Sunday, August 12, 2007

Live From Memphis Faces Another Memphis Music Tradition: Lack Of Support

The track record of the Memphis Music Foundation has been one of false starts and misplaced priorities, but it’s on the verge of falling convincingly on its face.

That’s because Memphis Music’s pioneering digital outpost – – will in all likelihood close up shop at the end of the year.

And if there’s anything that will speak volumes about the philosophy and approach of the Foundation – and the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, for that matter – it will be the failure of our most innovative music initiative. It will also come at the time when Memphis Fast Forward claims that music is a major priority in the much-ballyhooed economic growth plan.


Worst of all, it will be an indictment of a foundation has too often in the past unveiled music strategies as something to be thrust upon Memphis musicians rather than as something to be built on the organic creativity that has always been at the heart of the Memphis Music.

Live From Memphis
is just such an exercise in creativity. Long before it became clear that the traditional music business models – something akin to the company store for musicians – were collapsing, Christopher Reyes, the founder of Live From Memphis, understood that a change is gonna come.

As a result, years ago, he eliminated the cumbersome business model and connected Memphis bands directly with their customers. In the emerging world of customer customization, he founds ways to get on the leading edge of the change.

Bottom Up Works Best

He did it in a uniquely Memphis way, characterized by an unwavering attention to the interests of musicians and to getting to the grassroots of creativity, where the greatest Memphis music has always been found, away from the city’s mainstream and in musical cauldrons where originality and authenticity are their own rewards.

That much has never changed in Memphis, because the unique musical styles of our city are just as alive today as when they burst forth from Sun Records and other studios. And just as it was then, it happens largely unnoticed by the private sector, because it has no experience with the kind of independent, free spirits who are heirs to our music tradition and the exact kind of people whose talents must lie at the heart of our music strategies.

Looking back at our history, the burst of genius that produced rock and roll came from the convergence of the musical talents of outsiders and advances in technology. The same could happen today, but it would require us to turn our attention from pipe dreams like the MTV Awards, ill-conceived ideas like relocating the Voodoo Festival, and other big ideas that never quite seem to live up to what was promised – Justin Timberlake’s Memphis operations.

It’s About Money

Bold ambitions are always welcome in Memphis, but perhaps, what we need now is some incremental progress that is built steadfastly on local musicians. The measure of whether a new idea is a good one should be simple: If it’s not putting money into the pockets of our own musicians, it’s not a priority for now.

In other words, music can benefit our economic growth, but not by treating it as an industry cluster or in traditional economic development thinking. Perhaps, if we treated music as a creative force that could have economic benefits and we aligned our incentives and our investments to build our unique talent, we’d have greater chances for success in the long-term.

There’s a feeling among some musicians that the work of the Music Foundation doesn’t really affect them, and it’s a hurdle that’s at the top of the to-do list for its new president. He also moves in the right direction by opening up the work of the organization, by listening to musicians’ opinions and by exploiting the national connections of all Memphis musicians, not just concentrating on the one who thinks it’s all him being sexy.

Taking Action

Memphis musicians are a creative bunch, and many show the same kind of futuristic thinking as Mr. Reyes. After all, everything that he said eight years ago has come to pass. The traditional music business model is in melt-down, and while we seem intent on chasing grand plans and throwing millions of dollars at them, Live From Memphis is likely to shut down for want of thousands of dollars.

If it happens, we need to come to grips with a reality about our city. We’re all talk when it comes to Memphis Music. When it comes to actually doing something to prove that our music isn’t just about the past and that great music is being played and recorded in this city, we’re awful slow to take action.

If Live From Memphis shuts down, we all need to quit bragging about our music legacy and we need to throw away all the brochures about our proud heritage. If we can’t figure out how to continue the website that links current musicians and bands to the world, our failure becomes a stark demonstration of the attitude that confronted so many music innovators throughout our history.

Respect Yourself

There’s the mythology that somehow, these musical innovators were recognized for their genius and were strongly supported by the mainstream of Memphis. Nothing is farther from the truth. If we can do anything to prove that we’ve learned the lessons from our history, it would be to show that we are tapping into the kinds of organic creativity that lies at the heart of our music in the first place.

If the Memphis Music Foundation and all the rest of us want to show that we “gets” it, the perfect place to start is in saving Live From Memphis. If we allow Live From Memphis to go dark because Mr. Reyes can’t continue to finance it himself, it will be the kind of failure that will come to define our city. Again.

We thought of this recently when we watched PBS’s Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. It was troubling to contemplate whether we’d learned anything from the painful collapse of that legendary Memphis label. Watching the documentary, it was striking how cavalier most Memphians were about whether Stax lived or died and how much the top-down thinking doomed the label.

So far, we haven’t shown conclusively that we learned anything from that tragic experience. Live From Memphis gives us our chance.

Tomorrow: The State of Memphis Music


RuralFreeDelivery said...

I had no idea that LFM was in such dire financial straits. This is pretty troubling indeed, and yet another example of the Music Commission's ongoing aloof and disconnected relationship with our city's real music community.

As a journalist and a fan, LFM has been an indispensable calendar and clearinghouse of information about events in the city. It's new LFM radio station was a terrific step in building larger nationwide awareness of Memphis' terrific modern rock scene.

In fairness, it should be noted that LFM focuses equally on music, art (performance and visual), and cinema--so the burden of supporting falls to fans of each of those disciplines, as well as institutions like the Greater Memphis Arts Council and the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission.

