Monday, August 13, 2007

Report Hits Off Notes About Memphis Music

In a Memphis magazine interview, Tonya Butler, three-year resident who’s teaching music business at University of Memphis, made this prescient statement: “There’s lots of music in Memphis, but there’s no industry.”

Her point is made powerfully clear in a recent report for the Chicago Music Commission on the state of the music industry in the Windy City. In graph after graph, Chicago measures its performance and compares it to America’s other famous music cities. Sadly, Memphis is essentially a footnote.

For the report, the Chicago Music Commission developed a set of indicators, and then compared itself to nine other music cities – New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and Seattle.

On The Last Rung

Chicago ranked third in most measurements, but that’s not the reason we were interested. In indicator after indicator, Memphis ranked in the bottom two in every measurement, suggesting the grim reality facing the Memphis Fast Forward alliance which has set music/film as one of the four main areas of emphasis for economic growth in the coming years.

Here are some telling details from the report:

* Musicians – In the category which the report rightly calls the “Core of the Core: Employed Musicians,” Memphis finished last in the number of groups and artists who make their living in music. We have 202 people who make their living in music, compared to Nashville’s 2,761; Seattle’s 828; Atlanta’s 530, and Austin’s 362.

* Grassroots musicians and bands – This is the measurement of the grassroots music scene, and Memphis actually beats out Nashville – 1,122 to 1,103. Atlanta has 4,061 and Seattle has 5,744.

* In total music employment, Memphis finished in last place with 4,762 total employees. Atlanta has 16,940 working in its music industry and Seattle has 22,908 people.

Live In Memphis

* Tickets sold for live performances – Memphis finished in last place with 146,000 tickets, compared to 483,000 in Nashville, 501,000 in Austin and 1,087,000 in Seattle. It’s stark evidence to the validity of the complaints of countless music promoters who have lost their shirt in Memphis. Receipts from live performances was $6.5 million, about half of the next lowest city.

* Music firms – Memphis finished last in the number of music businesses (recording studios, stores selling instruments, radio stations, instrument manufacturers, etc) with 283. That compares to 623 in Austin; 1,662 in Atlanta; and 1,943 in Seattle.

* Music payroll – Memphis finished last with $73.32 millions, compared to $119.85 million in Austin; $403.58 million in Seattle and $422.96 million in Nashville.

* Music industry revenue – Memphis finished last with $77.07 million, compared to $192.17 million in Austin; $360.40 million in Atlanta; and $309.23 million in Seattle.


* Total records sales – Memphis finished last with 3.27 million units, compared to 5.49 million in Nashville, 13.51 million in Seattle and 13.55 million in Atlanta.

* Venue capacity – Memphis finished last with 81,609 seats, compared to Austin’s 108,812, Seattle’s 234,005 and Seattle’s 234,005. There is a little bit of a bright light here: when venues are measured per thousand people: Memphis is tied for fifth.

* Median venue capacity – Attesting to Memphis’ vibrant club scene, the average venue has capacity of 700, compared to 699 in Nashville, 750 in Seattle and 950 in Austin. Unfortunately, Memphis is last in the amount of gross receipts generated by each seat - $80 – but just barely behind Nashville at $90.

* Musical format – Memphis is second behind Las Vegas in the lack of clubs and small venues devoted to a discernible genre. While country music holds the largest shares in Austin, Nashville, and even Atlanta, 86 percent of Memphis clubs have no specific kind of music, meaning that if you’re looking for a diversified music scene, we’ve got it. One proviso from the report: “the lack of specialization also reflects the basic economic principle that larger markets can support more niches than smaller ones.”

Get Real

Conducted by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, the report is one of the most thorough that we’ve ever seen on the strength of the music industry in various cities, and it goes the extra mile to make sure measurements are comparable.

All in all, it paints a disturbing picture of how difficult it will be to catapult Memphis into the top tier of cities with vibrant, healthy music industries. If nothing else, it suggests that if Memphis Fast Forward is to build music into a dominant growth industry for Memphis, it will be brick by brick over many years.

If there’s any encouragement to come from the report, perhaps it’s the fact that in the past 15 years or so, Atlanta has come from nowhere to become one of the top music cities in the U.S. That fact alone salves our bruised pride, but we just have to remember that whatever we do here will take more than a decade.

Climbing The Ladder

Another interesting aspect of the report is that the city just ahead of us in most of the rankings is Austin, which calls itself “Live Music Capital” and with little to back it up, staked out that brand for itself. A number of Memphis business leaders have looked admiringly at Austin for inspiration for our strategies for Memphis music, but as the report shows, Austin is barely a rung above Memphis and is itself a distance from breaking into the top five cities.

