Crosstown Arts has been bringing local and international talent to its stages since it first opened, with superb curation and eclecticism. But, like all venues for live music, they are unable to carry on this work while COVID-19 is on the ascendant. And yet their budget for live music wasn't going anywhere. What was to be done?
Crosstown Arts' solution was to create an online platform called Against the Grain, which will serve as a clearinghouse for artists' videos, allowing visitors to either watch for free or contribute to the artists by purchasing virtual "tickets." The standard ticket costs five dollars, but greater donations are encouraged. All ticket sales and other contributions go directly to the artists. Crosstown Arts is providing the service to all local musicians free of charge.
"Since we have a monthly allotted budget for live performances, in the Green Room or Crosstown Theater or wherever, we're trying to use that," says Crosstown Arts performance coordinator Jenny Davis. "We're diverting funding that we would normally use for live performances toward this."
From the outset, Davis says, the goal was to make the process as simple as possible. "There's no selection process. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome. The only real requirement is that the musician needs to live in Memphis, at least for part of the year." Beyond that, any homemade (or more elaborate) videos are accepted. Crosstown Arts does request that the home performances be recent, dating from the current era of social distancing or soon before it.
Jenny Davis plays amplified cacti in John Cage's "Child of Tree"
"We tried to have as few guidelines as possible, but we decided that we needed some. We want to at least be able to see every musician's face at some point in the videos." Also, they discourage introductions or banter, requesting that performers get right to the music. Introductions will be edited out. "That was because we want to keep them all as similar as possible. And all the videos are getting a black-and-white filter. Artist photos will be in full color, but the videos are all black-and-white. Justin [Thompson] does that. It was an aesthetic judgement call. I think it also helps to give a similar vibe to all the videos. So it's clear they're all part of the same project."
The site is already up and running, with artists as diverse as Grace Askew, Cory Branan, Jordan Occasionally, Maeve Brophy, Graham Winchester, Optic Sink, Qemist, Aaron James, The PRVLG, The Wealthy West, Jonathan Bass, and Nick Black featured.
Being a performer myself, I decided to give it a whirl. Nothing could have been simpler. I set up some extra lights around the couch, yelled at the dogs to quit their yapping, and played to the lens of my iPad. From there, I could follow the submission link, register with my personal data, and that was that.
"If you go to the Against the Grain website homepage and scroll down, you'll see every performer pictured," says Davis. "That's the first way to see them. Also, at the top there's a tab for artists. If you click that, it will come up by genre, or you can just select All Artists and see everyone."
What about freaks like me, who might veer from jazz to classical to folk in a heartbeat? Not a problem, says Davis. "People use a separate form for each video they send, so you can select a different genre for each one and then your videos would be included in all the categories that are applicable. And all of your videos would show up on your artist page."
Even if we do return to normal public life again, this project may continue to serve as a useful collection of musicians based here. "We want as many genres as possible," Davis adds. "To me, that's one of the cool things about it. Aside from being a place to donate to artists, it's also a cool place to just go see all the different artists in Memphis. I've already learned a lot about several people. So that's really cool. We have everything from Memphis Symphony Orchestra musicians to songwriters and everything in between. As a classical musician, I hear people talk about 'Memphis musicians,' but the classical musicians aren't always counted. But we're all in this together. We're all Memphis musicians. It's nice to host everyone in the same place."
With about 20 musicians now featured on the site, Davis hopes to see it grow. "Our concrete goal is to have 100 artists. For the first hundred musicians to submit a video, we're going ahead and putting $50 in their virtual tip jar." With such an incentive, Against the Grain may well become part of the musical lifeblood of this city for years to come, coronavirus or no.