The Memphis arts community should be tipping its hat to Mayor A C Wharton. In light of the mayor's compelling July 15th Viewpoint column in the Flyer on making Memphis a city of choice for musicians, filmmakers, and artists, we should also be asking: "What's the next step?"
The time is ripe for a comprehensive overhaul of our approach to the arts and economic development in Memphis and statewide, and it's exciting to see Mayor Wharton laying the groundwork for change. With Tennessee's loss of some recent high-profile movie and television projects, it would've been easy for Wharton's discussion to focus on the film industry. But talking only about film incentives does not represent the realities of our new creative economy, and the mayor's language demonstrates that he agrees that music, film, and interactive media are intertwined and should be treated with robust incentives for each.
As the director of the Memphis Music Foundation's Music Resource Center, it's no surprise that the music community is my primary concern. For musicians particularly, Memphis' history has already made it a city of choice. Memphis has long been home to creative groundbreakers, from Stax, Sun, and Hi to the foundation laid by the bluesmen who paved the way long before. We've done a great job promoting our history — now we must turn our attention to the future.
First, we need a practical approach to reviewing and revamping our incentives. The current film incentives, for example, need simplification. We have two separate programs, each with stipulations and minimum in-state expenditures that could be lowered. The plan does not significantly showcase or incentivize music production and licensing, other than some nonspecific language lumping in studio production with film. Correcting that issue is just the beginning.
Let's start with a song. A song is intellectual-property currency in its most basic form. From its creation to its exploitation, a song, especially a hit song, is the lifeline for career artists, production companies, labels, and studios that paid to create that song with money and sweat equity. The business surrounding a hit song means that everyone, from studios and session musicians down to hotels, restaurants, and van rental companies, get paid. Of course, those dividends grow exponentially when dealing with hit songs and publishing catalogs from iconic artists and labels.
Memphis has some impressive catalogs. If we could incentivize outside production companies to license Tennessee music, we would be doing something innovative and potentially very powerful. We could also offer special incentives for licensing independent artists' music, investing in the success of emerging talent. Imagine a public relations campaign aimed at Hollywood, advertised in trade magazines, and aggressively disseminated to decision makers. Synch royalties from music licensed for television and film are substantial, not to mention royalties derived from video games and other digital products and revenue streams.
Local recording studios need our attention, as well. In Nashville, Austin, and Philadelphia, many studios are being used for education by schools and nonprofits. If we could encourage adaptive re-use of these underused facilities, we could create new revenue streams to supplement the income of working studios. This means strategic partnerships between for-profits, nonprofits, and educational institutions, encouraged by tax incentives or grants. This is an area where creative thinking could lead to legislation that would target the needs of our city and our artists.
Memphis is a town of independent artists and businesses, and it is imperative that we nurture that spirit. When our business culture rewards independent thinking, we empower those with the most potential to move us forward. When we think and act innovatively, whatever the risk, other cities take notice. When the Music Resource Center opened in 2008, some people thought it was risky and doubted it would be embraced by the community. Two years later, serving more than 2,000 artists and businesses, our is the only facility of its kind in the nation. Because we broke the ground and took the risk, we're now being contacted by nonprofit and governmental counterparts in cities like Austin, Nashville, Jackson, Mississippi, and Tucson. Why? They all want to emulate our efforts.
With that said, our work is never done and there is more ground to cover. Our highest purpose as a nonprofit resource is to aid the efforts of independent artist entrepreneurs and small businesses in our local music industry. Memphis is the independent music capital of world, and we aim to keep it that way. The Memphis Music Foundation and the Memphis Resource Center put our full support behind Mayor Wharton's efforts. We're inspired and encouraged. With a government that believes in the potential and power of the arts, there is no dout that our future will be every bit as impactful as our history.
Cameron Mann is the director of music industry programs for the Memphis Music Foundation.