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An Interview With Jerry Schilling



Jerry Schilling, president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, recently completed his first full year in the office. With a new strategic plan and budget approved for year two, Schilling sat down with us to discuss the Commission's accomplishments and plans for the future, the criticism it has received, and the status of the local music industry.

What are your general feelings on your first year on the job?

I feel very good about it. I felt very strongly that I was the right person for this job because of my contacts in the industry on the West Coast and because I'm from here. I think you need to be both. I felt that an industry person, a national industry person who really didn't understand Memphis, would have a hard time being productive here. To come back to Memphis and be president of the music commission -- it doesn't get any better for me. But I needed to learn Memphis as a music city today-- not the history part, I know that. I really wanted to find out what the current musicians were doing here and what they needed. There was a lot of organizing, finding an office, paperwork. There was so much of that during the first year, just getting started

The idea of our health care initiative [a program providing health insurance for local working musicians, the music commission's primary project during year one] is that I didn't want to have this successful looking music commission on one side and the music community on the other side, and the two never met. It was my first way of saying "we're here for you and we're going to work on this." But now it's imperative that we concentrate strictly on the music. Now when I say strictly, we won't forget about health care, but it's not going to be our main objective this year.

What do you perceive as the role of the music commission? What need doesit fill that wasn't already being filled?

I feel that there is a basic role that Mayor Herenton and Mayor Rout set the commission up to fill: All things musical should flow through the music commission. The music commission is not in competition with any other organization here. Quite to the contrary, we're a support system. We've already been working very closely with NARAS. Jon Hornyak [executive director of the local NARAS chapter] is on our commission. NARAS is part of our health care program. We want anyone with music related activities to come to us. We're sort of a clearinghouse.

But besides working with existing music entities, the ultimate goal of the music commission is to bring production into Memphis. The bottom line is that we need Memphis to be an economically sound music city. We need to bring people in. There's a lot going on here, a lot of signings. Press is one way we have to get our message out. But before we went national and international, I wanted to have the city behind us and at the same time I wanted to be out there seeing what acts we had that, if we brought in national A&R people, these are acts that would have a chance to get signed on a national level. One of the things we've been working on since I got here was I wanted to bring music-related conventions into town. We're having a convention in June, the first convention of the International Black Broadcasters Association, and we'll have the top record and TV executives in the country here. We need to build a sound music industry here, but that's going to take a lot of time.

Let's talk about some specific issues. We might as well start with the health care plan. What's the extent of the involvement so far, in terms of how many people have inquired about the program and how many people have signed up?

We have 17 people signed up and 100 plus inquiries. [Note: Since this interview took place 4 more people have been signed on to the plan] We learned a lot those first few months: that our standard of 51 percent [percentage of income one would have to gain from music in order to be eligible] was too high for most musicians working here. So a lot of people that originally inquired didn't fit either our requirements or the MEMPHIS Plan [health care plan run by the Church Health Center] requirements. We're lowering our requirements. For example, in the MEMPHIS Plan musicians have to work at least 20 hours a week [to be eligible], and I've been able to convince them that rehearsal time is work, lugging stuff around is work. That's why we're going to have a new campaign, so hopefully some of the people who inquired will come back. We were lucky enough to raise $110,000, so we have enough money to pay the premiums for musicians that are on it and still advertise so we can open this thing up.

Wasn't the originally stated goal was 200-300 people?

We figured 100-200 at most. If we get 100 people I think we're successful. If we only get 17 people? I could still be happy about that.

Let's talk a little about outreach. You obviously read the article in the CA where local musicians spoke about the commission. One of them said that he didn't think a lot of local musicians were really aware of the commission. Are you concerned at all about any perceived cliquishness?

Good question. The person who said that was [Pawtuckets member and Madjack Records co-owner] Mark McKinney, who I had a good meeting with last week. It was a surprise to me, and yet I still understand it. But I was on TV 20 hours last year. I was in all the print media and a great deal of radio, where I talked about the Music Commission and what it was doing. And the press has been good to us. But saying that I've done a lot of press is one thing. I've tried to analyze that since that CA article. Maybe people know who I am, but they don't know enough about the commission. So I want to involve the commission more. I want the commission to have a face and voice out there, and it can't be just one person. As far as cynicism, I know there's been a history of music commissions in Memphis that goes back 30 something years. I think, as a whole, music commissions are suspect. We don't have a great track record here. But my whole life has been about music. I understand why, as far as the government and musicians, there would be skepticism, but I'm not that guy. Everybody just has to look at my history. IÕve lived with artists all of my life. That's why I came back here. What I think is important is that the government, city and county, didn't just say, "let's have a music commission," but they're funding it. They've given us the money to get started here. And that says to me, and I hope to the musicians, "your government finally cares about you enough to do something." But now we need the musicians to come in and tell us how we can do that. And we'll offer things as well. [Commission member] Knox Phillips and I plan on setting up a musician's advisory committee.

People use the term "the music community." But don't you think it might be more accurate that there are different communities, plural. Isn't that an issue for the commission? There are people who are more centered on the Beale Street establishment versus people playing mostly at rock clubs in town-- like the Hi-Tone or Young Avenue Deli-- versus people in the hip-hop community, and maybe there's not a natural overlap there?

