SINGING THE BLUES 

SINGING THE BLUES

Jerry Schilling, president of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission, was fighting an uphill battle when the commission met this past Thursday to pass a budget for the 2003 fiscal year. Only two months ago, a commission vote to remove Schilling from office was narrowly defeated by a margin of 11-9, and battle lines were clearly drawn when commission member Deanie Parker, responding to those who thought such a move would weaken the commission, spoke out in favor of change.

Parker was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, "For us not to clean up our business would be more detrimental to the funding of this organization."

Though reasons for wanting Schilling removed were not made clear, an outline subsequently prepared by the executive committee listed "lack of clear directions," "lack of past results,""poorcommunication," and "ineffective leadership" among the commission's chief weaknesses. Tensions were heightened on Thursday, as the city council had voted to cut its funding of the commission from $125,000 in 2002 to $62,500 in 2003. The situation was compounded by the fact that neither Schilling nor any representative of the music commission had attended the council's third reading and subsequent vote for the funding. It was at this third and final reading that the cuts were made.

"I'm not going to give up on [getting more money from] the city yet," Schilling says. "I went to the proper meeting I was supposed to go to and I was told that we were in for $125,000. I knew of a second reading, in case [your funding] was disputed. I'd never even heard of a third reading." He told the commission on Thursday that if they wanted someone just to manage a budget, they had the wrong man.

Commission member David Less, apologizing for his pedantic tone, stopped the formal budget discussion on Thursday and explained to Schilling how the city council's process works: Nothing is final until the council's third reading and subsequent vote. Schilling, who has helmed the still relatively new commission for three years, later joked that this was his first government job.

Though the county commission has yet to vote on its share of the music commission's 2003 funding, Schilling is confident at this point that it will receive the full $100,000.

The commission's proposed budget-tightening saw $10,800 cut from a public-relations budget that totaled $23,200 last year. The commission's "networking" budget is set to shrink from $19,500 to $12,500, and the economic-development budget from $6,000 to $1,500. Amounts allotted for salaries and lunch and dinner meetings were left unchanged.

The budget failed to pass a committee vote, and a number of commission members, notably Charlie Ryan, David Less, John Fry, and Preston Lamm, voiced concern that cutting their budget without cutting salaries sent the wrong message to the city. Administrative costs, which are budgeted at approximately $191,000, make up 88 percent of the commission's total budget. Of that amount, 93 percent is devoted to salaries and benefits. More than half of that amount covers Schilling's salary, which was subject to a six-month review based on his ability to raise two-thirds of a proposed $30,000 from outside sources within that time period.

Lamm entered a motion to eliminate the fund-raising requirement for Schilling's continued salary and cut $17,000 from the budget line scheduled for salaries and benefits. After this encountered some resistance, Lamm altered his motion to say that the $17,000 could be cut from any line item at Schilling's discretion. The motion was passed, and the revised budget was passed pending a review in 30 days.

Of the attempt to cut salaries, Schilling says, "Let's face it. There are a couple of people who would like to see a change [in leadership]. The commission voted to stay with me for another year to 15 months. If they couldn't get rid of me, they go after the money."

Commission vice-chair Onzie Horne commented on the commission's decision, saying, "It seems to me that our approach has been a callous disregard for the message the city has sent. We've just worked on making the numbers fit."

Schilling showed his disappointment in the commission's obsession with the budget and claimed that numbers were their only concern. He also accused the commission of stifling his efforts to open up a dialogue on creativity. When asked what creativeproposals he had suggested that had been shot down, Schilling recalled the A&E Biography on Sam Phillips that aired two years ago, which the commission was instrumental in helping to plan and promote. He hoped to parlay this relationship into a similar project celebrating Sun Records' 25th anniversary. According to Schilling, however, the board thought it was too soon to take on another Sun project. Schilling likewise pointed out that he's worked to eliminate the "no-compete" clause in the new arena's contract.

"Memphis is a B-grade concert city at best," he says. "[According to the 'no-compete' clause], if Billy Joel wanted to play The Pyramid on a night when there was a Grizzlies game, he couldn't do it." What bearing this has on local musicians is unclear.

Two years ago, the music commission established a health-care plan for Memphis musicians. Currently, only 23 musicians have enrolled in the plan. Schilling says the commission has not been actively promoting the plan as much as he feels they should, since neither his group nor heir partner the Church Health Center is in the insurance business. They have brought in national music-industry experts to meet with local musicians and have held a town hall meeting to get feedback from the local community.

According to Schilling, should anything disastrous occur, the music commission has enough money in reserve to operate at its current level for at least a year. n

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