Memphis music: It seems like locals spend half the time bragging about it and the other half complaining about it.
The Flyer's "Music Issue" from 1997 featured a breakdown of the problems facing Memphis musicians trying to break into the big time.
Music was always a tough industry. But by the late 1990s, Memphis music had hit a rough patch. Memphis, never without a heap of talent, felt the lack of success on an existential level.
That year's music issue looked inward: "The Memphis Curse" was an essay by Susan Ellis and Mark Jordan about a Boston Red Sox/Babe Ruth sort of spell. The idea was that Sam Phillips, in undervaluing Elvis' contract, had wandered into the hex that befell the Boston Red Sox following the trade of the Bambino to the Yankees.
The concern at the time was that nobody was getting major-label record deals. We described the problem: "The six major labels are called 'major labels' because they have their own national and international distribution networks, fully established pipelines just waiting to ship product. Majors also have ready access to radio airplay, a key to selling records once you've got them in the stores."
My how things have changed. Seventeen years later that sentence may as well read, "The buggy-whip manufacturers have their own pony express ..."
But guess who folded? Those majors. Napster started in 1999, and the music industry went belly up. These days, major labels are punted around by financial behemoths as something to be spun off like ... uh, newspapers.
Ellis and Jordan wrote of the difficulties facing local talents such as Wendy Moten and Son of Slam. They decried the lack of success facing local favorites Human Radio and Neighborhood Texture Jam. To their credit, it was frustrating to watch amazing musicians being ignored. Memphis loved the indie labels, but it also wanted the big time.
"Memphis' geographical solitude has fostered an ideological gulf as well, defined by a fierce, independent spirit that often finds Memphis musicians unwilling to compromise their craft or their principles with the cost often being their careers."
But now Myspace, Reverbnation, and Bandcamp allow anyone, regardless of talent, to put their music on an international stage. Facebook and Twitter offer marketing opportunities inconceivable in 1997.
One constant: Nobody's making any money. But the big change is attitude. Memphis has learned how to love itself. At this week's South By Southwest, there's a screening of Take Me to the River, a film about music being passed between generations at Royal Studios. (See page 24 for a talk with Hi Rhythm organist Charles Hodges.)
The new attittude is apparent at Goner Records and Minglewood Hall and in the trials of Jonathan Kiersky in moving the Hi-Tone. Indie labels Shangri-La and Loverly were inspirational to many, and Memphis is now littered with productive (if not profitable) labels of people enthusiastic about making music here.