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VOL. 9 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Grind

Budding music ecosystem helping Memphis musicians ‘make it’

By Andy Meek

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For Memphis musicians like John Paul Keith, the grind is not a catchy rallying cry or slogan. It’s a philosophy, a work ethic that allows musicians like him to earn a living dedicating themselves to their craft in one of the most important music cities in the world.

Someone can definitely make a living here playing music, Keith says, “but you have to work almost nonstop, and you have to be versatile and professional.”

Stax legend David Porter's The Consortium Memphis Music Town recently opened the Talent Development Complex, a facility that provides recording equipment and workspace to its participants.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I'm able to do it, but I'm gigging sometimes five or six nights a week, plus I have other work here and there, in the studios and on radio.”

Other musicians he works with and knows have “bread and butter” gigs, in places like churches or at the casinos, and many also teach. Lafayette’s Music Room, he says, has tapped into a market for music in Midtown that Keith says seemed surprising to some people, with patrons from East Memphis showing up for 6 p.m. shows and filling the room.

“Work has definitely increased in the past couple of years for some of us,” Keith said. “All of this could change tomorrow. Rents could go up, clubs could go out of business, the economy could tank again and people could stop going out. But for the moment, things seem OK.”

Among the reasons why? The level of tourism that exists in Memphis, with out-of-towners coming here partly with an expectation to hear and enjoy live music.

Local musician John Paul Keith says, "You have to work almost nonstop, and you have to be versatile and professional” to make a living playing music in Memphis.

(Press Image)

Another is the cost of living. At his income level, Keith says he couldn’t afford to live in any other music city.

There’s also something else happening behind the scenes, adding to those environmental factors that make it possible for musicians like him to make a career out of music here.

On its own, the results of the grind could come down to luck – knowing the right people to talk to, places to play and how to pursue the career and business side of the gig. That’s one reason why a kind of ecosystem has come together over the past year that pools resources, veterans of the industry and access to programs and equipment to give musicians the chance to make their career in Memphis.

It’s similar to what’s happening in the city’s startup scene, where accelerators and other programs form a base of support and education such that anyone with a good idea has a better-than-average chance of turning it into a company here.

The same thing is starting to happen for musicians. And people like Stax legend David Porter are one reason why.

Porter’s organization, The Consortium Memphis Music Town, is a music nonprofit founded in 2012 that provides a learning environment and tools for budding musicians and entrepreneurs. It recently opened a facility it calls the Talent Development Complex. Housed at 119 S. Main St., it provides access to things like recording equipment and workspace to Consortium participants.

The outside world keeps getting reintroduced to the city’s music legacy. In recent days, for example, some of the 400 million users of the social network Instagram who clicked on the service’s “explore” tab would have seen, at the top of that page, a themed collection of photos from Instagram users depicting iconic music sites.

Instagram itself pulled that collection together, with around 30 sites represented. Four of them were related to Memphis music, including Stax, Graceland, Sun Studios and Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Porter tells The Memphis News it was the city’s music legacy that made him want to get involved in helping build and sustain a music ecosystem here. In Porter’s mind, though, the past isn’t so important that it should be elevated above the present and what could be improved in the future.

“In my mind, I wanted to first tap into the current talent pool that was here,” Porter says. “And come up with meaningful steps to elevate the quality of that talent and have young leadership in place to carry on the activity that will further add to that credibility and re-establish a credible music industry in the community.”

“Soul music is still revered all over the world in relation to Memphis. We just want this to be an elevator that takes us up to even higher heights.”

The consortium’s flagship effort is the SoulRight music-mentoring program, with processes focused on helping budding songwriters, producers and recording artists develop. As those participants excel, they’re put through the consortium’s Talent Development Complex, where collaboration areas allow local artists and musicians to network and develop their careers.

The complex also offers memberships and services to help artists take their careers to a new level.

The consortium last month announced a partnership with Start Co. to launch an accelerator for music business ventures. Applications for that program, called Start MMT, are being accepted through March 1, and participants will get $25,000 in seed funding.

The accelerator will run from May 2 through Aug. 11.

“Music is a business and a marketplace,” Porter said. “So when we’re able to take processes used in the industry and put it in a structured way, so people are aware they’re functioning inside a marketplace, then they have opportunities to make what they do competitive and marketable. That’s how you get an industry reignited.”

Invaluable resources

Lisa Mac, owner of Studio688 in Midtown, is also a singer with the band Party Planet and thinks resources like Porter’s programs are invaluable for musicians.

“I think when musicians really want to pursue music as a career, where they are able to provide a life for themselves strictly through music income, they have to start actually treating their music as a business,” Mac said. “One of the biggest mistakes some musicians make is that they just expect to make music their product, and then have an audience just fall into their lap without putting any work into that process. That's like building any new business and then just letting it sit there, just expecting customers to come without ever investing into the business or advertising to grow an audience …

“The point is focusing on what it is that you as a musician have to offer the world, and then perfecting it, packaging it and getting it out there.”

Among other new resources to help musicians do that, the Memphis Slim Collaboratory – also known as "Slim House" – has launched a music loan program to lend musicians funds for touring, recording and merchandise.

In its pilot phase, the program will deploy $25,000 through May to artists across Memphis’ music spectrum, with loan terms that range from three to 12 months with a flat interest rate of 5 percent.

Applicants are considered based on their work history, credit, music industry income streams and proposed repayment plan, and they can apply for a maximum of $5,000. One requirement is they have to be members of the Slim House, a workspace for musicians where membership costs $75 per year and provides access to the Slim House studio as well as access to special events, space rental and equipment rental.

“The Slim House came about as a community center for musicians,” said Pat Mitchell Worley, who’s helped market the venue. “To sort of gather them from around the city, to bring them into the Soulsville community to do events, to collaborate with each other and work together. As part of that, the Slim House saw a need to create programming that addressed some of those artists’ needs.”

Of course, each musician’s reality is different because there are circumstances, talents and personalities they each bring to the table outside of any resources they choose to take advantage of here. More than one musician who talked about their experiences with The Memphis News stressed that the deciding factor for whether they or anyone else makes it here sometimes comes down to a combination of luck and how hard they’re willing to work.

“Though I'm on the road with my band and a blues band I tour with a lot, I try to perform in Memphis publicly at least once a month,” said soul musician Nick Black. “I've been frequenting Lafayette’s … We've built up a following and they really love how dynamic our show is. It's a great place to hone and perfect what we do before we take it out of town.”

He suggests one secret to making it as a musician here is working to build up a following that will pay to come see you perform on a regular basis.

“I've lived in Memphis my entire life and I've been lucky enough to find the right opportunities for what I can offer as an entertainer and musician,” Black said. “This means weddings, corporate shows, playing in church, as well as playing my own shows with my own music.

“Because Memphis is a town with its economy firmly rooted in tourism, people expect a certain style of entertainment when they come here. If you're willing to fit into that style just a little bit and get an education in blues, soul music, and rock and roll, you can definitely make a living.”

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