Music a growing biz in state

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Published: April 24,2006

Mississippi is creating a niche in the world of music. Fueled by a rich musical history and changing technology, music is growing in the realms of business and cultural tourism. Studios are popping up all over and music festivals continue to grow.

Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, estimates there are 25 to 30 recording studios scattered around the state. “They’re all around. Mississippi has always been known for producing the musicians but now we have a good number of studios,” he said. “There is no concerted effort to grow but it grows quietly and independently.”

He sees people gravitating to the state because of the cache of going back to roots, the costs are less, and there’s less publicity. “There’s a vibe here,” he added. “If you play music, you know about Mississippi and want to record here.”

White notes that Malaco Studio in Jackson has recorded gospel and R&B giants. Terminal Records in Ridgeland has recorded many gospel singers along with Sonic Temple Studio in Jackson. There are also studios such as Fernandez Creative Services in Jackson that make commercials and provide other audio services.

“The music business is quite large but no one’s ever put a pencil to it,” White said. “It probably generates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”

Dr. Bob Neal, senior economist with the state Institutions of Higher Learning, says the state doesn’t have any figures either, but he feels the secondary impacts of salaries and supplies would make the economic boost even greater.

Eric Fowler, owner of Studio 61 in Clarksdale, laughs at the idea that he’s generating funds for the local economy but he’s found his groove in this Delta town. Studio 61 is down the street from Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero, and tourists do come in.

“It’s mainly an audio recording studio, and I do music production for bands of all kinds and individual artists,” he said. “Most of my business is local except during peak tourist times.”

He thinks studios are springing up because recording technology is now more affordable and accessible. “Unfortunately, anyone can do this now, but that doesn’t mean they can do it well,” he said. “A lot try to do it at home and then bring it to me to fix.”

Fowler, who earned a master’s degree in music education, is self taught on recording and has operated Studio 61 for four years.

Fat Possum Records in Water Valley is owned by Matthew Johnson and was started in 1993 primarily as a blues label with local blues artists. “Economically, it’s up and down because a lot runs on credit,” said Justin McGuirk, media and promotions manager. “It’s a labor of love.”

McGuirk says Fat Possum no longer makes recordings but manufactures, promotes and sells music and employs three or four people. The label has given national credibility to some local blues artists who had not toured outside the state prior to their relationship with Fat Possum Records.

Recognizing that music is a strong drawing card, the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism is doing more to make the state known as a place of music. One way is by forming partnerships and having booths at events such as the Chicago Blues Festival where information can be distributed.

“We’re trying to make people more aware that Mississippi is the birthplace of American music with country, jazz, rock and roll, blues and gospel all having their roots here,” executive director Craig Ray said. “The recording studios do make an impact and the number of festivals is growing. That brings in thousands of people staying in hotels and eating with local restaurants.”

White says that for many years the state gave away its claim to being the birthplace of music. “We let Memphis and New Orleans take the title of home of the blues and jazz,” he said. “Now we’re getting on this heritage tourism and promoting it.”

He is proud to be part of the state’s second full-blown blues commission and the push to establish a blues trail. “For the first time in my life, everyone is speaking the same language,” he added. “We have an embarrassment of riches in our musical heritage.”

Ray is excited about the blues trail that will culminate with 300 markers around the state to identify places associated with the blues and blues artists.

“We have qualified for two federal grants. We have the designs laid out for the markers and historians are ready to compose the wording,” he said. “The first 100 markers should be ready in about a year and a half.”

For the 14th year, crowds will turn out April 21-23 for the Natchez Bluff Blues Festival. The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director, Walter Tipton, says it will be a big weekend with a guesstimate of more than $100,000 pumped into the local economy.

“It helps fill out our April schedule right after Spring Pilgrimage ends,” he said. “It’s one of the better festivals we have by the way it sends business around to the various venues.”

This music festival has a different twist, one that pleases local restaurant owners. The main stage is on the grounds of historic Rosalie overlooking the Mississippi River. Throughout the weekend, entertainers also perform at Under the Hill Saloon, Pearl Street Pasta, Marketplace Café, Dimple’s, Peacock Bar and Grill in the Eola Hotel, Biscuits and Blues, Club 601, Center City Grill, Andrews Tavern and Sough Daddy’s in Vidalia, La.

Tipton said the blues festival was begun by Eric Glatzer, a local promoter and creative type, with the CVB supporting it with printed material.

Ray added, “Music is important to local tourism. Anything that brings people in to spend money is good.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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