In recent years, Memphis has had no shortage of music-industry organizations looking to help shape the city's scene. The city boasts a very active regional chapter of the national Recording Academy, a government-funded Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission forever trying to find its footing, and the Memphis Music Foundation, a private group spun off from the commission that has in the past year ramped up its staff and programming.
Is another large-scale music organization really needed? According to the 32-and-counting local music businesses that have come together to form Music Memphis, the answer is yes.
The organization had its genesis at last year's South By Southwest Music Festival, where Third Man guitarist Jeff Schmidtke organized a Memphis music showcase with help from his music-enthusiast friend Eric Ellis. In the process, they struck up a relationship with Louis Jay Meyers, a SXSW founder who relocated to Memphis a few years ago as the executive director of the Folk Alliance.
Back in Memphis, the trio called around to local music businesses to organize meetings with the purpose of finding out how everyone could help each other. Music Memphis was born.
"Music Memphis is a collection of Memphis music business, primarily focusing on people who deal with consumers," Meyers says. "It was created with one purpose in mind: Put butts in the seats, get people into record stores, create more activity for local music businesses."
Among the 32 local entities listed as Music Memphis members on the group's website are record stores (Goner, Shangri-La, Spin Street, Cat's), clubs (Hi-Tone, New Daisy, Minglewood Hall), labels (Makeshift, Madjack, Archer), music stores (Amro, Memphis Drum Shop, Guitar Center), and other organizations (Folk Alliance, Memphis Rap.com, Live From Memphis).
Despite the crowded field of music organizations in town, Meyers thinks Music Memphis has a niche of its own.
"We've worked hard not to be redundant," he says. "Our goal is not to supplant other organizations. My experience is that most organizations in the music industry tend to be focused toward the artists. We've got people promoting Memphis to the world, and we've got people helping musicians with career development, but there was nobody dealing with the consumer aspect of the music business."
Right now, Music Memphis is a pretty loose-knit group, but Meyers says the organization will be applying for legal nonprofit status and will be forming a board of directors. Most funding, however, is likely to be internal.
"A goal was for us not to pursue funding from governments and foundations and stuff like that," Meyers says.
For Meyers, Schmidtke, and Ellis, all transplants to Memphis, motivation seems to be getting more locals participating in and appreciating the city's music scene, with Meyers and Ellis both citing outreach and cultural development in East Memphis and the suburbs.
"Jeff and I are both from New Orleans, but I've never been in a city that, across the board, in so many genres, has this much talent," Ellis says.
"It's been awhile since we've had a real music city in America, the way Austin was at one time and Seattle was at one time," Meyers says. "Memphis has the ability to be that music city."
Here are some of the first initiatives Music Memphis is focusing on:
Memphis Music Night at Grizzlies Games: The organization has created a partnership with the Grizzlies to program a "Memphis Music Night" at one home game each month this season. The first one is on Saturday, November 22nd, against the Utah Jazz. Local music acts will perform throughout the arena — in the lobby, in each of the four restaurant/lounges, at halftime, and for the national anthem. In addition, the Grizzlies are supplying game tickets for Music Memphis to distribute among its member organizations to use as incentives to drum up business.
Music Memphis Card: The organization is working on a discount card to be purchased from member organizations and to be used for discounts and other opportunities to drive business. "Let's say Minglewood Hall has a show, and they know they'll have about 300 tickets they aren't going to have sold," Meyers says, providing an example.
"They could have a 2-for-1 special for Music Memphis card-holders. The idea is direct promotion to consumers."
TV Show: The most ambitious of projects Music Memphis has announced is the development of a weekly local-music television program.
"It's gone through a metamorphosis," Meyers says of the project's status. "We're in the process of confirming the venue to shoot it in. We don't know exactly what the final product will be like. It will have a live element but will be pre-recorded."
Meyers says the group has been offered a weekly timeslot with a local network station. "I believe we're looking for a pilot episode in December with a goal of launching on a weekly basis in mid-to-late January," he says.
It sounds like a daunting undertaking for a new organization that currently lacks funding or central leadership, but Meyers says the television piece is key:
"We feel like we need the TV show to market everything else. We don't want to be preaching to the choir. We want to reach the people who aren't going out to clubs."
South By Southwest: Promoting Memphis at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival was part of the origin of the Music Memphis idea, and Meyers, Ellis, and Schmidtke plan on building on this pre-existing relationship, working with the Memphis Music Foundation on "a massive Memphis presence at SXSW," according to Meyers.
"As Music Memphis, we're producing a second showcase and working on other unofficial events, but in a complementary role with the foundation," Meyers says.
"Last year, when Jeff basically organized that whole thing, about a month later, SXSW called us and said, 'We need what you did last year on paper.' They're taking what we did last year to other music cities and selling it: 'Look at what Memphis did. You can do this.'"
The concert will be in a battle-of-the-bands format, according to a press release about the show:
The contest begins at 9pm, with each band performing a 20 min set. The audience and a few "celebrity" judges will determine the top-two bands to move on to the second round. Those bands will perform another 20 minute set, and the overall winner will once again be determined by applause/judges. The winning band will perform one final set to close the evening.