Then again, perhaps the Austin model is more relevant than we would like to admit. Without a traditional infrastructure for the music industry, it’s carved out its niche in live music, a funky music scene, a reputation for weirdness that inspires the musicians there and industry showcases.

Memphis has the same strengths, plus we have a music heritage that can’t be duplicated by any city on the globe. In other words, without too much effort, we should be able to push past Austin on the top 10 list, but the real test is moving up to the levels of Seattle and Atlanta.

Price Of Neglect

It’s hard to imagine that we have fallen so far from our glory years, but eventually, we have to pay the price for neglecting our music assets, giving up Stax without even a fight and failing to support the other studios that gave Memphis its distinctive sound. The price for the neglect is clear: it’s seen in our last place finish on the list.

But it also suggests that we need to be more realistic about our expectations, and as we proceed, we need to tattoo one sentence from the Chicago report on our arms. It said: “What (we) become in the future depends on the genius of our music makers…”

It sounds basic, but it’s a fundamental fact of life that we tend to overlook here. If we’re really serious about reviving our music industry and becoming known once again as a hub of music creativity, it’s the musicians, stupid.

Tomorrow: A Few Ideas


sherman said...

Interesting report. One fundamental shift that has yet to occur in Memphis with the renaissance of the Memphis music scene since 1990: promotion of current Memphis events has lagged the funding of the city re: MCVB as well as various commissions and public funding. Hopefully this will soon change as momentum continues and more great non-Stax/Sun/Hi/blues sounds emanate from Memphis. It would be nice to see a picture of Lucero, Harlan T. Bobo, Jack Yarber, Jeff Evans, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Amy Lavere, etc in the millions of brochures emanating from the hotel tax funds right next to pictures of statues and deceased artists. A small step in action, but a big step in the realization that many of the giants of Memphis' past are no longer around to perform (albeit modern technology has made the once-a-parody Saturday Night Live skit about Elvis' jacket performing in concert and the now sellout event with same at the Forum this week even more ironic) for visitors and music fans.

If Memphis really wants to promote its music as a city (so far, I have yet to see a real commitment to this other than the formation of committees; hiring of 2 really awful, out of touch music commission presidents; hiring of one very, very distant "we know what's best for Memphis music and we'll tell you when we are ready" music foundation president; and announcements of plans and public pronouncements of events that may or may not ever happen), it really must shift from promoting defunct, dead, or dying artists, to promoting the incredibly viable ones now scraping by and making Memphis great again. (Hey, enter stage left...)

The new music commission seems to be headed in the right direction and at least has access to their web site again and has started a myspace site that promotes Memphis music daily. That in and of itself will not allow Memphis to compete with these other major music markets, but after 8 years of Memphis music commission(s)' lethargy, it is a step in the right direction, albeit a baby one.

RuralFreeDelivery said...

Wow--pretty interesting stuff. Thanks very much for posting it. The strength (or lack of same) of a city's music scene is one of those things that gets so much lip service and is so rarely put into useful, black and white data like this.

I agree with Sherman and others wholeheartedly that city government's continued ignorance of the live music community and grassroots industry that's happening right under their noses spells disaster for everybody. In ten years when Memphis' entire 18-25 year-old creative class has fled for cities like Nashville and Seattle and Chicago (following the ongoing exodus of Memphis' middle-class), we'll look back on moments like this and scratch our heads about why nobody "did anything."

It's telling that in the same year that Memphis "officially" celebrates the 50th anniversary of soul music, the 30th anniversary of Elvis' continued impact, and "hometown boy" Justin Timberlake gets his own brass note on Beale Street, faces extinction due to lack of support.

One question: does the CMC report mention the relative disparity in overall metro populations? Of the cities mentioned, it would seem that Memphis is among the least populous, and I would guess that it is certainly in last place in terms of median household income. It would be interesting to see figures like music employment and tickets sold presented as percentages of overall population or other local economic indicators.

This is even more difficulty to quantify, but I think too that this report shows symptoms of a larger inferiority complex held by many Memphians. I know lots of musicians and other industry-folks, young and old, who believe that our music scene is awful because "nobody" supports it. It becomes a vicious circle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. No band wants to play a city where there are going to be ten people in the crowd, and nobody wants to go to a show where they are going to be one of those ten people; before long, you have a deadlock situation that negatively impacts venue-owners, promoters, artists, and fans, as well as related entitles like radio and record stores. I'm over-simplifying of course, but my point is that Memphians spend a lot of time casting general aspersions on other Memphians for why things don't work.

