When Smith7 Records started promoting local fledgling bands, their approach was 'artistic control over profits.' Twenty years later, the indie label has found success fostering Memphis music and distinction as a nonprofit label focused on growing young talent.
“The goal was never to make money," said Smith7's founder, Brian Vernon. "The goal was to let talented people do what they could do without being stifled by the money.”
Vernon worked at a record shop in the early days of Smith7. Now he's a school counselor at Snowden School and a vocalist for chaos rock band Wicker. Wicker is one of more than a dozen bands under the Smith7 label and several members of the band help maintain the label.
Established in 1999, Smith7 puts on drug and alcohol-free shows friendly to the under-18 crowd.
In addition to a clean space for music appreciation, it works to develop young musicians by producing live shows, connecting them to other performance opportunities and mentoring them in the ins-and-outs of the music business. Smith7 helps fledgling bands record music on digital platforms like SoundCloud and funds basic needs like flyers, merchandise and CDs.
Playing gigs bring in money ... sometimes. To further seed a band, the label offers small loans for things like merchandise expenses. When the merchandise sells, the loan is paid back to Smith7 and the band keeps the remaining profit.
The bands they support span genres including pop, punk, progressive and metal.
“We wanted to create a place for our friends [and] to be able to bring in people who didn’t necessarily have their own scene," said Vernon. "We started putting on shows and it eventually became its own thing."
A June 2009 show at the 7house venue had everyone's fist in the air. Left to right: spectators Zac Arnold and Maverick Cross and Wicker band members Paul Rhodes, Brian Vernon & Josh Cannon. (Smith7)
Beyond the Music
To further Smith7's social impact, the label holds benefit concerts for local nonprofits and individuals in need. The philanthropic mission grew out of a benefit concert for a friend's mother in the early 2000s.
“We had a friend’s mom who got pretty sick, and we were able to have a big show one night with a couple of hundred kids showing up," said Vernon. "If everyone throws in five dollars and none of the bands take anything, we were able to put a bag of money on her breakfast table the next morning to help with medical bills."
By the label’s sixth year, the concept crystalized into the Pants Tour. Held annually, the tour doesn’t leave the Bluff City. Rather, it hits different clubs and venues around town including Avenue Coffee, Hi Tone, B-Side Memphis and Rec Room.
This year's tour ran June 14 to 29. Wicker, Reverie, Sky King, HEELS, Ruzka and several other local outfits contributed to the tour.
“This could not happen without tons of bands being really selfless and charitable,” said Vernon.
Proceeds from past tours have gone to support a number of nonprofits including the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center and Tennessee Refugee Rights Coalition.
This year, tour proceeds went to OUTMemphis in support of their new youth emergency center, which is currently under construction. The tour raised $1,469 this year and has contributed over $15,000 to charitable causes since its inception.
The process for choosing a beneficiary is a collaborative affair among the Smith7 team and friends including Josh Cannon, Fletch Joyner, Ryan Hailey and recording artist Julien Baker.
Wicker played at B-Side Memphis in July for the 2019 Pants Tour. Left to right: Patrick Hitt, Wyatt Braden, Chase Fryer, Brian Vernon, Trevor Danis and Elijah Poston. (Smith7)
A Smith7 alum, Baker got her start in the Memphis music scene at 14 years-old while fronting the Star Killers. Now 23, she’s in the midst of a successful solo career, but she and the band, which is now named Forrister, still play the tour when schedules allow.
While Baker has pursued a career in music, other Smith7 alum have gone on to successful careers in medicine, business and other non-musical fields, but their experience with Smith7 remains relevant.
“Most of my friends who grew up through Smith7 have taken a piece of the ethos into their careers and lives," said Wicker's bassist Josh Cannon. "It's infectious to make your art and utilize it for others' benefit, growth, and overall well-being."
Cannon was introduced to Smith7 at 13 years-old. Cannon met Vernon at the now-defunct Skatepark of Memphis. Vernon was working the door of an all-ages show and gave the teen a handful of Smith7 stickers.
“Brian gave me a CD after the show, and I went home and learned all of the words ... must have put those stickers everywhere, too. Smith7 introduced me to a lot of ideas that shaped my outlook on art-making,” said Cannon, who also works as an assistant for Tom Shadyac at Mountaintop Media.
On his 16th birthday, Wicker members asked Cannon to join the band. One of the first gigs he played was a benefit for a family that couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving holiday meal. Held in Vernon’s living room, the show was so packed that Cannon had to stand on his amp to play.
“It was a formative moment that made me realize art doesn't exist in a box. You can activate music [or] film, whatever your passion is, into something so much larger than yourself,” he said.
Smith7 is currently considering opening its own venue. A space of their own would be a ready-made gig for the label’s artists.
“A large part of growing up through Smith7 was having mentors and friends around me who encouraged me to pursue creating, not for the sake of it being good or bad, but so that it could exist and I could grow," said Cannon. "Any space we'd build would surround people with that."