Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Regaining Lost Ground Will Require Time And Right Focus For Memphis Music

It’s incontestable that Memphis has an awful lot of ground to cover if we want to convert our rhetoric about supporting our legendary music into the reality of supporting our musicians.

So, continuing our post from yesterday, how much ground do we need to cover?

According to a report by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, about the 10 other “music cities” in the U.S. besides Chicago, Memphis is last in almost every measurement, including revenue generated by the music industry - $77.07 million.

Everything Looks Up To Us

For our purposes, we’re eliminating New Orleans for obvious reasons, and so, the next city that Memphis has to pass to move up the ladder of success is Austin. Its music industry revenue is more than twice Memphis - $192.17 million.

Then the leap is really challenging. Next on the list are Seattle with $309.23 million, Las Vegas with $350.58 million and Atlanta with $360.4 million. In other words, to move up to sixth place, Memphis needs to increase music revenue about fivefold.

To break into the top five is a challenge altogether tougher - #5 Nashville has $469.64 million in revenue; #4 Boston has $506.6 million; #3 Chicago has $818.91 million; #2 Los Angeles has $3.24 billion; and #1 New York City at $3.4 billion.


We point this out because in Memphis, we are often hypnotized by our own hyperbole. That certainly is frequently the case when we talk about music, and while we have unquestionably squandered our music traditions, we need to be coldly realistic about the challenge as we begin to revive our music business.

It’s a journey that will take a long time, and it will not come chasing magic answers or simple solutions. Back in the day, our daily newspaper boasted that Memphis had the fourth largest music business in the U.S. To get back to that position, we will need to grow our music revenues by $429 million.

And while that of course only gets us back to the same relative position, right now, it looks awfully good.

Memphis As Mausoleum

When you look back to why we jumped the track, people cite lack of civic support for music, lack of acceptance for musicians who were outsiders to the core, lack of venture capital or financial backing and too many musicians who saw their futures in other places.

But to us, one of the major mistakes that we made as a city was treating our music as if it’s all in the rearview mirror. It’s part of what we’ve called the “Memphis as mausoleum” marketing attitude, sending the message that everything exciting took place here between 1950 and 1975.

We’ve been so successful at selling our heritage, it shifted our focus away from the talent that is still here and the opportunities to reinvent the music industry from a Memphis platform. As a result, we find ourselves languishing in the lowest rung on the music city ladder.

Tough Times Demand Smart People

There are some awfully smart people in Memphis about music, and we’re not among them. We quoted one of them yesterday – Tonya Butler, University of Memphis music business professor – and we need to get her and other new thinkers into a new conversation about our music future.

In that way, perhaps, we can move toward the future with less emphasis on the “all or nothing” big ideas that haven’t panned out in the past, and with greater attention to our raw materials for this industry – the creativity of our musicians.

“After the vision, you need a support structure,” Dr. Butler said in an interview in last month’s Memphis magazine. “There’s lots of music in Memphis, but there’s no industry. When I came to Memphis in 2004, it was my understanding that we were courting MTV for the music video awards. I literally thought it was a joke. No one I knew outside of Memphis thought that was remotely possible. The Justin Timberlake renewal of Stax didn’t even make sense. When he ended up starting his label in L.A., that made sense.

Boosting Off

“The entities that have sought to bring industry to Memphis have been way off base. If you’re going to bring an awards show to Memphis, go court a smaller independent music awards show. I understand shooting for the moon, but this rocket ship’s only got so much gas.”

And if we’re looking for a foundation to build on, she suggests Craig Brewer’s films, Kurt Clayton, Al Kapone, Carlos Brody, Ardent, Young Avenue Sound, Studio D, Select-O-Hits, Audio Graphic Master Work, and great vocalists and musicians. Building on these strengths, Memphis can create a vision that makes the most of our music heritage right now, in the present.

Memphis has the talent. What it doesn’t have it time.

Learning From History

More and more, successful economic development today is about talent – how to attract it, how to retain it and how to unleash it. That’s particularly true with music. So, looking back at the history of Memphis music, what lessons should we learn:

1) Memphis’ music came directly from the city’s success as a magnet for talent

2) Memphis’ distinctiveness was a midwife to this burst of creativity

3) The creativity was rooted in the values and sensibilities of a new generation

4) The creative breakthroughs happened far outside the mainstream and were created bottom-up and organically

5) The revolution unleashed in Memphis resulted from a historic fusion of new music and new technology

If Memphis could lead the world into a new era of music then, who is willing to say we can’t do it now?

Inventing The New Music Business

The digital age is transforming the industry, and while those at the top of the food chain try to deny it and stick their fingers in the dike, musicians now have the power to create their own success, build their own value, maintain control of their own careers and follow their own artistic muse.

In the truest sense, when the changes in the music business are complete, it won’t even be the music business anymore. It will be the musician business.

In a world driven by personal customization and musician self-determination, the independence that has always been the creative spark in Memphis should position us to be a leader in the new frontier for the music industry if it is nurtured and strengthened. The digital wave will inevitably wash over the suits and wash away the vestiges of the music industry as we’ve known it, and there’s no reason that our city shouldn’t be on its crest.

But to do it, we need to make three promises to ourselves: One, we will invest in talent; two, we will empower bottom-up solutions; and three, we will create musician-centric strategies.

