Q&A: Tonya Butler

After cutting her teeth in Hollywood, entertainment lawyer Tonya Butler came to the University of Memphis in 2004 to teach the music business program. Butler's past employers include Rhino Records and MGM Music, where she worked on films such as

Barbershop, Legally Blond II,


Walking Tall.


Now she has set her sights on helping the revival of the music industry in the birthplace of rock-and-roll.

How can the music industry move forward here?

Memphis needs a vision. Whenever I go to Nashville, I'm amazed. They call themselves Music City, and there's nowhere you can go that doesn't say "Music City." Memphis should be a Mecca of blues and derivatives of blues. You should hear it everywhere you go. That needs to be a citywide initiative. Austin coined themselves 'the live music capital of the world.' Let me tell you, it's true. They don't even have the rich musical heritage that Memphis has — they made it happen.

Where do we turn for that leadership?

Government needs to decide what Memphis is going to be known for, and put energy into that. I know that Memphis is the home of the blues when I'm on Beale Street, but I don't know that anywhere else. We had the opportunity to go in a different direction when Three 6 Mafia won their Oscar, but we were so internally torn over their content that we let that boat sail. It's gone.

My experience is that any time you have an emerging genre, the record companies go there to find more. It happened with Master P in Louisiana, and Nelly in Missouri. It could have easily happened here. Whether you like the content or not, it's better to nurture it and see if you can change it, than ignore it. You don't have to like something to embrace it.

What's the next step?

After the vision, you need a support structure. There's lots of music in Memphis, but there's no industry. When I came to Memphis in 2004, it was my understanding that we were courting MTV for the music video awards. I literally thought that was a joke. No one I knew outside of Memphis thought that was remotely possible. The Justin Timberlake renewal of Stax didn't even make sense. When he ended up starting his label in L.A., that made sense.

The entities that have sought to bring industry to Memphis have been way off base. If you're going to bring an awards show to Memphis, go court a smaller independent music awards show. I understand shooting to the moon, but this rocket ship's only got so much gas.

What does a big record company need to function?

If I'm a major record company moving to a city, I need support services like graphic artists, printing, CD manufacturers, publicists, P.R. people, managers, booking agents, talent agents, A&R [artist and repertoire] people, and they're not here. If you want the pie in the sky, you need the pie pan.

What do we have going for us now?

The attention that we get from the rest of the world because of Craig Brewer's films is enormous. We have producers like Kurt Clayton, Al Kapone, and Carlos Brody. These are magnificent talents working in Memphis right now. Al Kapone has the exact same potential as Isaac Hayes.

We have great recording studios like Ardent, Young Avenue Sound, Studio D at House of Blues. These guys work really hard and put out great product. We have Select-O-Hits, the only true independent distributor in the country. We have Audio Graphic Master Work; they do CD mastering and printing. Great vocalists, and musicians, well-trained people.

Finally, great management and promo-tion people. FedEx Forum is a great resource. We have organizations like the Music Commission, NARAS, and the Folk Alliance. An Academy Award for best song came up from the streets of Memphis. That's enormous. Memphis has so many wonderful things to be proud of. I was on my way out, but this is my home now. I'm here to make this a better place.

I just want to see Memphis excel. 

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