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Bumpy Rebirth for Music Commission

The disorganization and folly of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission over the last few years has been well documented in the local media and thoroughly dissected on message boards and other public forums dedicated to the local music scene.

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But now, at a time when so much is going right for Memphis music thanks, in part, to the publicity generated by Craig Brewer's $5 Cover project and the combined efforts of organizations such as the Memphis Music Foundation (a private nonprofit that splintered off from the commission), the Folk Alliance, and Live From Memphis, the Music Commission is attempting to rejoin the party and legitimize itself in the eyes of not only local musicians and the music scene but the larger Memphis community.

The main impetus for this reemergence is the arrival of new Music Commission executive director Johnnie Walker. Walker, a former Def Jam executive who played a significant role in, among other things, the discovery of Atlanta rapper Ludacris and the creation of the hit HBO series Def Comedy Jam, admits to being not fully prepared for the challenges she's faced in trying to rejuvenate an organization long mired in poor leadership and ineffectiveness.

"Originally, I thought it would be more organized," Walker says. "I knew there were problems and things we were going to have to fix, but I didn't expect the total lack of credibility. The whole thing has been mystifying to me."

Part of the problem stems from a lack of trust and level of dysfunction within the commission itself, which, based on the commission's past two meetings and discussions with commissioners and other attendees, appears to be an ongoing issue. Depending on who and under what context you ask, Walker is either doing a bang-up job or possibly making things worse.

"In my opinion, she has done an amazing job," says Kurt Clayton, chairman of the Music Commission's executive board. "She has lit a spark under the music community here, and I'm extremely happy as chairman to be a part of the new movement."

"I'm really impressed with her," echoes Vice Chairman Richard Cushing. "We were a rudderless ship without leadership, and it took a great weight off of our shoulders when she finally arrived."

Privately, though, several commissioners have expressed doubts about Walker's ability to lead, her secretive personal manner, and the fact that she's yet to present a cohesive, big-picture plan or vision for the future of the Music Commission.

What Walker has done in her short time in office is create a series of events designed to showcase emerging local talent and provide educational and networking opportunities for those in the music business. Among them are Memphis Music Mondays, a biweekly, free local-music showcase and networking event at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Memphis Music Community Forums, a free monthly workshop at the Pink Palace Museum.

However, there is still tension and personal animosity between certain members of the Music Commission board, including Walker, that's visible in the monthly, public commission meetings at City Hall.

"It's obvious they all hate each other," said a recent observer. "Nothing is ever going to happen over there."

"I think there's a feeling among some commissioners that the process of getting a new leader was not very transparent, and therefore breeds distrust," says Music Commission executive board treasurer Jonathan Cross. "And within the commission, there appear to be factions that have more information than others. Those in the know aren't always willing to share information."

Whether there is a possibility of a unified and purposeful Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission remains to be seen.

"I'm willing to give Ms. Walker the benefit of the doubt," Cross says. "But so far, I haven't seen a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the music industry here, and one is certainly needed."

What's clear is that Walker intends to play her cards close to the vest. When pressed to explain exactly what role the Music Commission serves that other local organizations aren't already providing, Walker offered enthusiasm but little in the way of specifics.

"My unifying theme is Memphis music," Walker says. "We have to create value for our most precious commodity, which is music. We aren't respected by the powers-that-be in this town as a viable economic commodity. Our challenge is to keep Memphis music positioned in people's minds."

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