Absolutely. That's one of the things that makes this job so awesome is that we have to represent all music here. I think that, as far as the diversity, if we want Memphis music to be self-sufficient, then we've got to have the rising tide theory. I read an article before I got here where Isaac Hayes said he'd like to come back and record in Memphis, but people here don't talk. But I'm finding when I sit down to talk to people here, I'm not getting a lot of nos. But saying that, I think we can't ignore, and I think we need to support as much as we can-- and I may be hitting on a nerve here--what's happening in Memphis, big time, with hip hop and rap. I don't want in the 21st century for us to make the same mistake we made 50 years ago. So, I don't think that as president of the music commission I can go out and promote gangster rap, but I don't think I can ignore it either. I read in the Los Angeles Times that Memphis was number three in terms of rap production in the country and number five in terms of consuming it. So I made it real clear to the commission-- and nobody had a problem with this-- that if I was representing all music in Memphis, I also had to represent hip hop and rap. It's a delicate balance, I think. If there were two things I could point to that have the most potential here, it would be gospel and rap.

Your written list of goals includes something called the Memphis Studio Alliance. What is that?

I could bring some of the top A&R people in here, but I'd like to have a showcase of some of the top unsigned bands, so I think that the studio alliance can help the commission know who's out there, what's going on, who has some potential, and we'll try to organize that with all the studios. And then, from time to time, have a showcase here, maybe sponsored by the studios and the commission, to bring in the A&R people. Let's call the studio alliance a way to bring back the old Crossroads [music showcase], which I never saw but I learned about. I'm not concerned about getting people here the first time, I'm worried about them coming back. I know they can have a good time eating barbecue, going down to Beale Street. But these people are extremely busy. Will they come back? With the talent here and if we can find a way for the studios to present that talent, we can get them back. The other part of the studio alliance is where if band A goes to House of Blues and that's not the place for them to record, then we can direct them to Ardent or somewhere instead of having them go to Nashville or Los Angeles. And people I've talked to so far love the idea.

But what about the failure of Crossroads and what that means for future attempts for showcases?

My understanding was that it started off small and very selective, and that's why it produced results. Then I think that after that success, it got bigger and became more of a beer bash rather than a selective event to try and get artists shown. Again, this is second-hand knowledge, but I've talked with people who have been involved with it, and that's the understanding I have.

The initial set of goals [in September of 1999] expressed a lot of concern over the concert situation in Memphis; concern that I'd say is warranted. Let me read back to you one of your comments from those written goals and have you respond: "I feel strongly that any plan about Memphis music must address our current concert problems. Managers, agents, and promoters have become fearful of the Memphis market, even though, logistically, we are right on their routes." Could you elaborate on that?

I think that's one of the things we have to change our attitude about. If I'm a manager on the West coast and I have a band that's on the charts and the band needs to tour and needs to sell tickets, I'm going to bypass Memphis, and that's a shame.


Since I've been here, I've seen three major concerts canceled. But even the shows that I went to, like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan-- to have that few people is just amazing. You wouldn't be able to get tickets in L.A. You'd have to get the third show. What's the reason? What people have told me, me being new to the local area, was that the problem is Tunica. So the first thing I did was I went to Tunica and started up a relationship there.

Sure, Tunica is an issue in terms of our concert situation. But the casinos are still pretty limited in the type of music they bring. It's country, it's blues, and it's oldies. In terms of contemporary rock music, hip-hop, even younger-oriented R&B, the casino area isn't an issue, but yet Memphis still has a concert problem in those areas.

I agree with what you're saying. Our numbers are off.

Is it an issue of discretionary income and rising ticket prices?

Well, all of the above. I think that rising ticket prices are an issue here. I think the ticket prices we get are viable in L.A. and New York. But the income here isn't the same. Also, I really think we miss Bob Kelly. He knew how to promote. I don't see a lot of excitement. But the music commission has to be involved in the concert scene. My experience in that area is one of the things that got me here. But another problem is that people think they're coming into a one million person market, but in the concert business it's probably only a half a million market, because I don't see as much [racial crossover] as on a national level. I can't think of any acts that have come here lately who have gotten a mix of these million people.

How important is the health of the concert scene, in terms of national acts coming through town, to the health of the local music scene?

I think it's very important. Acts coming through town, it's a real good indicator of the music business in a town, one indicator anyway. But if you're trying to establish a good music business and your concert business is spotty, that hurts. Again, all of this is a rising tide theory. Within the industry, Memphis is a tough nut to crack. If you've got a hot act that's building something, you don't want to take a chance of going into a market that has a history of cancellations or no sell-outs. When I really think about cities that have a good music industry, I think you see the concert business going hand-in-hand. So, for that reason alone, it's very important.

The commission's original mission statement mentioned building an industry that puts as much of a mark on the 21st century as it did the 20th. Do you think that's even possible, given that the historical circumstances that produced those earlier music explosions don't really exist anymore?

Well, I think all that we can do is to support an infrastructure that allows creativity to flow. Like with health care, one thing that does is give musicians more freedom. You set up the structure and you support it. But you still have in this area, this 200-mile area around here, a unique diversification of people and music. I think that uniqueness brings about a creative explosion. You're talking about blues, then Sun, then Stax. And we're all sitting around thinking, "what will be the next thing for Memphis?" But maybe it's already happening. Third in production of rap music in the country without even trying to be. Without even acknowledging it. You never know where it's coming from. Rock-and-roll never knew where it was coming from. There's no manufacturing of success in this business.

But don't you think that people have unrealistic expectations for the present and future of Memphis music based upon what's happened in the past?

I hope not, because I don't think that's the way to go about it. You do this because you love the music and you should want to be self-supporting. I don't think in the real music world, certainly not in Memphis, you only go after it to get on the charts. n

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