A little over two years ago, local publicist and longtime Memphis music fan Elizabeth Cawein had a big idea. Inspired by recent trips to major music industry events such as Austin's South By Southwest and Nashville's Americanafest, where she saw little representation of or from Memphis, Cawein decided to take on the mantle herself.
"My vision was to build a system that benefits musicians and also drives results for the business and tourism communities," says Cawein. "I'm passionate about this city and our musicians. I'm passionate about telling their story. I felt strongly that we were missing an opportunity to both perpetuate and reinvigorate the Memphis brand as a music city."
To get the ball rolling, Cawein pitched the idea that would become Music Export Memphis to Phil Trenary and Amy Daniels at the Greater Memphis Chamber, who quickly got on board with the project. With their support, she was able to target a presence at the 2016 Americanafest as her inaugural event. Dubbed the Memphis Picnic, the showcase was an overwhelming success.
"We got some phenomenal earned media at Americanafest last year," says Cawein. "Our artists were covered in No Depression, Paste, American Songwriter, and more."
From there, Music Export Memphis more or less took off like a rocket ship. Cawein has since staged another Memphis Picnic at South By Southwest, created a songwriters exchange program with the city of Liverpool (U.K.) called "Memphis to the Mersey," and attracted a worldwide music conference, the Music Cities Convention, to Memphis. The conference, which focuses on the role of music in civic life, will take place at the Halloran Centre October 25th-27th.
This weekend Cawein will be out on the road again promoting Memphis music — back at Americanafest, where the journey began. The second annual Memphis Picnic at Americanafest, which takes place on Saturday, September 16th at the Filming Station in Nashville, should be nothing short of an extravaganza celebration of all things Bluff City.
In addition to a stacked lineup of local performers, including Crockett Hall, Juju Bushman, Loveland Duren, Grace Askew, and the Rusty Pieces, the event will also feature edibles from the Rendevous, Corky's, and MemPops, libations from High Cotton Brewing Company and Old Dominick Distillery, a Grizzlies photo booth, a program of Memphis-made music videos curated by IndieMemphis, and a pop-up vinyl-only record shop run by Shangri-La Records.
"I swear, I've never done an event that was as seamless and killer as our Americanafest event last year," says Cawein. "I just kept waiting for something to go wrong! But we have almost doubled the number of partners represented at this event, which I'm excited about. With these events, I always want to showcase as much Memphis stuff as I possibly can — the lineup of music is the main course, and the food, drinks, and extras from Memphis are the side items."
Beyond Americanafest, Cawein already has a few next steps in mind. Her new big idea is an ambassador's program of sorts, which would see Music Export Memphis providing tangible tour support (i.e., money) to local artists to help get them out on the road and spread the gospel of Memphis and Memphis music.
"The reality is, they already are [ambassadors]," she says. "I want to give them a little bit of training on the talking points of why Memphis is a great place to visit and live, send them out with promotional merchandise, and cut them a check to support their tour."
"I think my point here is that, for the most part, my ideas do not require a ton of overhead, a ton of administration. They utilize existing structures and organizations — for example, bringing in our partner the New Memphis Institute to help us with some training for the touring artists on you-should-live-in-Memphis facts — and finding ways to maximize things that are already happening, such as artists touring outside the city."
Cawein has also recently put a board of directors for Music Export Memphis in place, so that her vision isn't the only one guiding the organization moving forward.
"I'm excited to get out of the curation business," she says. "I'll always enjoy having input on that, but I think deferring to the board — a group of people who really bring varied experiences in Memphis music and varied connections to different scenes — will make this work better, more effectively, and will make Music Export Memphis better able to tell the entire Memphis music story. This was never about me picking artists for a showcase or an opportunity; I just want to facilitate the opportunity. So I'm excited to see what we can do together in 2018."