Busking in Memphis

This story is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Knowledge Building grant supporting a partnership between Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association. See more stories from the partnership here.

Home to more than a handful of America’s musical greats, from Elvis Presley to BB King to Justin Timberlake, Memphis is a city best known for its music. It’s here you can still find Al Green performing at local venues or preaching in his church on Sundays. From Beale Street to the legendary Sun Studios—the most famous recording studio in the world— “this is the land of the Kings and Queens of rock and roll,” local musician Jeff Hulett says.

Michael Starnes. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

While what may sustain the Memphis music scene in the cultural memory of many is the nostalgia for its heyday of the 50s and 60s, there is a lot of great music to be heard in and around town today. For the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), an independent development agency working to attract people to its downtown, Memphis’ musical history combined with a new crop of musicians, presented an untapped opportunity. In 2016, the DMC began working on plans to get more of Memphis’ music into the ears of its residents and visitors with live performances on Main Street Mall, a pedestrian-only street.

Jeremy Stanfill. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

According to Brett Roler, Vice President of Planning and Development at the DMC, “What we wanted to do was reinforce downtown, specifically our Main Street pedestrian mall as a place where you can walk and happen upon live local music.”

In October of last year, the organization hosted the Main Street Busking Challenge. An open call was put out to amateurs, students, and professionals in all genres of music, inviting them to perform live at the Mall for a chance to win a five hour studio session among other prizes. Over the two-night Challenge, over 40 musicians performed. Passers-by voted by ballot on who would win the grand prize.

“It was a great look and feel for Main Street Mall and encouraged us to take the next step,” Roler states.

Ori Naftaly (guitar) & Tierinii Jackson (vocals) of Southern Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

In April, with funding from a grant offered by Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association, the DMC launched Main Street Sounds, a two-month project featuring 50 busking performances along Main Street Mall. Each performance, lasting an hour, features a local musician. To attract the highest foot traffic, performances were creatively scheduled to target the weekday lunch hour, weekend evenings and the popular Sunday brunch. Additionally, the DMC scheduled the project to begin in April with a few performances each week. By May, a huge cultural festival month for the city—featuring the Beale Street Music Festival, Memphis in May, a marathon, and other local festivals—the number of performances and musicians on downtown’s streets increased alongside the crowds, with multiple performers sometimes playing at the same time.

Victor Sawyer. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

When it came to planning the project, Roler and the DMC’s initial challenge was changing the perception of busking in Memphis. For one, many people weren’t familiar with the term, used to describe performing on a public street or space, often for tips. In addition, local musicians were unaware that they could busk in downtown Memphis. Unlike cities such as New York where busking, particularly on subway platforms, is popular enough that many don’t question it, busking in downtown Memphis was hard to come by. Josh Cosby, a local musician performing in the series who has busked both in and outside Memphis, notes that for many musicians there is a fear they will getting arrested. “But as long as you have your permit you can play all day long,” he states.

Memphis duo “Me & Leah.” Photo by Jamie Harmon.

For the DMC, “part of this project is to legitimize busking in downtown. Make sure people understand that it is something we want to encourage,” Roler tells me. “What I’m hoping will come out of this project is more long term. We want to reaffirm this principle that live music performance isn’t just icing on the cake but it’s a building block of creating the kind of downtown we want.”

As a result, educating musicians on the permitting process has been a large part of the DMC’s work. In an effort to make it as easy as possible to busk, the DMC, a quasi-governmental organization, simplified the permitting process and waived all busking permit fees a few years ago. This year’s grant allowed the nonprofit to incentivize performances by offering musicians pay. In all, 30 performers, ranging from well established musicians to emerging ones were chosen to be part of the series. Marcella Simien, who performs with the band Marcella and Her Lovers, is one of those musicians. Slated to play multiple performances throughout Busking in Memphis, the income potential of the gig was one of the reasons she agreed to it. Alongside payment from the DMC, musicians are also able to collect tips.

Paul “Snowflake” Taylor. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for working musicians,” Marcella states, “it really helped me to have another source of income this Spring.”

Beyond the income incentive, there is something special about performing on a public street, as Marcella a first time busker found out. “It’s really exposed me to a different audience which has been really cool,” Marcella states. “The late night crowd is very different from the people working downtown on their lunch break. You catch them off guard. It’s perfect timing. I love surprising people by doing something unusual.”

Cosby agrees. Busking for him has always been less about the money and more about the inspiration he gets from his performances. “If you play in front of people on the street, you have no choice but to conjure something up from the inside,” he states.

Joshua Cosby. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Hulett, who also works for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and has extensive ties in the local music scene, was chosen by the DMC to lead the search for musicians to perform in the series. He would end up booking most of the acts for the series. For the remaining slots, the DMC put out a call for video entries, reached out to local colleges and universities and the symphonies in town in search of talent. From individuals to duets to rock and roll to soul and hip hop musicians and more traditional horn players, Hulett and the DMC were able to draw a diverse group of acts to Busking in Memphis. Marcella, who originally hails from Louisiana, was one the acts secured early in the planning sessions as an anchor to get other musicians involved because as Hulett states, “everyone kind of gravitates towards her.”

During her busking sets, Marcella plays on a single row diatonic accordion performing traditional songs, songs she’s written, and covers ranging from Nina Simone to the Velvet Underground. Cosby plays acoustic guitar and sings during his sets. He also does Sam Cooke and Ray LaMontagne covers. The Pocket Band, a duo, play acoustic guitar and perform covers of mainstream songs. Other scheduled performances feature saxophonists and cellists. In a nutshell, Busking in Memphis is an ode to what makes Memphis so unique – its sounds.

Local duo “The Pocket.” Photo courtesy of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Along the way, the DMC is documenting the project through photos and videos that they can use to further promote the series. Their hope is that musicians, both outside of the series and those performing in it, will be inspired to take their music to the streets. After all, Busking in Memphis is all about changing perceptions for everyone. For visitors, the DMC hopes that they will leave Memphis with a belief and the experience that this is a place where good music is still being made. For musicians, the hope is that they will feel supported and know that the streets of downtown Memphis are always a home for their music; no matter how unknown or distinguished they may be. As for the residents of the city, the music series is an effective reminder that theirs is a city where music not only lives, but also thrives.

Jeremy Stanfill singing “Pretty Lady.” Video courtesy of theDowntown Memphis Commission.