Three weeks ago, the resurrected Overton Square music venue and restaurant Lafayette's Music Room made a significant organizational change, hiring longtime Memphis music supporter John Miller as its new director of events.
Miller, a native Memphian and former lawyer, has spent the last decade or so working behind the scenes in the local music business. In 2007, he was hired by the label Archer Records to work on copyrights, publishing, and project management. He then moved to the now-defunct Memphis Music Foundation in 2010 as a coordinator for the nonprofit group's Music Resource Center.
"I jumped at the chance to work with an even more diverse scope of local artists," Miller says.
"There was also a good team in place there [at the Memphis Music Foundation], most of whom I still work with in some capacity from time to time."
After four years of service that saw Miller consult and advise countless local musicians on a variety of projects, as well as represent the Memphis music scene at big-time music conference trade shows like South by Southwest and the National Association of Music Merchants, the Memphis Music Foundation was absorbed into David Porter's Consortium MMT, and Miller was temporarily left without a steady paycheck. But rather than pack it in for another career or city, Miller hung around. He founded his own seven-inch vinyl singles label, Misspent Records, and then started working behind the counter at Shangri-La Records, where he has risen to the title of general manager.
"Having never been on the retail side of music sales, it seemed like a great opportunity to learn another side of the business, and again work with some really solid Memphis folks," Miller says.
In that time, Miller continued to work with local musicians on everything from legal issues, to booking, to distribution, all for little or no reward. Last year, he also curated musical acts for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, creating much-needed paying gigs for many local musicians.
"Memphis is full of people who volunteer their time for causes and needs across the board," Miller says. "You're never promised success, financial or otherwise, and it may sound cliche, but choosing to invest yourself in something you care about and seeing it grow can be its own reward. I've always believed that it's more important to put in the work and see where it can go rather than sit around and worry about the ultimate outcome. Over the years that's served me well, allowing opportunities to learn a lot and work with a ton of extremely talented people."
Now Miller will be devoting a great deal of his energy toward booking and promoting shows at Lafayette's (though he will also be staying on at Shangri-La and Misspent).
Early on, patrons complained about volume levels in Lafayette's as well as the occasionally odd/out-of-place booking, and the bands complained about sound issues and occasionally unengaged crowds. Most, if not all, of the technical issues have since been resolved, and Miller intends to address the other issues with a more focused, Memphis-centric approach to booking and event planning.
"With its location in the heart of Midtown and its history, Lafayette's has been and should be a place where great Memphis musicians can be heard any day of the week," he says. "That's the goal going forward for sure. We'll still host out-of-town touring bands that are a good fit, but we want to make sure that we feature the depth and breadth of talent that lives, works, and plays right here at home."
Whether this new approach to talent buying clicks at Lafayette's remains to be seen, but, regardless, Miller will continue to work for and on behalf of Memphis musicians.
"Misspent has a few things on the horizon right now," Miller says. "I'll still be up at Shangri-La a good amount. I really enjoy being able to work there and meet folks from around the globe who are drawn to the current and historical music scenes we have. Hearing their excitement about finally being in Memphis helps keep a perspective on how fortunate I've been to work with the musicians in this town."
"Now I find myself booking for Lafayette's. I like new opportunities, and in Memphis it seems like there is always something different to do if you're willing to take a chance and see where it goes."