The Price of Free Music

A smash at the Levitt Shell, not so much at Mud Island.

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At a time when everything from Facebook to Delta airfares is monetized to the max, one of the nicest stories to come out of Memphis is the popular free concert series at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.

Last Saturday night, the grassy embankment in front of the Shell was packed with 4,800 people for a season-opening concert by the Wandering featuring acoustic music and singing with a regional flair by Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas. It was especially nice to see LaVere, who has occasionally made ends meet by working part-time as a receptionist for the Flyer's parent company, Contemporary Media.

While I was praising the Wandering at work on Monday morning, two of my colleagues were raving about another concert the same night by Wilco at the Mud Island Amphitheater. But, they said, that venue was only a little more than half full. Granted that the barbecue contest was also going on downtown, the musical offerings were somewhat similar except that one was free and the other was $42 a ticket, plus service charges.

Was there any connection between the size of the two crowds? (Disclosure: The concept of "free" is something of an obsession to those of us in journalism.)

One person who thinks so is Bruce Newman, a Memphis attorney specializing in clients in the music and entertainment business. Newman, who moved to Memphis from New York in 1989, is also a songwriter, guitar player, humor blogger (thetwobruces.com), and host of "Folksong Fiesta" on WEVL Memphis 89.9 FM.

Newman is a big fan of the Levitt Shell and its 50 free concerts each year, which are supported by major grants from the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, the Plough Foundation, and the Assisi Foundation of Memphis. But he is wary of the power of "free" in music, books, and intellectual property.

"The Internet has given us the mindset that everything should be free or discounted," he said. "Free downloading of music in the early days gave people the expectation that they should not have to pay. There are more opportunities to have intellectual property heard or seen, but in essence, everybody is making less money."

Newman and his partner, tax expert Peter DeCoster, have worked with most all of the local nonprofits, artists, record companies, and producers, so he has a pretty good sense of the economics of the market.

"If Wilco, a national act, is doing half the amphitheater at Mud Island, I can't imagine the band is going to want to come back or that the promoter will want it to come back," he said. "That's why a lot of acts don't pass through here, because it's not profitable."

Simply put, free concerts impact the local concert scene and venues that have a cover charge.

"People should pay for live entertainment," Newman said. "If you want quality, you've got to pay for it. When you have too many free venues, it certainly will reduce the revenues at some of the struggling venues. That may be just healthy economics. But if you kill off venues, you have less opportunity for acts to come through. That's why some good musicians have left Memphis."

Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell, said it's a rare occasion when the Shell hurts another venue, because the acts are family oriented and usually end by 9 p.m. "so you can still go out on the town."

It costs about $8,000 to put on each concert, including production, hospitality, and performance fees. Donations collected at the concerts go toward expenses.

"We negotiate," she said. "Every artist is different. Performers get a guarantee based on what we feel the crowd and donations will be. We have a long wish list and a long waiting list."

She said the Wandering drew the largest crowd in the history of the concert series. The show ended at 10 p.m. but was not as loud as the Stooges Brass Band on Thursday night, which shut down at 9 p.m.

"It was a mellow crowd, and we didn't have any problems," Pitts said. "There was some hesitation on the part of neighbors in the beginning years, but people have seen the benefits now."

If you want to support Memphis music, keep those donations — and cover charges — coming.

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