This weekend, the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) is hosting an Independent Music Forum, an educational and networking event aimed at helping local musicians. Panels, workshops, and showcases held Saturday, October 19th, will address concerns that run the gamut from producing your own CD to promoting an indie label and taking your band on the road. Music-biz insiders, including Billboard magazine's Chris Morris, Rolling Stone's David Fricke, label mavens Bob Merlis (Memphis International), Mark McKinney (MAD-JACK), and Ward Archer (Archer Records), BMI's Mark Mason, and a host of other agents, promoters, and musicians, will be on hand to provide insight -- and trade war stories -- on the dos and don'ts of the national music scene.
"There are so many talented musicians in Memphis," says Memphis' NARAS chapter executive director Jon Hornyak. "What we're trying to do here is help them get to the next level." Hornyak, who also oversees the New Orleans and St. Louis music communities, feels that while Memphis musicians are generally more organized than their counterparts in those cities, the Independent Music Forum will educate -- and potentially galvanize -- local acts unsure how to enter the national mainstream.
According to Morris, who has penned Billboard 's "Nation of Independents" column for the past decade, "there's so much amazing indigenous talent in Memphis, but a lot of it doesn't get outside the city. There just isn't an infrastructure to push this stuff outside the city limits. It's a real pity." Over the past several years, Morris has spotlighted a number of area musicians in his column, including '68 Comeback, the Grifters, Lorette Velvette, Big Ass Truck, Jim Dickinson, and, most recently, the Reigning Sound and Cory Branan. "I have a very active interest in what goes on in Memphis," he says from his office in L.A. "It's still one of the great music cities in America."
"Memphis has such a rich musical history, but the current scene is much different from what happened at Sun and Stax," Hornyak says. "We can't replicate what those studios did. And, actually, the whole environment has changed drastically in the last 30 years. The scene doesn't operate that way anymore."
Morris agrees: "Memphis' musical history is like Marley's Ghost dragging all those chains around. You're definitely operating in a deficit situation when the main tourist trap is devoted to Memphis' past musical culture. Anyone walking down Beale Street would get the heebie-jeebies from that! I love history as much as anybody, but it can imprison people. I think it's up to Memphis musicians to say, 'We love the past, but let's step into the future. Let's make our own mark.'"
Both Hornyak and Morris see major-label domination as a thing of the past. "Anyone can make a record," Hornyak says. "You don't even need to go into a studio. You can cut an album on your computer and then press CDs one at a time to sell at your gigs." As Morris says, "The majors have left the door open to musicians and creative thinkers. This is a real opportunity for people operating on the independent side of things."
Saturday's opening session, "Crash Course in Starting Your Own Label," looks like it could be interesting. Archer and McKinney will share time with Jerry Mannery of Malaco Records, Jody Stephens from Ardent, and artists Scott Sudbury and Richard Johnston. Johnston, an acoustic blues player, has attracted much attention since launching his own Fuck the Record Companies label. "Richard has an interesting outlook," Hornyak says with a laugh. "But he's worked hard, and he's making it on his own. I think it's a fascinating story," he says, citing Johnston's rise to fame as a viable artist in the local blues community as well as his push into the national fray. "Obviously, he has some ideas to share."
Hornyak hopes that at least a few hundred local musicians will turn out for the forum. "We're trying to teach artists the business side of things, introduce them to people they should already know and how to professionally communicate with people within the business," he tells me. "Hopefully," Morris says, "[forum attendees] will get a bit of education, some cautionary tales, a sense of self-worth, and some notion of the reality of the music biz in 2002."
Although Hornyak cites the breakout success of Three 6 Mafia as a model, there are no urban or rap acts participating in the Emerging Artists Showcase, which will close the daylong seminar. "We focus so much on rap in our annual Urban Music Showcase," he says, adding that "a committee beyond NARAS helped choose the bands performing in the showcase."
When I ask about the exclusion of local garage-rock bands, a bizarre omission considering the national success of such bands as the White Stripes and the Hives, who both cite players on the Memphis garage scene (the Oblivians, the Reigning Sound, and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans) as direct inspirations, Hornyak is quick to point out that the Reigning Sound and the Porch Ghouls were both asked to participate in the Independent Music Forum.
"We're just way too busy," Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright says. "I'm at Easley-McCain right now recording the Porch Ghouls [for Sony imprint Roman Records], and then, I'm working on projects with Mr. Airplane Man and the Horrors. After all that, I have to get back in the store [Legba Records] and wrap my head around business there. I've just totally overextended myself!"
The Independent Music Forum will take place at the Cadre Building, 149 Monroe Ave., on Saturday, October 19th, from 1 to 6 p.m. For more info, call 525-1340 or go to Grammy.com/memphis.html.