I would be my right arm that if every person who reads this blog bought a couple of tickets to a local show or a CD by one of our city's many local artists this week, we would immediately start to see the kind of scene we've all been waiting on start to crystallize.

IT'S UP TO US--not the tourists, not MTV, not Robert Sillerman, and not the city's venerated institutions--to have the supportive, successful, creative music community we deserve.

Anonymous said...

Great posts. It's amazing that most of our friends (I'm 43 and my wife is 41) NEVER go out to see live music, while we try to see at least 2-3 performances a month of local musicians in bars and other local venues. It helps that our kids are old enough to babysit themselves. Sadly, most of our friends think we're from Mars for doing that. I say sadly, because despite all the bad news in this report, Memphis still has some of the best and most talented and original artists performing locally you could find anywhere. I mean $5 cover to see Susan Marshall at Otherlands fer chrissakes?? That's almost insulting to someone of her talent. Although she sold at least one CD to me. Memphis desperately needs to develop a culture of going out to see live music. One thing that would help is more EARLY SHOWS! It is very difficult to go out when the band doesn't even take the stage until 11 p.m. on a weeknight (for those of us who are gainfully employed that is).
RFD hit the nail on the head with the prediction of what Memphis might look like creatively in 10 years. I hope that's wrong, but I can see it coming. People are really getting fed up with what is going on in Memphis, not just in music but in almost everything.

And here's to buying CDs from local musicians, hell, they're better than most of the schlock put out by the big record companies.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anonymous 8:28 regarding late shows. I’m 30 and have a standard 7:30am to 5:30 job. While I’m a huge proponent of the local music scene I find it nearly impossible to make it out to a weekday show.

Here is some background information. (1) I once lived in arguably the most famous college music town in America, and was actively involved in the music industry of that town going to 5-7 shows a week. (2) After college I covered clubs and the music industry for an alternative news weekly and as part of my job I attended at least 5 shows per week. (3) Now, I don’t hear as well, and I have a physical need for at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

Under the current business plan for local bars and music venues, the opening act doesn’t start until 10:00 or 10:30 and the headlining band doesn’t go on until 11:00 or 11:30. This means that I don’t get home until 1:00 or 1:30. After five hours of sleep I get up at 6:15 reeking of smoke, and if the show was good, I likely have a slight hangover. This leads to a less than productive work day.

As weak as this sounds, this business model does not work with my current lifestyle and career choice. In a matter of two years I’ve gone from seeing several live shows per week to maybe seeing a couple per month and only on the weekends. I promise you that many other 20 and 30 somethings with careers are in the same boat. In other cities (Nashville, DC, and even Athens, GA) some of the bars and music venues are offering earlier shows during the week to cater to this crowd. The opening band goes on around 8:00 and the headliner starts by 9:30 and the older/career crowd gets in bed happy by 11:00. I understand that this would take some getting used to but eventually the local hipsters will catch on and start getting out of the house before 10:00pm.

Sorry for the rant. I just miss being able to seeing quality live local music and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Jon said...

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Have you listened?

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Smart City Consulting said...

Sherman: We admire your continued interest in trying to get things moving in the right direction and for your sound advice. If only someone had listened more carefully to you eight years ago.

Rural: The Chicago Music Commission report also quantified the data according to x (such as tickets sold) per thousand population, and Memphis still finished in last place. Great insights. Thanks for the comments.

Anonymous, both: Great points. Thanks.

Jon: Thanks for reminding us about AllMemphisMusic, a great addition.

StratmanX said...

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"


Jon said...

If you are a Local Memphis or Memphis area musician and want to be heard globally -email us at
We will Respond!

Thanks Smart City!

mike said...

Anon. 10:18 presents a great idea that's just been languishing, waiting for someone to try it.

More importantly, a lot of folks need to get over the idea that "rap isn't music." Like it or not, it's the music of a lot of young people, and a very large number of Memphians. Pooh-poohing or looking down your noses at rap is pure generational silliness. It reminds me of Frank Sinatra trashing Elvis Presley back in the Fifties. Get over it.

We also need to watch our city leaders. They have been angling around trying to gut the infrastructure for live music at the concert level. The FedEx Forum caps out at just 18,000 for concerts; they Pyramid is gone. Where can megashows play? At the mid-range level, there's the Coliseum, which may still get torn down. After the Coliseum, where is there to play for 3000 to 8000 seat shows? A lot of bands and artist fall in that range, but have nowhere in Memphis to play.

I'm with so many others: Quit pimping the dead for the benefit of a few absentee landlords. (Hey Priscilla!) Quit thinking of the Memphis music scene as a past to commodify; we have all the raw talent to make Memphis and music like Seattle and Microsoft.