Hopefully Reyes and his LFM team will be able to find the means to keep the site alive, albeit in maybe a more modest format. Thanks for bringing attention to this very upsetting situation.

city watch said...

We haven't kept up with nor understand the music industry, but we were amazed that after seeing a local singer on George Kline show, no one had heard of her at Spin City, and they didn't have much on contemporary Memphis musians.

Why hasn't some central authority bought space at music stores and other outlets with creative Kiosk-type display of Memphis music that is current with explanations of artist, style and history Maybe with some oldies but goodies mixed in.

Anonymous said...

You know, it might help if the word got out sooner about LFM's situation rather than it being a crisis last minute kind of thing.

City Watch, good idea. Local records stores, whether chains or not, should support local music.

Smart City Consulting said...

It's not exactly a last minute crisis sort of thing. We've been writing about it for a couple of years, but no one at any of the music support groups seems to be paying any attention. Christopher Reyes just seems to have finally reached the end of his ability to fund this out of his pocket.

bob said...

Since Tom (the principal blogger) and I have disagreed on certain things before, I want to emphasize right off that I'm not disagreeing with him on this one. I wholeheartedly agree with his problem statement and encourage him to explore the issues as much as he can find the time to do so. I eagerly await part 2.

I just want to suggest to him a possible explanation -- an organic reason why this, as with so many other worthwhile things in Memphis, tends to fail.

I call it "Heritage on the cheap."

I've observed a tendency in Memphis to have eyes bigger than our pocketbooks. We have desires and aspirations far greater than our evident willingness to pay for them. It's possible we can't help it. After all, Tennessee has one of the lowest state and local tax rates in the nation. Memphians themselves don't feel like they're undertaxed, because they get two tax bills every year. But the numbers bear out that we (broadly speaking) do not put a lot of our money into the public sector.

Individually speaking, some do.

Instead of taxing ourselves, we rely on a couple of private things to back fill our public aspirations: (1) The generosity of a handful of family foundations, and (2) the generosity of local, well-heeled businesses. Truthfully, (1) and (2) are related, because the the foundations are the spawn of very wealthy folk who got their money from those same businesses.

Far be it from me to complain about that. I am grateful to these folks for whatever help they provide, via foundations or businesses (so long as there aren't too many strings attached).

But in reality, these sources can only provide the seed money.

In the longer term, we rely on "public-private partnerships," and pure privatization. I despise the former term and would like to blog on it, but I'll save that for another day. What's important here is that we rely on a presumption that our public-minded aspirations can always be achieved by relying on self-sustaining private enterprise. In many cases, that presumption is false.

And even when our on-the-cheap plan turns out to really accomplish something, we later discover that we sold our souls to get it.

Not to bring up a sore subject, but here's an example: I think that is what happened on the Riverfront. There are so many things we could have done to improve the Riverfront (and solve most of the issues the RDC loves to highlight in its publicity) if we had been willing to pay a mere $10 or $30 million out of the public treasury*. But we weren't willing. So the powers that be turned the whole Riverfront problem over to private enterprise (read developers) using a so-called "public-private partnership" as a proxy. And guess what? It turns out that what they would do would cost us $100-300 million, and would sell out the City's heritage (the Promenade) in the bargain! And now, seven years later, we have nothing -- but the City wants to spend $20 million on something we don't need so they can close the books on this and claim it was all a success.

Now I don't expect Smart City to agree with me on my characterization of the Riverfront. It doesn't matter for the current discussion.

But I would like to hear Smart City Memphis tackle the general question:

Can Memphis have "Heritage on the cheap?" Is it always possible to find a profit-making way of doing the right thing? Or will we someday have to either pay up, or shut up?

I'm sure Tom's wealth of exerience in the public and private sectors (I mean that sincerely) should lead to some interesting commentary and discussion.

* $10-30 million over and above what was already necessary, for reasons of homeland security and age, to pay to move the Front Street fire station, I hasten to add.

Anonymous said...

I think City Watch meant Spin Street. Maybe he's a Michael J. Fox fan. Of course, finding George Kline or even George Klein on TV is a trick too. His show's pretty good, believ it or not. But it is public access buried at 2:00 AM.

Making the local outlets more aware of the Mephis music scene is a good idea. Seems to me I see more local music in used CD/record stores.

Smart City Consulting said...


We'll clearly never agree on the riverfront (we saw it as the vehicle to accomplish just precisely what we needed to maximize our river heritage, it wasn't a sell-out to developers but a carefully constructed business plan that generated enough money to pay for the much-needed improvements, and Beale Street Landing is desperately needed for reasons we have previously enumerated, because Memphis has the absolutely dullest waterfront of any city where we work, etc., etc., but we'll never agree with each other)so to discuss the interesting question you raise, can you give some examples of heritage on the cheap, so we can discuss it? Maybe we can discuss this more broadly as one of the "questions of the week" topics.

Jazzology said...

I hate to say it... but it's the same in New Orleans. People will care a lot more when it's gone and the memories will be fonder than the reality ever was.

as long as electronic media is dominated by five or six large corporations, the same old brittney fity cent puffdaddy clearchannel sony emi corporate crap will superceed the "real" culture that inspired the creation of the mess that is 500 channels of homogenous "product"

As long as we are too stupid or lazy to do anything other than complain...why would anything change ?

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