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Memphis Music Initiative was proud to partner with Sound Diplomacy to present the Music Cities Convention in Memphis in October. The conference brought more than 200 people to our city, hailing from 60 cities and 15 countries, to talk about equity and access in a music city. Our own Amand Pugh attended and wrote this recap from his Music Cities experience.


Sound Diplomacy’s Music Cities Convention was held in Memphis October 25-27. Aptly titled “I’ll Take You There: Music, Equity & Access In Cities,” the conference was the fifth Music Cities Convention event to be held by Sound Diplomacy, in partnership with Music Export Memphis and Memphis Music Initiative.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Music Cities movement is global in scale. This event gathered speakers and participants from all over the map: Australia, Africa, China, Europe, Iceland, as well as our neighbors to the north and south of the U.S.

The philosophy behind Music Cities events is simple: “Music enhances economic development, creates jobs and drives tourism. Music policy and strategy help build global, vibrant cities." The conference reflected this statement in practice by drawing together as many types of arts and cultural experts as it did.

It was a melting pot of artists and professionals. There were thought leaders, policy makers, entrepreneurs, real estate agents, studio executives, rappers, singer-songwriters, consultants, non-profit professionals, and city planners to list just some of the distinctions.

“We’re not just a legacy music city, we’re also a contemporary music city. ... Memphis is a city of originals, and as we think about amplifying original voices we recognize that not everyone has equal access to the microphone.” – Elizabeth Cawein, founder, Music Export Memphis

Panels and presentations were held at the Halloran Centre on day one, while round-table discussions were housed at Visible Music College on day two. This allowed for a wealth of informative presentations on artist-centered public policy, development ventures, city planning, and other models of success at the global scale. Panels were moderated discussions about the many issues artists and arts advocates face. Five panel discussions may seem like a lot, but they were timed well, and each moderator was particularly good at taking the panelists to task. Even better was the high level of audience participation, which really elevated the panelists’ talking points. The conference also weaved together one of the most effective, collaborative networking opportunities I’ve experienced.

“Memphians have real perspectives, especially when they’ve lived a life affected by oppression.” –Deron Hall, Chief Executive and Innovation Officer, Memphis Arts Engine

In the first panel of the day, moderator Anasa Troutman, Founder and CEO of Eloveate, asked “What makes Memphis so unique? Is it a replicable quality?”

“We have such a grit and grind mentality, so folks kinda expect you to figure it out on your own. In a sense it's a negative, but you have to see the positive, and before you know it, you realize that’s where all of our soul comes from.” – Tonya Dyson, Marketing & Programs Director at Memphis Slim House & Founder, Neosoulsville

"When you aren’t doing something already set within Memphis culture, there’s a lack of resources available to you in your attempt to make it. I hear people say ‘if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere’. I feel like if you can make it in Memphis you can make it ANYWHERE — like, in the whole world." - Lawrence Matthews, a.k.a. Don Lifted

As time was nearly up, Anasa opened up to the audience for questions. An audience member asked, “How is Union membership, or union impact in Memphis?”

Without hesitation, Lawrence answered, “There isn’t one."

Another audience member, seizing the moment to school us all, spoke up. “There is a musician’s union here, it was founded by artists and musicians back in the 1800’s, one of the first in the country, it’s called Memphis Musicians Union or something along those lines, but to answer your question sir … Irrelevant!”

And the audience member was right. In fact, Roy Brewer’s article in the Memphis Flyer titled The Union Label, written nearly 20 years ago, dates the union back to 1873. Roy Brewer’s article is paired with another article by Mark Jordan titled Two Sides Of The Same Coin: Musicians Struggle With The Contradictions of Tennessee’s Two Music Cities, in that 1998 issue of Memphis Flyer. Looking back, it’s pretty cool how organically these old ideas sprung up among the conference participants.

Some other key quotes and takeaways:

“Music is a part of every single production: television, commercials, movies, and games.”

“Music has an enormous power because it doesn’t force people to assimilate.”

“Business and culture are like two strands of a double-helix, one thrives in relation to the other. We learned after starting this work that the business-culture model actually works.”

The third panel of the day, titled Systemic Change and Philanthropy in Music’s Role in Cities, spoke to my fixation on equity and opportunity in the city. Here are some highlights of that discussion in no particular order.

“I think a central component for movement building is about making sure we create space for people, locals, where they’re not just 'welcome' but space where they’re actually engaged as valuable members of the community.” –Darren Isom, Executive Director, Memphis Music Initiative

“Plan better, to help people see alignment within the issues they face as a community.” – ennifer Sien Erickson, Manager of Arts & Culture, Boston

An audience member asked the panel, “How is it the case that majority board members are white, and how do you avoid this being a white savior kind of thing?”

Without much delay, Darren replied “Give em hell,” “be transparent” and “call it out."

Music Cities Convention Memphis was very much a success. It did a great job of situating the relentless efforts of movers and shakers in Memphis, and similar music cities within a larger, interconnected context i.e., the arts and culture, philanthropy, social justice, informative data, equitable policy, and city planning.

Amand Pugh is a native of Memphis, an avid reader and a novice cyclist at best. He is a recent graduate of the University of Memphis, where he earned his B.A. in Philosophy. He went on to complete his M.A. there as well. He is most proud of his time spent organizing around first generation students of color—specifically in providing safe spaces for minorities to honestly engage an academic discipline, that has not always taken them to be capable intellectuals. Amand looks forward to supplementing his academic training, with the practical work of an Administrative Assistant at MMI. He feels fortunate to be part of an organization whose purpose is to make a real difference in the lives of Memphis’ youth, by actualizing the vision of arts engagement they deserve.