Poor, unsophisticated, and living on the margins, they created music that carved out a mythic reputation for Memphis around the world. Their heirs today are by their nature also outsiders, and perhaps, this is the fundamental fact of life that is hardest to grasp in Memphis’ quest to channel past music glories which defy top-down business plans. Memphis’ music heritage reminds us that there is no substitute for talent, and our city must be a magnet for it, as it was with B.B. The fact that so many of them were drawn by the siren’s call of Beale Street only contributed to their lack of acceptance in mainstream Memphis. There was always action on Beale Street, where art reigned supreme – whether it was the art of music or the art of the hustle. Freed from any expectations or control by mainstream society, they were free to follow their hearts and lay down the sounds, and just as important, the ethos, that would make Memphis famous. It’s tempting now to write a revisionist history that says that Memphis recognized the genius in its midst, but that was not the case.
It’s a tale so durable and remarkable that decades later, it paints the picture of Memphis as a “musical mausoleum,” in the words of the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, which concluded six years ago that the vibrancy of the current music scene should be one of Memphis’ most persuasive selling points with the coveted demographic of young, educated workers that are the Gold Standard for the new economy. More and more today, economic development is about talent strategies – how to attract it, how to retain it, and how to unleash it. So, what does the history of Memphis music shout out over the decades that is relevant to us today?


Nashville’s music industry is more than 10 times larger than Memphis’, but it’s heavily invested in systems of old business models, and as a result, its impulse is to preserve legacy systems that are irrelevant in a digital world. I spent almost every night last week attending the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Interesting…but outside of a few tweets, and blogs, the average person in Memphis had NO IDEA that this event was taking place. About Smart City MemphisThis is Smart City Consulting's blog and its purpose is to connect the dots and provide perspective on events, issues, and policies shaping Memphis and its future. If this isn’t challenge enough, doing it in the midst of a music industry whose old business models are in meltdown gives our city special opportunities. King and other bluesmen who escaped to Memphis from Delta plantations, from small Northern Alabama towns like W. The street was a parallel universe, an island where African-American culture flourished in a sea of Southern sensibilities.
It was the Promised Land and a cauldron of creativity where musicians were isolated from influences that could have stunted the originality of their music. That’s why the fits and starts – not to mention the limited success – of the Music Commission and Music Foundation over the years are so disheartening. They show that Memphis transformed popular culture by connecting its music to the marketplace with new technology, and it can do so again.


It’s a corporate town, seeing retailers as the customers, rather than the music lovers who are turning the industry upside down by integrating technology into their lifestyles. As a result, every one there was an outsider, and there wasn’t any real interest in what took place anywhere else in Memphis.
In fact, in a music industry with no rules, the absence of a traditional business infrastructure could actually be a competitive advantage. In a city with little infrastructure and a wealth of talent, it’s hard to find better news, because we are witnessing the end and the beginning of the music industry.
Handy, from fading Arkansas towns like Johnny Cash, and from Mississippi, like Elvis, looking for a better life promised by public housing. They also walked out of Memphis neighborhoods like Messick and South Memphis, where their music trumped segregation.



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