• Print

    Memphis Music Foundation gives local musicians a hand

    James Dowd - The Commercial Appeal -

    As a youngster, Memphian Chris Milam meandered his way across a lyrical landscape, pounding away at piano lessons here, plodding through chords on a bass guitar there.

    But for the most part, Milam's musical interludes were more perfunctory than passionate.

    Until he picked up his brother's acoustic guitar.

    "It was like everything changed. I found an instrument that spoke to me," the 28-year-old singer/songwriter said recently upon returning to the Bluff City after a gig in Nashville. "I played bass in a lot of really horrible middle school bands, just fooling around because it was kinda cool, but when I started playing acoustic it was different. I discovered something that I really wanted to do."

    And he wanted to do it in Memphis.

    After performing in coffee houses, lounges and small clubs in Nashville while earning an undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University, Milam moved to New York City to hone his craft. And while the Big Apple offered a wide variety of listeners and venues, Milam eventually decided that his hometown offered the perfect home base for pursuing a career in music.

    And the Memphis Music Foundation helped.

    As part of its annual Memphis Means Music Month campaign, the MMF is working to elevate its profile in the local music community and encourage artists to take advantage of its services.

    "There's remarkable diversity in the music business in Memphis, with artists in just about every genre and companies that specialize in all facets of the industry," said Pat Mitchell Worley, director of development and communications for the MMF. "About the only thing I'm unaware of is a Polka scene, but if there's one here then we'd love to know about it. The music industry is very much alive in Memphis."

    Of course there are the oft-played legacies of Elvis Presley and Isaac Hayes, Sun Studio and Stax Records, and Shelby County native Justin Timberlake continues to build a fortune through music, film and business endeavors. But making it as a musician in Memphis typically doesn't translate into world renown.

    Still, there's a living to be made here for musicians all over the scale and the nonprofit MMF, which bills itself as an economic development organization that aims to equip artists with the tools and training to become entrepreneurs and make money by making music. Most of its programs are free and more than 2,500 musicians are members.

    The group's flagship program is the Memphis Resource Center, which provides free access to computers, industry literature, meeting spaces and career guidance services.

    Milam encourages his musician friends to take advantage of the offerings.

    "Most of us, we get the artistic side. That's why we're musicians to begin with, because we love to perform and we want to create music," Milam said. "But a lot of musicians don't know anything about the business side of the industry. You've got to think of yourself as a small business and treat your career with that same kind of professionalism if you want it to last."

    Alicja Trout, 41, agrees.

    For Trout, whose family moved from Baltimore to Memphis when she was eight, the Bluff City is home. And despite sojourns elsewhere — a brief residency in New Orleans and a touring schedule that occasionally takes her outside the city — Memphis is where she wants to make music.

    "I chose a path when I was in my 20s and it was a Memphis path, a more underground, independent music niche sound as opposed to a New York or L.A. sound," Trout said. "There's a low cost of living here, the local press is really great for bands and the Memphis Music Foundation offers good support. It's easy to be part of the music scene here."

    But being part of the scene doesn't necessarily translate into financial security for local musicians, Trout added. While making a living locally as a full-time musician is doable, Trout supplements her performance paychecks with work as a property manager and as a music teacher.

    Beyond that she schedules regular tours across and outside the country and she advises up-and-coming artists to do the same.

    "I think it's important, especially when you're just starting out, to book shows out of town. It gives you a different perspective and helps you connect with a wider audience," Trout said. "Some bands will play gigs every week or two here and never go outside Memphis and that can lead to burnout after a few years. I think there's a great value, particularly when you're young, of going out and sleeping on friends' couches in different cities and finding your path. Then when you find it, stick to it."

    Helping musicians discern those paths and develop successful careers means lots of behind-the-scenes work said Memphis Resource Center director Cameron Mann. Whether it's hosting a seminar on how to break into the music publishing industry, providing financial literacy training or even assisting artists in recovering royalties, Mann's team addresses myriad needs.

    "We may have a member who wants to know how to find a publicist or one who needs a legal opinion on a contract and we help them with that," Mann said. "We also have clients who call up and need a particular kind of musician for an upcoming event or festival and we make those connections, too."

    David Parks credits the MMF with guiding his career.

    The 25-year-old bass guitarist just returned to his home in Memphis from touring with teen pop sensation Justin Bieber and Parks said that connections he's forged through his association with the nonprofit have kept him on the right path. He works full-time as a musician and eventually would like to operate a club or lounge here that features live music.

    "If it weren't for the Memphis Music Foundation folks showing me the ins and outs of the business side of the music industry I'd probably have given up on it a long time ago," Parks said. "I can call them with any question and they'll help me out. I feel like they're as committed to my success as I am."

    Jazz singer Jamille Hunter would like to pursue a music career full-time, but for now she plays occasional local gigs and private events on the weekends while working as a counselor at Cordova Elementary School during the week. She recorded her first album last year and acknowledged that the project likely never would have happened without support — and a heavy dose of realism — from the Memphis Music Foundation.

    "I didn't know anything about recording a CD, but they helped me through the process with budgeting, marketing, promotions and even finding some musicians to play on the album," said Hunter, 40, who's been performing more than two decades. "They were very blunt about telling me that it wasn't going to be easy, then they taught me how to set up my own music publishing company and how to be business savvy. If I'd known years ago how tough this would be I'm not sure I'd have pursued a music career, but I'm lucky to have found some really great people here to help me along the way."

    Memphis Music Foundation

    Established: 2003

    Leadership: Dean Deyo, president

    Mission: To cultivate a viable economic engine for Memphis by providing musicians and the music industry with resources and opportunities for growth and independence

    Address: 431 South Main Street, Suite 201

    Phone: 901-527-1029

    Hours: Memphis Music Foundation is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; and the Memphis Resource Center is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays

    Online: memphismeansmusic.com