Exporting Memphis music

Beginning this fall, the Memphis sound is shipping out. A new initiative is underway to bring one of Memphis' most authentic assets -- its vibrant music scene -- to a broader audience outside of the city limits. 
The much-vaunted music scene in Memphis has seen a lot of well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective music organizations come and go in recent years, including the Memphis Music Foundation, Music Memphis, and the recently disbanded Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission. Looking to buck that frustrating trend is Music Export Memphis, a new initiative conceived by longtime local music supporter and Signal Flow PR founder Elizabeth Cawein that will seek to create and expand opportunities for Memphis musicians throughout the United States and abroad. 

The inspiration for this project first came to Cawein in 2014 when she started noticing Memphis’ glaring lack of representation at several key music industry conferences and festivals she attended.

“The idea was really born of the frustration I had when I would see other cities represented, touting their music scenes, and Memphis wasn’t in the mix,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something to change that, and I felt that a smart, effective strategy around this idea could yield results in business development and talent attraction.”

Cawein’s first step towards creating Music Export Memphis was to establish a partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber and its President and CEO, Phil Trenary.

“I had my first meeting with Phil Trenary in January of 2015,” says Cawein. “I knew that Phil is a passionate fan of Memphis music and I knew at the very least he’d hear me out and point me in the right direction. Luckily for me and for Music Export Memphis, he did much more than that.”

Trenary and Amy Daniels, Senior Vice President of Communications and Programming for the Greater Memphis Chamber, both took the venture to heart, advising Cawein and providing resources and connections as she began to put the idea into motion. Another important ally – the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau – was soon added to the mix, and earlier this year Cawein set her sights on staging a coming out party for Music Export Memphis in the form of a showcase at this year’s AmericanaFest in Nashville.

“We picked AmericanaFest because of the proximity to Memphis and the affordability,” she says. “I knew we could throw a killer first event there and not break the bank, giving ourselves a chance to prove the concept a bit and flesh out how we’ll measure impact. It’s an easy up and back trip for the artists, too, and it keeps their costs low. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Memphis invented Americana. Look no further than Sun Studios and the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll, the intersection of American musical styles - it was all right here and in the Delta.  So I always like to stick our flag in that whenever I have the chance.”

The showcase, dubbed “the Memphis Americana Picnic,” will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Filming Station in Nashville and boasts an impressive line-up featuring six of Memphis’ best roots-influenced acts:  the Memphis Ukulele Band, Mark Edgar Stuart, Deering and Down, Motel Mirrors, the Bo-Keys, and Reverend John Wilkins.  It will be open to all official (i.e., wristbanded) festival attendees, a confluence of music industry professionals – agents, publicists, labels, etc. – performers, and fans. 

“I’m excited to be on such a great bill representing Memphis,” says Stuart, a veteran Memphis musician and singer-songwriter.  “I’m honored that they reached out to me.”

Several other prominent Memphis businesses and organizations are also joining the party, thanks to the tenacious coordinative efforts of Cawein. The nationally syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan will be on hand to record the showcase for future broadcast, local film festival Indie Memphis will curate a selection of Memphis-made music videos to be broadcast between acts, the Amurica photo trailer will be there snapping mementos for show-goers, and Memphis Made will be pouring pints of Rockbone IPA. 

“In the most immediate sense, I hope that every person who walks in has an experience and sees a performance or two or three that leaves them convinced of what I already know, which is that Memphis is the absolute coolest place on the planet,” says Cawein.  “I hope they walk out of the picnic on September 24 and start planning their short trip – tourism – or long stay – talent attraction. In the bigger picture, I hope that the AmericanaFest showcase will inspire every partner and potential funder about the possibilities of this work going forward. To that end, we’ll be intentional about using this showcase to establish baselines wherever we can and we’ll test some different ways we might gather data and feedback so we can show impact year on year.”

For Music Export Memphis’ next big undertaking in 2017, Cawein has targeted the prestigious South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Tex. which would be a significant step up both in terms of potential for exposure and production cost.  And there’s also the complicated business of establishing Music Export Memphis as its own, free-standing 501(c)3 non-profit organization looming in the near future.  But she remains undeterred, a dedicated patron of the Memphis music scene.

“Memphis music and Memphis musicians are the two things that pretty much occupy my brain space without ceasing and without room for much else,” says Cawein. “I’m bullish on this city’s music. It’s why I started Signal Flow. I’m also passionate about music and cities, about Memphis as a ‘music city’ and what that really means, on a macro and micro level. I think that a healthy music scene is an essential element to a healthy city.”

“We need all the help we can get,” says Stuart.  “Memphis needs about ten more Elizabeth Caweins.”

Read more articles by J.D. Reager.

J.D. Reager is a musician and freelance writer from Memphis, TN.  His second solo album, It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This, was released in 2014.  He lives in Midtown with his beautiful wife and two cats.