Memphis musicians struggle to leave mark, overcome history

By Alexandra Pounders & Christian Volk 

The breath in his body loses control as he stands in the same spot Elvis Presley stood almost 63 years ago. The crowd roars as they anxiously await this unfamiliar face to lose its redness, and sing their favorite songs.

He thinks to himself, here it goes. Johnny Cash again for the hundredth time it seems. The audience at The Levitt Shell claps in approval, but this time not for Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash, but for 21-year-old Drew Erwin.

Drew Erwin (21) sees music as a way to forget everything else that is one his mind – when he plays the strings, it’s just him, the guitar, and his audience.

The U of M student and musician exits the stage feeling on top of the world, and inspired by all of the famous Memphis musicians who came before him. Having the opportunity to perform iconic music written by some of the city’s most notable artists felt incredible, but still deep down inside his soul aches to share with the world his own melodies.

“It’s fun playing the cover songs and people dancing and singing along, but it’s a completely different feeling getting up there and playing my own music and somebody knowing the words,” Erwin said. “It’s just like wow somebody actually appreciates the art that I slave over day in and day out.”

Memphis is a city known for its strong cultural background in soul music. Tourists continuously visit Memphis to experience the music history in places like Stax Museum, The Levitt Shell, and clubs and bars Downtown. However, the demand to hear popular, mainstream music is so high that up-and-coming artists can’t find room to play the original music they work so hard to produce.

“Original music kind of gets swept up under the rug especially when you’re playing like Downtown gigging on weekends, because people want to hear those old Stax hits, Elvis, or Johnny Cash,” Erwin said. “It kind of goes in one ear and out the other.”

Erwin is not alone. Young musicians in Memphis are struggling to find a balance between school, working to provide for themselves, and living their dream.

Jeff Wallace, a U of M an associate professor of applied economic evaluation, conducted a study of Memphis musicians back in 2004. Of the 277 musicians or music industry people surveyed, 58.8 percent worked full-time jobs along with their music careers, while 41.2 percent worked part-time alongside the music endeavors.

The data also showed the average annual earnings from music for individuals working in the Memphis market were $21,783, and nearly $9,000 of their earnings went towards supporting their career— for things like equipment, promotional expenses, and professional development classes. CostofLiving

“I feel like once I graduate school I can really work towards my art, but as of right now I feel like there are a million things flying by my head,” Erwin said.

Country gospel percussion and piano player Timothy Plunk agreed. The 21-year-old performs with local band “Common Man” at local venues including, Silky O’ Sullivan’s on Beale Street. Plunk, who also studies criminology at the U of M, works the door at Sullivan’s to make a living. His dream of becoming a drummer for a world-famous band seems far-fetched because of the demands of school and work.

“My goal is to be able to financially rely on my music career,” Plunk said. “When music becomes my school and work, and it’s not just shoved in somewhere I can make it so much better to send out to the world.”

Plunk said after graduating, gaining more exposure and identifying his target audience is the first step towards his music success. The bands target audience is an older crowd, but because of the excessive usage of social media platforms by millennials, their music is shared by a younger group. While the advancement of technology is a plus for new music coverage, the co-owner of a local record shop said it could also cause problems.

Zac Ives doesn’t want his musicians to be mainstream. “I lose interest, when the sound is too clean”, he says.

Zac Ives opened Memphis’ Goner Records in 2004 along with his partner Eric Friedl. Since then, the duo released more than 140 records primarily on indie-style music, funk, and other underground music styles. He said that today’s giant digital platform gives anybody access at any time. In the past, if you heard about a record you wanted to buy you had to physically go to a shop, but now everything is up for grabs online. The ease of access impacts artists, labels, and even consumers.

“Now that everything is on somebody’s phone, I think it’s taken away some of the personal nature that has kind of made everything sterile,” Ives said. “It could be easier from a musician’s standpoint to get your music out there, but it’s just that you’ve got way more people doing the same thing and that makes it tough.”


After Mayor Jim Strickland’s decision to end government funding for The Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission, Memphis Stax legend David Porter founded a program to take its place.

The Consortium MMT opened in 2012 to take an active look at what barriers exist for aspiring artists in Memphis, and provide the resources, according to executive producer Fenton Wright, they need to overcome them. Wright said the organization primarily focuses on defining talent and educating artists on what it means to be ready for the music industry and opportunities that come.

“Memphis is full of talent, but the creativity is not as readily available as it was back in the day,” Wright said. “But then there was a true community that worked together to make each other better and brand Memphis music.”

The Band Camino bassist and music industry major Graham Rowell said the incredible music legacy left by some of the Memphis greats like B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis led the way for today’s artists, but now it seems some people are stuck in the past.

The Band CAMINO at an unplugged concert at Bozwell+Lilly, Downtown, Memphis.

“People get so caught up in Memphis’ music history that they don’t give proper credit or attention to current artists that are carrying the torch,” Rowell said.

Rowell and Erwin have collaborated in the past, and look forward to another show together in the future. The Memphis market is hard for up-and-coming artists and is always changing, but one thing that will last forever, Erwin said, is the grit and grind mentality that Memphians have.


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