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The following is a post from September 20, 2006, about how to measure success in Memphis.  This is the latest in our regular feature flashing back to blog posts from 10 years ago.  Who knew we’d still be looking for an broad agenda for the music industry?

Whether the president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission and its shadow group, the Memphis Music Foundation, has resigned or not seems to depend largely to whom you are talking.

Then again, regardless of who’s at the helm of the music organizations, it’s time to relaunch them, and that work begins by building on the candor contained in last week’s Memphis Flyer, as president of the bodies, Rey Flemings, admitted that the major ideas for Memphis music had failed.

In light of this admission, perhaps it’s a good time for the Commission and Foundation to clear the air, regroup, and move toward a Memphis musician-centric plan of action.

To give the Commission its due, if it’s struck out, it’s because it always seemed to be swinging for the bleachers. Bold ambitions are always welcome in Memphis, but perhaps, now, what we need is the steady progress that comes from a hitting streak. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any home runs for the Music Commission, and to continue this sports analogy to its breaking point, it’s lost key backing of its main fan base – local musicians.

Focusing On Musicians

Now would be the perfect time to refocus the work of the organization on the people we should all care most about – our musicians. Rather than seeing music purely as an economic development strategy, let’s also treat it as a creative force that is an innate part of the Memphis psyche and can contribute to making us the vibrant, creative city that in turn makes us attractive to highly-educated workers and to entrepreneurs.

In other words, music can benefit our economic growth, but it’s not by treating it as an industry cluster that can be created by a top-down insistence on a mandated course of action. It may contribute most by creating a vibe and a music scene that is a competitive advantage in talent recruitment strategies.

In its early days, the Commission surveyed and interviewed musicians, and that was commendable, but over time, there’s been as gnawing feeling by some that it allowed the Commission to check the “get musician’s input” box. That’s not fair to proponents for a renewed focus on music, because it is impossible to question the sincerity that led these key business leaders to pursue such a strategy.

And yet, musicians have often say they feel like they have been outside looking in on projects that they should have been at the center of. Others say they made tactical errors in sharing their aspirations and ideas in the first place, because they felt they were claimed by the Commission and included in its strategic plans.

White Boys

As a result, there is a widespread feeling that the Memphis Music initiatives aren’t about Memphis musicians at all, but about an isolated agenda thrust upon the music business as if it doesn’t have the capacity to contribute to it.

The depth of the credibility problem now drags down attempts to create some progress. In response to the widely-circulated plans for a Justin Timberlake-owned Stax label, one rapper said: “History does repeat itself. It’s just like when they had to find a white guy to sing black music, and they got hold of Elvis. Well, they can’t figure out what to do with rap music in Memphis, so they’re bringing in another white guy who sings our music.”

Fair or not, it’s speaks to lost opportunity that existed to pull together the music industry behind a concerted effort to serve their broader interests. One musician describes it as the “Oz approach to music.” “When you pull back the curtain, there’s nothing but smoke.”

As a result, the world confronted by the Music Commission and the Music Foundation isn’t a pretty one, but in the end, it still seems that our musicians long for someone to give a damn.

A New Day

It begins by opening up the work of the music organizations. The lack of transparency in funding and expenditures gives rise to well-traveled stories about spending. The lack of transparency in agenda-setting results in conspiracies and allegations that true or not have become reality to a large number of Memphis musicians.

It begins by listening. There are times when musicians say that feel that they are seen as distractions and irritants. God knows, there’s nobody more opinionated than musicians, but then again, their abilities to earn a living in this city gives them equity to say whatever they like. We need to develop a way to harness this energy and passion, rather than treating people who disagree with us as the enemy.

It begins by exploiting existing connections. There are some people in Memphis with impressive national connections. One of them says he tried to tell the Commission that MTV had no intention of hosting its Video Music Awards show in Memphis, but was using Memphis to drive up its price elsewhere. He was never able to deliver his warnings, but every action that he predicted did in fact take place.

At the same time, people in Memphis with their finger on the pulse of national promotions and with deep experience in selling tickets tried to warn that the Voodoo Festival was going to fail, but again, they felt that no one would listen to them.

No Magic Answers

There’s no question that the work of a public board is hard. You have many masters, you juggle many agendas and you balance the demands of many important constituents, but in the end, there’s nothing more important than listening and establishing the connections with the local music scene that inform and support your work.

There are no magic answers. It’s organic and resists the templates of various business models.(See Chips Moman file in the Memphis Room of the Memphis central library.)

Nobody is more supportive than we are of Memphis Music, but as we’ve said before, the old music business models are dying right before our eyes, and any efforts that try to cling to them are high-risk on their best days. To repeat our recent post, we hope that Stax isn’t about pursuing the old worldview of labels, but about becoming the leader in defining what the brave new world of digital music will be.

It’s coming fast. About six years ago, Christopher Reyes of livefrommemphis fame said that ultimately, all music will be free. Last month, a new online music service announced that it had reached an agreement with a music company to offer free downloads of its songs.

Just as Mr. Reyes had predicted, the company says that rather than the pay-per-song model of iTunes, its new business model is for a music service funded by advertising. It could indeed be the harbinger of a future in which the music industry bears little resemblance to what we have known.


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