It’s a long road back to the top, but these would be the best first steps we could make.


Sarah said...

... In other words, "Elvis has left the building..."

B said...

Really. Those Elvis fans aren't going to live forever. This town has lost so many talented musicians because it offers no local support.

bob said...

"Elvis has left the building..."


"Memphis as mausoleum" and (as another commenter put it) "defunct, dead, or dying artists" -- neither of these work for me. Not at all. They seem to forget that Memphis music would be nothing (we wouldn't even having this discussion) except for those artists, many of them still performing even though they have day jobs to survive.

If you actually went and talked to the "defunct, dead, or dying" and really listened, I'd bet they'd have a story to tell about how (except for Elvis of course) the city treats them like zoo animals, feeding them food and water and only bringing them out of their cages to entertain the tourists.

That sounds harsh, maybe even racist, but I think its a pretty fair rendition of what the city faces, if it expects the the "defunct, dead, and dying" to help rebirth the music industry. If you don't want their help, then good luck starting from zero.

Go ahead, walk away from what's real and chase that bright shiny new object you saw some other city had. Bright shiny objects mean nothing without heritage. We've done that so many times, and what do we have to show for it?

Take Beale Street. Ten or 15 years ago, Beale Street was authentic. Today, it is a Disney-fied, commercialized imitation of the original. Now, if you consider tourism to be the major industry you want to grow, then that's okay, because tourists are fools and you can give them almost anything and take their money. On the other hand, if a vibrant music industry is what you want, then tearing down that open sidewalk space where inspired blues artists would come and jam for the love of music, and replacing it with a synthetic amphitheatre, was not necessarily the way to go. I think this is the result of turning Beale Street over to the entrepreneurs. You talk about "Memphis as mauseleum." Instead, I would talk about "Heritage on the cheap." Just saying.

bob said...

P.S., "Respect Yourself"

That was an apt title for the movie at so many levels.

Memphis thinks it does respect itself, but really doesn't. Memphis is like the person who charges his credit cards to the hilt, hoping that bright shiny new objects from the department store will somehow salve the pain and guilt.

Smart City Consulting said...

Do you think that we all can take a vow that we will never again utter these words to a local band:
We're having a charity event and we're looking for a free band. If we can pay for the catering, we can surely pay for the music.

Smart City Consulting said...

Bob: We haven't forgotten your question about heritage on the cheap. We're just still thinking about it.

bob said...

"Do you think that we all can take a vow that [...]"

(Bob chuckles mordantly) Damn, right on the bulls-eye. I've uttered pretty much those very words myself. And I'm feeling guiltier and guiltier about it.

Justin W. McGregor said...

"If we can pay for the catering, we can surely pay for the music."

Can we have an "AMEN!"? I've turned down more than a few gigs on this basis. Is little wonder I went through a career change right after moving to Memphis.

Finding a gig is easy; getting paid is not.

StratmanX said...

I posted this earlier, and I feel it needs posting again:

As a Memphis musician since 1986, I can honestly say "Memphis eats its own".

That is to say, it seems the local movers and shakers are all to quick to point out that Memphis is the "Home of the Blues", and the birthplace of rock and roll and all of that, but when it comes to backing thier hometown musicians, they are severly lacking in putting their money and efforts where their mouths are..

Playing Beale Street clubs for years, as well as local clubs and bars, I can't count how many times the performers come up shortchanged.

And the excuse is, "If you don't like it, theres plenty of others that want to come in and play for next to nothing"


Anonymous said...

Wow, you'd think all you musicicians would appreciate all the "exposure" you get at these free gigs. Ingrates.

Before you cream me, that's a joke....

Smart City Consulting said...

Great comments. You know that in the end, if we're always bragging about our music heritage, the most direct and profound way that we show it is to hire local musicians, elevate local musicians as civic assets, and damn well pay them what they deserve.

Anonymous said...

A good and recent quote from Willie Mitchell describing the support from Memphis' powers to be:

"The Memphis Convention & Visitor's Bureau's celebration of soul this year has helped refocus national and international press attention on the city.

But ask Mitchell if Memphis appreciates its rich soul music legacy, and he howls with laughter.

"Memphis don't give a ****," he says. "Man, you can call up and say I'm Willie Mitchell, I need a hamburger. They'll say, 'Well, go buy the S.O.B. yourself then.' Memphis don't give a damn about nothing. They're not even going to see the Grizzlies anymore. Memphis is a cold place, man."

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Willie Mitchell, people aren't going to see the Griz because Memphis is a poor city that is a marginal NBA city to begin with. It's really sort of disingenuous to criticize Memphis because it really can't afford the NBA. Sort of like criticizing a poor working person for not owning a Mercedes.
The other part I agree with.

E.J. said...

we have a small number of industries that generate real revenue here in memphis -- FedEx, International Paper, and AutoZone.

the demographic of the wage earners for these companies doesn't dictate a logical pattern of interest to new music or any concern for keeping that going.

we don't have a paul allen or a michael dell whose generosity has supported the expansion of music communities in other major cities.

we as a city have done very little to attract or sustain the creative class to our home. i think this is a brilliantly written article and i want to thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

Clean up memphis