Anyone questioning where the music is in Memphis need look no further than Soulsville, USA.
The Memphis Slim Collaboratory, known affectionately as the Memphis Slim House by the artists who call it home, serves multiple functions for the Memphis musicians. It opened in April 2014 at 1130 College St., just to the east of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“We want to make sure musicians get a clear understanding before they go to Royal or Ardent,” said Isaac Daniel, Memphis Slim House Manager. “This should be an incubator to help people be more serious before going to studios.”
Daniel knows all too well the struggle Memphis musicians face to stay home. A Memphis native, Daniel has had opportunities to move to other cities where he can have better financial security to play music.
But he sees the potential here, and to him the Memphis Slim Collaboratory plays a vital role in Soulsville, USA where he said it serves as community resource.
“It’s a resource to musicians who are serious but on the same token it’s good for beginners who can utilize the professional quality space,” Daniel said. “Artists really want to do it. They get money together and record and it’s not good enough. They didn’t have a place like this to build, grow and practice. Now they come here and practice and then go in to a studio with a better working budget. Something that's great on stage doesn’t always translate to the studio. They haven’t practiced it. It’s hard to get the same result in a studio without practice.”
So how does Memphis Slim Collaboratory work? Members pay an annual $75 fee to have access to the Slim House. The studio space is there for artists to practice in a professional setting, perfect something they’re working on, or even just gain confidence in a studio setting.
It can be a long way from singing to the mirror at home to a performance stage or recording studio. And the Slim House space gives artists an opportunity to work on their craft before spending money they might not even have to record an album that could’ve been better with proper rehearsal time.
Many times artists have ideas but before attempting to record in a studio they need a professional space to try things out without the pressure of spending $100 or more an hour to use a space.
Daniel said touring artists have even come in and used the space for rehearsals. The space is available for rent by nonmembers, too. And it also plays host to art exhibits and other events.
“It helps the Memphis music scene that people say is defunct,” Daniel said. “We have all of these great musicians but no one knows who they are. … There is a need for independent artists. The motto is for us by us.”
The Memphis Slim Collaboratory is owned and operated by the nonprofit organization Community LIFT. The house was the home of famed blues singer and pianist John “Peter” Chatman, better known as Memphis Slim.
In the neighborhood’s heyday, the musicians recording next door at Stax often could be found on the porch playing. Chatman died in 1988 and the house fell into disrepair. As part of the Memphis Music Magnet, Community LIFT leveraged funding from several sources to reimagine the house into what it is today.
There are a variety of ways the Memphis Slim Collaboratory assists musicians. During warmer months there is a stage in the back where musicians can perform to a small audience. That activity helps bring in children from the community who might hear the music when walking on the nearby street and decide to pop in and play the drums, for example.
A quarterly event called Live From Memphis Slim features four artists performing throughout the day and an artist who creates a live painting.
Memphis Sandbox is a meeting that features musicians of different genres who come together to make music from scratch. Artists have ranged from performers from Opera Memphis and a rap duo to a classical pianist, violinist and soul musicians all in the same room making music.
Members of the Memphis Songwriters Guild come together to write music and learn from people in the industry. Workshops have covered topics such as publishing and licensing.
The Slim House is available to members for a variety of uses, whether it’s as a location for a video or photo shoot, TV interview or pre-production work.
In the future Daniel said he hopes Memphis Slim will offer lessons to youth or college students, even if they aren’t members.
Long term, maybe Memphis Slim Collaboratory can play a role in reversing the trend of the city’s musicians leaving for greener pastures.
“It’s creating job opportunities for people by empowering them to make money,” Daniel said. “Everybody is not going to be a big star. It comes to the ones who can sustain and take care of their family and still work.”