street are really killing (or trying to) the long-term Memphis music business. They better watch out as real blues is coming to Ground Zero a 1/2 block away in the Westin Hotel. Beale St. will either have to start competing with, gasp, quality music (the line-up hasn't changed down there in over 15 years) or their customers will be walking right down the street. Let's see what happens when there is actual competition within walking distance to these clubs...

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