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Meet Me In St. Louis: How to Build Artists Outside of Music Industry Hubs (Music Biz 2022)

Four panelists discuss how outside-the-box thinking can help regional artists and music executives advance their careers where they live.

You can find all of Billboard‘s Music Biz 2022 coverage here

While the music business is dominated by its traditional headquarters in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, as well as some regional hubs in cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Miami, there remains a wide swath of talent across the country that, for years, has been fighting an uphill battle to bring attention and resources to its local scenes.

That idea underscored one of the first panels of the Music Biz 2022 conference in Nashville this week, titled “Act Local, Think Global: Discovering & Developing Tomorrow’s Stars Where They Live.” Moderated by Made In Memphis Entertainment president Tony Alexander, the panel brought together a quartet of music industry veterans who are focused squarely on helping to develop and nurture music business opportunities for artists and aspiring industry execs in their own cities: Laura Lavi, CEO of Dreaming In Color Entertainment, who focuses on the Pacific Northwest from her base in Seattle; Kadeem Phillips, founder/CEO of Power Entertainment, who advocates on behalf of his clients in and around Memphis; Reid Wick, a senior membership and industry relations exec at the Recording Academy, who is based out of New Orleans; and Alonzo Lee, a producer for the Trak Starz who was a guiding force in the careers of Nelly and Chingy as they emerged out of St. Louis before going on to work in synch and publishing in the city.

Each of the panelists outlined the ways that they’re working to support and grow a music business in their own cities, focusing on a few key elements: education, in helping artists, managers and community leaders understand not only how the business works, but why it’s important in local communities; the lack of an infrastructure to support an existing ecosystem of music workers who struggle to connect and break through without the resources and networks of the big music hubs; and early revenue opportunities to help sustain musicians while they’re developing, given that the streaming economy rewards the top of the pyramid of artists and often is not enough to live on for a local or regional act.

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“My whole thing is how do we make New Orleans a better New Orleans, not a Nashville,” said Wick, emphasizing the long history of New Orleans’ role in American music and the culture of musicianship that permeates the city. But, he argued, it’s important to break the “Friday night mentality” that many musicians in the city have, which focuses on the weekly live gig at the expense of copyrights, outside revenue opportunities and the framework of thinking of themselves as small business entrepreneurs.

Lavi highlighted the distinct challenges that permeate the Pacific Northwest — the lack of a film industry as local leaders focused on tech, as well as the revenue issue — but came back to a similar problem. “Repeat after me: Musical content is art,” she said. “Remember that. Because art needs infrastructure just like any other business.” She said she’s focused on helping artists cross-pollinate into other aspects of art and business while they develop, while also looking at what she called alternative merchandising, like with a comic book she’s putting out globally with one of the acts she works with that will help pay for their dital marketing costs.

Lee looked back at his successes with Nelly and Chingy and noted the importance of regional differences in helping artists cut through the noise of the industry at large. He’s big on education, he said, and “trying to encourage the talent to embrace what they have from where they come from… It’s a matter of being original and having something original to offer to the world.” He sees echoes of that success with Jack Harlow, the rapper from Louisville, Kent. with whom he has also worked recently. “It’s like the same song, second verse,” he said. “That’s the formula: you have to really be yourself.”

Phillips, meanwhile, has been able to build with his stable of producers — including YC, who produced Pooh Shiesty and Lil Durk’s “Back In Blood,” and RealRed, who along with YC produced Moneybagg Yo’s “Wockesha,” among other tracks — without leaving the Memphis area: “They’ve been able to infiltrate the industry from their bedrooms,” he said. He also stressed the importance of education, as well as work ethic, saying that if that can be established, then “when we get into these rooms and people want to fly us to LA, it’s like, ‘No. You come to us,'” he said. Echoing Lee, he emphasized that being from Memphis (and Moscow, Tenn., in the area outside that city) was what set them apart. “It has to reflect the sound and grit that Memphis is,” he said. “We’re trying to take that to the world.”

Each of the panelists also said that, in order for these regional scenes to be supported and to grow, there has to be an element of outside-the-box thinking — meaning finding industries like the cannabis world, as Lavi pointed out, which can help underwrite tours or marketing campaigns; the role of tech investors, like what Wick pointed out is happening in New Orleans in promoting tech-based music industry solutions; and the importance of synch placements, which can bring in difference-making money when touring or streaming aren’t paying the bills. “Synch is my pride and joy,” said Phillips, noting that in his previous role as a producer he began developing relationships with music supervisors and directors, offering pre-cleared songs and streamlined rights to make it easy on them and get an edge for his artists. “They’re trying to do the same thing that I’m trying to do,” he said. And ultimately, it’s about finding ways to make money and build a career that can allow you to eventually spend more time on the music. As he put it, it can bring leverage: What are you bringing to the table other than your music?