Who gets paid for our world-renowned sound? Discussion explores equity, economics of Memphis music

Feature Image: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. (Andrew Breig)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2020-04-30-at-12.52.00-PM.png

By Cole Bradley, for High Ground News

Music is a cornerstone of Memphis’ culture and identity, but it’s also big business.

According to Jayne Ellen White, music specialist with Memphis Tourism, it’s the top reason visitors come to Memphis, and they’re not just here for Elvis. She said tourists and locals alike come out in force for the whole of Memphis music from its biggest festivals to smallest clubs. 

But who gets their fair share of the profits from this multi-million dollar industry? Far too often, it’s not the artists who wrote and performed the songs. This is especially true for artists of color.

It’s part of the city’s earliest musical heritage that has passed through genres and generations.

“A lot of them died poor. They died without their royalties. They died without so much of the money that was due to them,” said Tonya Dyson of the blues, soul, and funk artists who built the foundation of Memphis’ world-renowned sound. 

“No one who brings that much happiness should be struggling and continue to struggle if they’re reaching millions with their music and uplifting so many people with their talent,” she continued.

Black Lives Matter Files: Revisiting StoryBoard and partner archives to understand the roots of unrest. “… a riot is the language of the unheard,” said Dr. King in 1967. More importantly, “what is it that America has failed to hear?” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967*

Dyson is executive director of the Memphis Slim Collaboratory in Soulsville. She said the issue isn’t just other people undervaluing artist as professionals. Musicians do it too.

“A lot of artists kind of separate themselves from the business aspect of it and just see themselves as people who make this music, not realizing that the music makes money and the music pays people,” she said.

On May 28, White and Dyson joined three other panelists for a one-hour virtual conversation on the intersection of music, equity, culture, and economics in what is arguably the most influential city in the history of American music.

The other panelists were: James Dukes aka IMAKEMADBEATS, musician and founder of Unapologetic; Dr. Ken Steorts, founder and president of Visible Music College; and Robert Moody, music director of Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

The discussion was hosted by New Memphis as part of its Celebrate What’s Right series. The quarterly events are typically in-person luncheons that center topics like culture, health, education, and workforce development.  

Watch the recorded conversation here, including its experts’ thoughts on:

  • How Memphis music captures and shapes the city’s culture
  • How technology and COVID-19 are changing the local industry
  • Why Memphis should invest in arts education and entrepreneurship
  • What changes they’d like to see across Memphis’ music ecosystem

Fill out the post-event survey here to share your own thoughts.


Dyson said this is the right place and the right time for this specific conversation on music, equity, and economics.

Memphis is a poor, majority-Black city where race, inequity, creativity, and economics are deeply intertwined. Its sound was built by undervalued black musicians and June is Black Music Month.

Also from an economics standpoint, COVID-19 has decimated Memphis’ live performance industry and the livelihoods of many local performers, producers, venue owners, show technicians, and supporting players in the city’s music industry.

And the entire nation is currently having a conversation on race, equity, and people’s value in a heated week of protests sparked by the death of George Flloyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Buildings have burned and civilians and journalists have been injured, killed, and jailed in a collective stand against pervasive and long-standing racism and police brutality in U.S. law enforcement agencies. The protest have now gone global. 


Dukes: There’s something about the Memphis culture that affects our music … We don’t care what anybody else is doing.”

Dukes: “At some point, you just got to consider, ‘Man, maybe we should do it [for ourselves].’ And I think that’s in the Memphis spirit.”

Dyson: “Of course, we love to listen to the music, but we also need to think about our favorite song. Is the artist, the person who wrote our favorite song, broke? And if so, we need to fix that.”

Moody: “[Memphis] is like Jerusalem. It is where we get to put it all together.”

Steorts: “We’re an entrepreneurial city in general, which is fantastic. I think the place of growth could be some really strategic investment in those things that are entrepreneurial in the city [like its musicians] and recognizing some small beginnings.”


Whatever a person’s talents or resources, they’re likely needed to support local artists from elementary students to full-time musicians.

Individuals can:

  • Listen to local artists, go to shows, buy their work, and share their work
  • Reach out to local music organizations and schools and ask what they need
  • Pay a fair wage if you’re hiring. DJs included–never ask creatives to work for exposure

Business owners can do all the same things plus:

  • Sponsor a school or camp’s music program
  • Donate to an organization and match employee donations
  • Encourage and incentivize volunteering for local organizations
  • Offer entrepreneurial support to build artists’ businesses and business savvy. Artists need help with: accounting, marketing, branding, seed money, website, contract negotiation, legal and licensing know-how, and business management

*During his 1967 speech “The Other America,” Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In 2020, in direct contrast to those summers generations ago, evidence suggests that much of the unrest we are seeing today is not being caused by peaceful, nonviolent protesters, but by factions of groups exploiting the moment.

However, what Dr. King said in 1967 remains true today. It begs the question: Have we made any progress whatsoever?

I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. . . . I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. . . . But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From his 1967 speech “The Other America”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.