The Memphis music scene is rocking and rolling along. The history and pedigree here is impeccable and virtually unimpeachable (with apologizes to the “historic” music city of Cleveland). There are literally dozens of great recording studios to choose from that have cut and will continue to cut great Memphis music. The best and highest number of quality bands in years currently gig here. There are several extremely competent niche labels releasing as many Memphis records as they can afford. There are several good clubs and theaters for bands to play, and the quality shows usually receive appropriate crowd support for a properly promoted concert. There are record stores carrying and promoting Memphis bands. National and international awareness of Memphis music is at a thirty year high (The Barbican Festival in London just hosted and featured an incredible array of Memphis musicians). Memphis even has one of the largest music distributors in the country that occasionally pays labels for the records they have sold.

So what does the Memphis music business need to keep growing? There is a group of people who think having access to bank loans for music intellectual properties is a key piece of the Memphis music puzzle. They say banks are the answer.

That idea is Ludacris! It is absolutely fallacious, wrongheaded, and just plain ignorant. Anyone who believes that what the Memphis music scene needs is bank loans has probably never been in the (Memphis) music business.

What Memphis music needs is hits. Hit songs. Songs that have been recorded here in the last fifteen years. Most of the songs have not become hits. Why? No radio play. How do these songs become hit songs? Radio play. How do bands get radio play in Memphis? Trick question, sorry. They don’t. With the exception of a handful of already street-broken hip-hop acts, Memphis music does not receive commercial radio play in Memphis. Radio play is the answer to all Memphis music business needs. With the exception of 103.5, which plays classic (i.e. oldies) soul tracks of Memphis acts, commercial radio in Memphis has ignored Memphis music and its quiet renaissance for almost thirty years. The last time Memphis radio actually got behind Memphis acts was in the late ‘70s with Rock 103 playing Keith Sykes and Larry Raspberry. These two are still mid-level stars in the Memphis area because of that airplay thirty years ago! (And please don’t say that Memphis radio broke Saliva).

Mealy-mouthed program directors always have some excuse to not play Memphis music. One of their stock excuses includes the perpetually ridiculous notion that Memphis music does not reach the quality of production that their station and listeners are accustomed to. Example: the White Stripes, one of the biggest national and international hits of the last five years, recorded in the same studio -- Easley-McCain -- that most of the great local rock bands have used for the last fifteen years. Example: the Reigning Sound were heard nationally and internationally on Monday Night Football in December. If it’s good enough for a nationally broadcasting ABC-TV, it is probably good enough for Memphis radio. Another ploy or rationalization these p.d.s come up with is to have a fifteen minute section once a week, usually called something as original as “Locals Only.” They might as well warn the listeners with a “Turn Off the Radio Now” announcement before running these crumbs with the gusto and segregation these segments receive. The final excuse used is that the Memphis music does not fit into their specific “format.” Most stations in town play songs that do not fit exactly into their format but also magically happen to have a major label financial push behind them.

Apparently, it has been so long since Memphis radio played a major part in the Memphis music scene, the current program directors do not understand the financial ramifications of playing Memphis music. Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, & early ‘70s, stations like WHBQ, WDIA, WLOK, WMPS, and others actually BROKE RECORDS. They would play great Memphis music, no questions asked. Then what happened? People drove immediately (or rode their bikes) up to Poplar Tunes and spent money on the music. Record store makes a sale, record label makes a sale, band makes a sale, record pressing plant makes a sale, band gets more gigs, band gets paid, club gets busy, beer gets sold, t-shirts get sold, band can afford to go back into studio, radio station takes credit for breaking band, more people listen to the radio station to hear a popular Memphis band’s song, radio station sells more advertising. Repeat.

This is not rocket science. This is how the music business works. It has just been so long since it actually happened in Memphis that many here do not know the formula. If those people really believe banks can help the music scene here, they better bring in banks who employ program directors because that is the only way they can improve things for the record labels and bands in Memphis.

While bankers are great at reducing risk, they are in business to make money, not to judge talent or creativity. Here is what would happen to any label or band seeking a loan from a bank:

Billy: “Hi, I’m Billy with the Gutbusters. I just wrote a great song that is going to be a smash hit. Wanna check it out?”
Banker: “Sure.” (Listens to the song) “That sounds great. You are a creative genius!”
Billy with the Gutbusters: “So can I have a loan to buy a van and go on the road?”
Banker: “What is your collateral in case the van breaks down and you don’t finish the tour and don’t sell any records?”
Billy: “My great song!”
Banker: “Sorry. But thanks for the great cd. Good luck!”

Now imagine this same scenario with a successful music property owner, say David Porter, Willie Mitchell, or Al Kapone, who will be featured with four original songs on the soundtrack for Hustle and Flow:

“Hi, I’d like a loan.”
Banker: “You got it. Just assign your royalty rights here from your multi-million dollar catalog as collateral.”

Any banker would make the second loan. No banker would make the first loan. That is what good banker’s do--make impartial decisions based on the amount of risk they would undertake under worst case scenarios. If the loan is collateralized as in the second case, making the loan is no risk. If the loan has nothing behind it as in the first case, no one but a friend or fan who has more dollars than sense would make the loan. With hit songs collateralizing a loan, anyone can approve that loan, and it does not require a special kind of banker to understand that. There is no shortage of capital around a hit project--whether that hit project is music, movies, or any other business.

If these parties really want to improve the Memphis music scene, they should focus on the program directors of Memphis radio stations. They should especially work on the ones that run promos pretending to be Memphis supporters but do not play Memphis music--like 94.1. A sample of 94.1’s promo: “Memphis is the Fedex Forum. Memphis is Overton Park. Memphis is the Buzz.” One thing The Buzz is not is Memphis music. These are the ones holding back the snowball of Memphis music that is slowly growing without the support of Memphis radio.


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