Five months into his tenure as president of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission, Rey Flemings has his hands full. Flemings says that he's gotten the ball rolling on five of his planned 18 "tactical solutions" for the local music industry and has set the stage to implement the remaining 13 projects in 2004.
Data has already been compiled for the Memphis Music Directory and an economic analysis study, both of which will be available online once the commission revamps its Web site, MemphisMusic.org, in January. Asserting the importance of an upcoming local promotional campaign, a planned TV program, a workforce-development council, and other projects, Flemings emphasizes that the music commission "is very active in dealing with things that individual musicians cannot tackle on their own. We want to provide an infrastructure, as well as access to capital, promotional tools, and other resources, to successful musicians."
Yet Flemings' first months with the music commission haven't been without complaints. A handful of musicians have raised questions about the role of the organization in the local music scene. Their biggest concern: What is the music commission doing to better working conditions for full-time musicians?
"Local musicians shouldn't envision the music commission as a savior," Flemings insists. "We're not trying to become a studio, a label, or a booking agent. While the commission certainly exists to assist musicians and clear obstacles and marshal resources, the primary responsibility-holder is the musician. Our goal is to make Memphis an independent music capital, so that hardworking, talented musicians don't have to become expatriates to become successful."
"But," Flemings cautions, "a musician who's sitting back waiting for the music commission to make them successful is likely to be an unsuccessful musician. People are too 'me' focused -- 'What are you specifically doing for me? The music commission has $225,000 -- I want my $10!' We could just send everybody a check but what would that do?" he asks.
"The role of the music commission is to advocate and support the business of music in Memphis," Flemings states. "The biotechnology sector, the distribution sector, and the medical sector all have organizations advocating their industries. Not specific businesses, but the entire industry."
"The economic analysis study will tell the state of Tennessee, the city of Memphis, and Shelby County what the business of these local musicians means in terms of tax dollars," Flemings explains. "This is vital information. Shelby County has indicated that it's looking to phase out funding for the music commission, but if they realize that the local music business generates 'X' tax revenue for the county, maybe they'll continue to support us."
The commission's most-publicized project is a planned 2004 concert billed "The 50th Anniversary of Rock & Roll & Soul Music." It's also the commission's most controversial undertaking: Critics see the proposed event as a profit-maker for the Beale Street Entertainment District and the tourism industry, with musicians themselves receiving the smallest piece of the pie.
"This festival is organized in its entirety as a charity," Flemings says. "All non-expense proceeds will go to music-related charities, national and local. The Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission is one of those charities. This festival will provide funds for us to administer more programs. The net effect is that we wind up with the money, but we've got to package these ideas to get corporate support. A major company is much more likely to give $2 million as part of a sponsorship for a nationally televised concert than they would give $2 million to support local musicians."
How much money has the music commission spent chasing after this event? "It's very important to note that the commission hasn't spent a single cent -- not one penny -- of its general fund on this festival. We aren't diverting scarce resources to do this, and none of the commission's funds will be used to execute the event," Flemings says, explaining that the nonprofit Memphis Tomorrow provided exploratory funds to organize and set up the concert. "We presented a long list of potential strategies to Memphis Tomorrow and the riskiest strategy was the festival. Although it was low on my list of priorities when I proposed it, they chose to back this event."
"We have the opportunity to celebrate this anniversary in 2004, and if we ignore it, it'll simply pass us by," Flemings adds. "If we're successful in building an internationally significant event that focuses the world's attention on Memphis and its contributions to popular music and we have our local musicians playing that event, that's one of the most effective things the commission can do."
Big props to Free Sol, who won the 2003 Grammy Showcase last Friday night. The eight-piece hip-hop/rock band won the grand-prize package that includes production costs for 1,000 CDs and a paid slot at the 2004 Beale Street Music Festival. First-runner-up was Valencia Robinson, while Retrospect, originally an alternate contender, won the second-runner-up prize. Disqualified from competing in the event, Egypt Central was nevertheless the biggest winner overall: The group reportedly inked a deal with Lava/Atlantic Records over the weekend.