The Plug In Memphis music expo brings artists and the music industry together.

Ryan Peel

Ryan Peel

As the Memphis Music Foundation enters its third year of operations, the not-for-profit organization has slated perhaps its most ambitious programming schedule to date for 2010. That program kicks off Tuesday, January 26th, at Minglewood Hall with the second installment of the foundation's annual Plug In Memphis: Indie Music Expo.

Plug In Memphis is a free event designed to help connect local musicians to the many music-industry service providers available in the area. It's an extension of the foundation's public workspace, the Memphis Music Resource Center. Plug In Memphis is built around three key components: an exhibit hall with 30 to 40 booths representing all types of industry-related businesses, an "Expert's Lounge" that gives musicians a one-on-one opportunity for networking and career guidance with established industry professionals, and a showcase for emerging independent artists.

According to the foundation's director of development and communications, Pat Mitchell Worley, last year's Plug In Memphis event at the Botanic Garden was such a success that the staff knew immediately that they had struck gold with the idea.

"It was like a big light bulb went off for all us," Mitchell Worley says. "We had over 400 attendees last year, but we only expected about half as many. Attendees discovered all kinds of new businesses, services, and fellow artists they didn't know even existed before."

The showcase component (to be held in Minglewood's new 1884 Club) could prove to be the main attraction this year. Among the scheduled performers are former Hypnotize Minds rapper Lil' Noid, soul/R&B singer Kris Thomas, who is rumored to be in negotiations for a major-label recording deal, and headliner 9th Wonder, a North Carolina-based hip-hop producer and artist who has worked with the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, and Destiny's Child. (9th Wonder also will participate in the "Expert's Lounge," along with local rapper 8Ball and Reen Nalli, manager for India Arie.)

If one detects an urban/hip-hop slant to the event, it's for a reason. According to Mitchell Worley, the membership of the Music Resource Center, which is the "signature program" of the Memphis Music Foundation, is 64 percent African-American, indicating a higher level of member interest in urban genres.

"It's a reflection of the city we live in, but we've also made specific efforts toward engaging an urban demographic," says resource center director Cameron Mann.

Another contributing factor is the lingering perception of a disconnect between the Music Foundation (and, in truth, the local music industry as a whole) and Memphis' fiercely independent underground rock scene.

"It's a continuing process of rebuilding trust," Mitchell Worley says. "They've heard it all before from folks like us, so we just have to keep working and building relationships."

Still, the Music Foundation has had more than its share of positive, attention-grabbing stories of late, including last year's Memphis music presence at the South By Southwest music festival and the recent appointment of former Stax Records president Al Bell as the foundation's chairman of the board. That said, it's the personal attention and specialized consultation with the resource center staff that often is the most impactful for members.

"One of our primary goals is developing constructive personal relationships," Mann says. "There is sort of a 'library' aspect to the center, which has its place and value, but I've seen that the most positive results are born out of a hands-on, proactive, individual approach."

For example, the resource center staff recently helped to engineer a sponsorship deal for solo artist and noted session drummer Ryan Peel with Yamaha to promote their new "Rock Tour Custom" line of drums.

"Absolutely, the Music Foundation contributed directly to the Yamaha deal happening," says Peel, who was recently flown to L.A. by Yamaha to demo the new drums at the unveiling press conference. "But more importantly, when I first came to them, I was basically handling the entire business side of my career by myself. They've helped me make connections and have been there for me to bounce ideas off of."

Local rapper Teflon Don, one of the resource center's most active members, agrees that the eagerness of the staff to step in and help makes the biggest difference.

"It's a family-type atmosphere," Don says. "Whenever I need something or have questions, they are there for me."

After the Plug In Memphis event, the foundation will set its sights on the rest of the year's programming, which includes developing a relationship with the Nashville Songwriter's Association and the famed Nashville venue the Bluebird Cafe to provide a regular showcase opportunity for Memphis songwriters. Programing also includes a partnership with local video-game developer Resolute Games to help local artists create their own applications for the iPhone and Droid smart-phones and continuation of the Memphis Music Foundation's presence at South by Southwest.

"We hope to further engage and connect the local music community," Mitchell Worley says. "Hopefully, the things we do will reflect the things we teach."

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