We recently launched a new initiative called “Southern Voices,” which is an ongoing series of articles written by people just like you, people with stories to tell that will delight and inspire. We’re excited to feature our newest Southern Voice, a local gal with a vision and dedication to supporting the local music scene. Enjoy her story, and then share your own — learn more about how to submit to Southern Voices here.
Southern Voice: Andria K. Brown
I started out as a fan. New to Memphis (and marriage and a mortgage), I created a website for local musicians. Okay, one musician. At 26, Cory Branan was a latecomer, relatively speaking, to the Memphis scene, and although he was getting a lot of buzz, I had already seen too many amazing artists languishing in Midtown bars. So I created the site; that led to running his official site, writing newsletters and organizing a street team (and being backstage at Letterman), that led to becoming his booking agent — the fancy term for the person who schedules, plans tour routes and begs clubs for shows.
Because this is such a time-consuming and organizationally demanding job, I got asked by several other local artists to book for them, too. When my roster was its fullest, I had a 4-year-old and an infant and was running my own retail store, so after about six months of juggling, I had to set it aside. And that, I thought, was the end of my music career.
Soon after that decision, everything changed. I got divorced, then was in another long-term-but-impermanent relationship, and then, for the first time in my life, was paying rent solo while single-co-parenting two kids and working full-time. I had essentially zero minutes of free time, but when an old friend was coming through town and looking to play a gig, I invited him to have a concert in my backyard. It was rustic and amateurish, but utterly perfect.
Six months later, I was trying to get tickets to take my boyfriend to see David Wilcox, an artist we both loved, but couldn’t seem to find a way to do it. I eventually contacted his manager through the web and was told the show had been cancelled for logistical reasons. “Hey,” I wrote, “would you consider a house show?” For reasons I still can’t explain, the manager said yes, and two weeks later, instead of taking my boyfriend to a concert, I was hosting 80 people for a concert … at his house. (Happy birthday!)
After that show, I was hooked. In a world of free downloads, I knew how much of a need there was to support touring musicians, and as a former booking agent, it felt good to be able to give deserving folks the spotlight. In 2014, I hosted two shows. The next year, six. And then in the third, the fever really hit. I presented eleven shows in 2016, and when I was on the same pace mid-way through 2017, I realized something had to give.
Because of the tax and zoning laws that separate house shows from typical venues, I never took a cut of the money donated to artists during our events. I also wasn’t legally allowed to announce the location publicly — the whole point of house shows is to just be a casual party among friends; otherwise, you’re running an unlicensed venue in a residence.
The problem with these restrictions, however, was that the “casual” part was stressing me out. I’d take 40 RSVPs for a show and only 20 people would show up. As much as I hated the uncertainty and over-spending on appetizers, my biggest concern was setting false expectations for our artists. I realized I needed to be able to sell tickets, and that meant moving out of the house. I decided to take the show on the road and bring my listening room concert series, which I named Folk All Y’all, to cool and interesting public locations around Memphis. But I had no idea how to pay for it.
When I interviewed Tonya Dyson, she passed along brilliant advice from her uncle: Find a way to make money from your passion, otherwise it will turn into philanthropy. To keep the series sustainable, I was going to have to find a source of support. I looked into grants and crowdsourcing and partnering with other nonprofits, but nothing felt quite right.
As I was considering my options, I got one of my regular emails from Patreon. This website helps creators get their work into the world, and most importantly, get paid for it. I was a patron of several singer-songwriter friends, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was producing something, too. I set up my own Patreon page, and following their excellent guidance, was able to build our subscriber base by offering behind-the-scenes access, live streams of shows, merchandise and more. Instead of asking for charity, I was offering our fans a way to get more involved.
At about the same time, I started working with local screenprinter SACHË to make shirts, thinking it would be a fun way to get our name out there. My retail background finally reemerged and I realized I could essentially run a side business to support Folk All Y’all. I invited SACHË to set up onsite at our first public show and shirts flew off the shelves.
Through sheer necessity, I turned a time-tested form of enjoying music into an entirely new model for live performances. Our ticket prices are somewhere between a bar cover and theater seat, but unlike at other venues, guests know that every single dollar spent on a ticket goes directly to our artists. Show guests pay our artists, and subscribers and customers pay (so far, some of) our bills.
Although I occasionally host exceptional local musicians, most of the Folk All Y’all artists are from other places and their livelihood depends on touring. Many of them are making their Memphis debuts. This adds some complication to drawing an audience, because it takes a huge leap of faith to pay real money to see a virtually unknown (to them) artist, but we’ve built a community that appreciates the unique environment and connection that’s possible in these intimate, attentive settings. Phones are put away, talking is minimal, and we get to experience a one-of-a-kind evening with a world-class singer-songwriter.
As part of my mission, I put a particular focus on amplifying underrepresented voices in the folk genre. Despite its roots in cultures across the world, contemporary folk music has a reputation for being homogenous (read: so many beardy white guys), but it doesn’t take much effort to find a wider range of perspectives, especially among Southern artists. What we consider Americana should incorporate the experiences of every American, and it’s been my humbling privilege to share a broader collection of stories.
After three and a half years and on the cusp of our 30th show, the series is now taking another new direction. I have the great good luck of working for a company that has both the space and spirit to host concerts, so in 2018 we’ll be creating a home for Folk All Y’all that elevates our experience even more.
In many ways, this series has echoed a cascade of changes in my own life, and the musicians I’ve presented have both shaped and reflected my path. It’s also been incredible to share this experience with my kids, now 10 and 14, who may someday even recognize that it’s kind of cool. I created this platform to help artists make a living, but in the process, I discovered how to use my own passion to bring something real and new and true into the world.
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