Music professionals prep STAX Academy students for industry careers


For nearly two decades, STAX Music Academy, located in the heart of Memphis’ storied Soulsville neighborhood, has been cultivating the city’s young musical talent. On January 18, the school hosted its first-ever fair focused on introducing aspiring young musicians to the business and technical aspects of the industry.

M.I.C. Check, a free music industry career fair for students, presented by STAX Music Academy along with Memphis Music Initiative and Ty Boyland Consulting, featured about a dozen music industry veterans in areas such as production, tech, media, entertainment law and publicity.

“We think it's an important part of understanding how the music industry works,” said Pat Mitchell-Worley, who in late 2018 took the helm as executive director of STAX Music Academy. “In each session the guests spoke about how they worked together in their roles. We offer our students a behind-the-curtain view of the music business, and the music career fair was a perfect opportunity to see how all the industry jobs fit together and support each other.”

STAX Music Academy students have performed at numerous high-profile events as far away as Italy, Germany and Australia. They’ve demonstrated their talent at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.; and at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. They’ve wowed audiences at performances for celebrities and dignitaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Isaac Hayes, Mavis Staples, Bono, Stevie Wonder, and former president Bill Clinton.

It’s undeniable that the Bluff City is bursting with young musical talent, but local music industry professionals say Memphis needs to prioritize investing in the retention of its musical talent by teaching them how to transfer that into securing or creating economically viable careers.

“We teach kids how to be great musicians and play instruments, but there’s not as much investment in creating a world where, when they turn 18 or 19 years old, they can survive and thrive as musicians,” said James Dukes, also known as IMAKEMADBEATS, a rapper and producer with roots in Memphis’ Orange Mound neighborhood, who served as keynote speaker at Friday’s event at STAX Music Academy.

“It’s very possible, but our young people are just made to feel like it’s hard to do here in Memphis, so our creatives move to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York. Memphis is the city most mentioned in all of recorded music; it makes no sense that you should have to leave to thrive in the music industry. We need to make sure we have something set up for these young people to make them realize being creative is valuable in their own community — that they can be paid for their work.”

At M.I.C. Check on Friday, Dukes relayed his personal story to the more than 50 middle and high school student attendees eager to connect with industry professionals.

“I told them how I came from similar circumstances, and what I did to change my circumstances through music — being dedicated and passionate — and how that led me to a successful producing and engineer career in New York,” said Dukes, who returned to the Bluff City seven years ago and founded the Memphis-based Unapologetic record label.

One of his major goals is to help foster an environment where music industry talent retention can become the norm.

“My entire business is based on the future of Memphis,” he said. “I love talking with kids about the power to be creative and knowing there’s an economy for that — that it’s a legit option to not just survive, but to thrive. I’m a big fan of helping communities recognize that — specifically a city like Memphis that has a problem when it comes to retaining the talent that it creates. We need to make sure young people feel valued. That’s a big part of what I do.”

Other local music industry professionals who participated in M.I.C. check included Kevin Cubbins, executive director of Beale Street Caravan, the world’s most widely distributed blues radio program; John Stubblefield of Lucero, who shared the experience of touring with a rock band; and producer and engineer Jeff Powell, who has worked with artists like Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“SMA focuses on performance, the songwriting craft and music business principles,” Worley-Mitchell said. “The Career Fair was quite enlightening for our production students who were able to learn the many areas within their area.”

Also on hand Friday was Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, a musician, songwriter, audio engineer, record producer and owner of Royal Studios, who’s known for his work with legendary artists like Al Green, Rod Stewart and William Bell.

Mitchell has been involved with STAX Music Academy in various capacities over the years, from judging competitions to speaking to individual classes. On Friday, he focused on providing aspiring young music professionals with a realistic overview of expectations.

“We gave them our personal stories and were honest with them about the hard work and perseverance involved,” Mitchell said. “Dreams do come true, but sometimes they don’t happen in the way you expect, and rarely overnight. We gave them a realistic account of what it takes to be successful in the music and entertainment industry, and we also talked about some of the things we could’ve done different in our own careers. I think they were encouraged and inspired to work harder and smarter. They were really engaged and it was fun for them and for us, too.”

Faculty and guests said they received exceptionally enthusiastic feedback from the students. Dukes said many students later tagged him on social media posts and contacted him through his platforms.

“I’m very happy with the response and look forward to doing something like this again,” he said.

ShaKya Avant, a seventh grader at STAX Music Academy who sings in the Junior Academy and is learning to play piano, said she looks forward to a career as a professional singer and actress.

“STAX Academy is helping me to develop my craft,” she said. “The instructors have a very thorough knowledge of musical concepts and and the insight I receive from them is worth more than words can express.”

She said her favorite aspect of M.I.C. Check was listening to music industry pros share their personal stories and offer advice.

“I learned to stay humble and keep pushing, no matter how difficult the task may be.”

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Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.