It’s been five months since the Memphis Music Foundation imported the New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience to Memphis. The high expectations and meager results of those concerts are symbolic of much of the Foundation’s work since its creation, and comments by a knot of musicians listening to a concert seemed to say it all.
After listening to several songs by a New Orleans’ band, one of the Memphis musicians listening to the concert said loudly to the others with him: “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about the big earthquake. Maybe if we have it, a music commission in some other town will let us come there and work.”
It was a stinging and pervasive criticism of the Music Foundation: that it’s done nothing to put money in the pockets of local bands and musicians.
Looking at this through a political lens, if the Foundation is the campaign, it has to have a “base,” and it only makes sense that the base should be local musicians. Unfortunately, the three years of work by the Foundation has reinforced much of the industry’s innate suspicions about outside solutions.
Continuing the political analogy, the first thing any campaign does is to solidify its base. It does this by demonstrably proving its connection to members of the base, strengthening their cohesion and then building an organization on this foundation.
While musicians say that the Foundation seemed sincere in gathering their opinions a couple of years ago in a large-scale survey and interview project, most say there’s been little since then to make them feel that they are the priority for its work.
Many claim that the Foundation has a tendency to chase glitz and glamour – projects that as of yet have produced any real results – like its pursuit of a major MTV music awards shows (while insiders at the cable channel were sending clear signals that Memphis was being kept in the race as a bargaining chip with Miami, the eventual winner for the program), the excited chase to get the New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience here while suggesting that there would be national television coverage (ignoring warnings from the Crescent City about being careful with the promoter) and the October announcement that the Foundation is working to buy and move Sun Records back to Memphis (although labels are becoming about as meaningless to the industry as vinyl). All suffer from too much hype and too few results.
There’s one central truth about Memphis. We live in a small pond, and stories travel fast. Some complaints center on suggestions that the Music Foundation is more intent on romancing those with fame and fortune, like Justin Timberlake, than in helping local musicians make a living. Others complain that the commission has actually tried to put some local music-related companies out of business. Allegations of misfortune, hurt feelings, wasted money, lack of help and recycled ideas are rampant, and whether they are true or not, they represent a growing obstacle to the Music Foundation in its stated mission of “re-establishing Memphis’ music industry.”
Early on, the Music Foundation said that it believed that planning and investment could revive Memphis Music, but there’s required reading in the yellowing archives that deal with the last attempt to reinvent the industry from the top-down. The file: Chips Moman and Three Alarm Recording Studio. The ill-fated project was based on the best of intentions, enjoyed widespread business backing and was boosted unrelentingly by The Commercial Appeal. The idea was that Memphis Music could be reborn if we could lure the legendary Moman back to Memphis with money and facilities, but despite it all, there never was one hit and eventually he left town and the studio was tied up in legal proceedings.
Here’s the thing. The core of Memphis’ real strength has always been creativity – whether in business or in music. We underestimate the way that the people in this city have fundamentally changed and shaped the culture of the entire world. We’ve always dictated the future, whether with AutoZone, FedEx, Holiday Inns, self-service grocery stories, rockabilly, rock and roll and more. We are wasting our time if we try to reinvent Memphis music by looking back, by anchoring our plans in the old business model that is quickly evaporating in the withering digital barrage, and by looking for the magic bullet to make it all happen.
There is great merit to re-imagining a new music future shaped by the revolution being unleashed by digital technology, the Internet and the growing expectation that fan and band don’t need a third party between them. To its credit, the Music Foundation has among its priorities making Memphis the center for digital music.
However, to get to that place, we need to begin with the people who have always made it possible. We do it by tapping into the ingenuity of Memphians, the musical genius performing in Memphis clubs every night, the leaps of creativity that still lie within our music scene and the organic ideas of the imaginative digital leaders already working here.
Memphis’ history is not about importing greatness. It’s about greatness that is homegrown and organic. That vein of creativity is still here, and it’s a cliché, but that’s the first mining that we need to be doing.
We are in the midst of the most rapid change in technology in history, and it will leave the music industry with as little resemblance to its old business model as ipod’s are to 78 r.p.m. records. And yet, the music industry clings perilously (and ultimately, futilely) to a share cropper business model that they have used since the days of the Victrola.
In the face of peer-to-peer file sharing, CD burning, digital radio channels and subscription services, the industry today is mired in deep, deep denial. We don’t need to chase the vestiges of old business models – labels and publishing, but instead, we need to tap into our legendary vein of creativity in both music and entrepreneurship to stake out a distinctive place as the polestar for the digital music age.
There are so many good projects and so many good bands in Memphis that go wanting for a few thousand dollars. In addressing that priority, the Memphis Music foundation would create the “base” that it so desperately needs to be ultimately successful.
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