Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

soulsville, usa

Raw Copy by Seth Mnooken: A Week to Remember in Memphis (Newsweek web exclusive, May 6, 2003): Last week, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in Memphis. It was a glorious, weeklong celebration, featuring movies, lectures, and two nights of achingly good music. On Wednesday, a gala in Memphis's rococo Orpheum Theatre included Percy Sledge, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Mavis Staples, Chuck D., the Allman Brothers' Warren Haynes, and Booker T. and the MGs and many, many others. [...] But, with the exception of myself, there were exactly zero national magazine reporters on hand. No one from Rolling Stone. No one from Vibe. No one from Vanity Fair or Entertainment Weekly or The Source. Only one national newspaper reporter showed up—Jon Pareles from the New York Times. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, even USA Today all passed on covering the opening. PBS filmed the concert for a fundraiser; besides that, only a single CBS crew was on hand. No one from VH1, no one from MTV, no one from BET. (“I’m shocked,” a CBS cameraman said as we walked through the museum. “I thought we’d be fighting to be first on a story like this. To have no one else here…it’s weird.”)       "It's unate that black cultural accomplishments are often respected only after a delay,” Chuck D., the voice of rap’s Public Enemy, said at the Orpheum, minutes before sharing the stage for a rousing reworking of the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.” “There’s kind of a cultural echo chamber. It makes this type of celebration bittersweet.” On Monday, when it became clear that there would be no outpouring of coverage, Chuck was disappointed, but not surprised. “This is the usual response from mass media when it comes to black culture. Personally, it was the most significant thing I’ve ever been invited to in my life.”

Well ...

There's this. On the one hand, yes, it is a good story, and there should have been more media there.

On the other hand, I'll bet that, given the music media's focus on youth, relatively few people covering the music beat have actually ever heard of Stax. Yes, it's an institution, it's very important ... and if you don't know a fair amount about music history generally, this probably came over the wire and you thought, "Eh. One little label is doing a museum to itself. Big deal," and moved on.

There is also this: Stax may have been both grittier and more integrated than Motown, but Motown was simply bigger. Its stars were bigger, its hits were bigger, and eventually, the label itself was simply bigger. That's one of the reasons that we have things like the Motown celebration of its various decades.

Another, and probably more important, reason for the difference is that Motown is still producing, albeit much watered down and as part of a conglomerate. Stax went into bankruptcy in 1975, lost all its assets in 1977, and was torn down completely in 1989.

All of that said ... I'm actually stunned that Vibe, The Source and BET didn't cover the opening. Granted that they are, in their music coverage, very youth oriented, but BET especially has shown a better sense of history than that. It's especially odd given that BET, like CBS, is now part of the Viacom lump; you'd think that someone at CBS might have said, "Hey, guys, want to share the coverage with us?"

The museum itself has a site at Soulsvilleusa.com; the Flash introduction takes you through some quotes while playing some of the labels hits in the background, or you can jump around the intro completely.

Posted by iain at 03:05 PM in category