Finding a stage: How venues impact the local music scene

A variety of quality venues is key to any city's thriving music scene. With some new and freshly renovated venues now open in Memphis, industry insiders have seen an expanding local audience and an improved reputation for national touring acts. 
Memphis has long been known as a city with a hotbed of musical talent. From the earliest days of folk, blues and gospel, to the golden eras of Sun and Stax, to the present, Memphis’ reputation as a “music town” is both indisputable and well-earned.

Now, the lifeblood of any vibrant music scene is the presence of quality music venues - juke joints, nightclubs, theaters, coffee shops, stadiums and everything in-between. Local venues provide Memphis musicians with an avenue to work, develop a following, and hone the craft, and also bring in both well-known and unknown acts from around the globe to town on a nightly basis. Venues provide the opportunity for music fans to experience eclectic offerings in-person. 

Memphis currently boasts an abundance of solid venues, perhaps more than ever before. On any given day or night there are dozens of options for music fans in the area.  Which begs the question: is the market over-saturated given the Memphis population?
“As long as people keep listening and enjoying music, we are so happy to have an abundance of places in Memphis to experience great music,” says Anne Pitts, Executive Director of the recently renovated outdoor concert venue the Levitt Shell, located in the heart of Midtown’s Overton Park. “After all, it's an important part of Memphis life.”

In what is generally reflective of a spirit of collaboration between local club owners, talent buyers and show promoters, most everyone who works in the live music industry in Memphis tends to agree with that assessment.

“I'm always glad to see venues giving musicians opportunities to be heard by new audiences,” says John Miller, Booking Director for the re-opened Lafayette’s Music Hall in Overton Square.  “While any act can certainly be subject to over-playing a single market, I think an abundance of venues offers the chance to present music fans with choices of what they can hear and discover on any given night.”

“It’s definitely the more the merrier. If we all keep working together and helping each other everybody wins,” says Brian “Skinny” McCabe, Owner and Talent Buyer for the Crosstown nightclub the Hi-Tone.

However, there is at least one prominent local player in the music scene who disagrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
Levitt Shell
“Usually I would say the more the merrier, as I’m a live music nut and go to shows all over Memphis and the country on my free time, but I don’t think there is room for any more in town,” says Brent Logan, talent buyer, promoter and show runner for Midtown’s Minglewood Hall and its junior venue, the 1884 Lounge.  “I think we are at our max unless we get a population boom and a lot more jobs in this area.”

Regardless, one thing that has dogged the local music scene in recent years is the fact that touring bands often skip over Memphis in favor of Nashville, Little Rock or other cities in the area.  As the well-traveled Memphis musician Mark Edgar Stuart explains, this happens for a couple of reasons.

“Memphis is tough, always has been. Ask any promoter or touring musician,” he says. “It's hard to get folks out to shows, especially on weeknights. And Memphis music-goers are cheap; they hate paying a cover. It's a weird Memphis thing. It's different elsewhere.”

Memphis has also earned the reputation for being a slow market for advance ticket sales, which doesn’t help matters much. 
“It's true that Memphis is a ‘walk-up town,’ and when some out-of-town agents don't see the pre-sales they might get in a different city, they choose to go with what they see as a sure bet over a tougher place to draw,” says Miller. 

But luckily, the perception of Memphis as a “tough” town for touring bands is actually starting to soften a bit, thanks largely to the high number of venues, both new and familiar, and of all sizes, bringing in a diverse offering of acts for local audiences. Though, there is still somewhat of an uphill battle ahead.

“With the birth of  Minglewood, I've seen a major increase of in-demand artists coming to town,” says McCabe.  “Also, the New Daisy (a longstanding Beale St. venue that re-opened after a long hiatus last October) is breathing new life into the scene. It's a tough gamble to take on booking, but the right gamblers are at the table, in my opinion.” 

“It's getting much better,” agrees Pitts. “I think the Levitt Shell has helped expand the music audience in Memphis. or made it more accessible to more people. That's helped build ticket-buying audiences for other music venues. With more people coming out for shows, whether they are free shows at the Shell or paid shows at another venue, I think more artists see the potential.” 

One thing everyone agrees on is that the talent pool in Memphis is second to none and shows no sign of losing its distinctive character.

“I've seen shows all over the world and there is just something about Memphis,” says McCabe.  “I can't describe it and I don't think anyone can, but you just know it when you feel it. That may sound cheesy or cliché, but I'm a firm believer. We're a friendly bunch but don't take any crap, if that makes sense.” 

“Memphis has pedigree like no other city,” says Stuart.  “Maybe that's why we are the way we are. Memphis is funky, cool and often dysfunctional, but discerning. We’ve got x-ray ears; we can hear through the noise.”  

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.
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