This past Friday (July 5), I got to sit down and chat with Elliott Ives, the current guitarist for Justin Timberlake. We talked a lot about how his life has changed—how he literally went from all-together giving up on a career in music to appearing on shows like SNL and the Grammys because of the opportunities he got in Memphis. One of the most interesting things to hear about from Ives was his recollection of a time that he was in the studio messing with his laptop and when he looked up, he was in a room with Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott. While this is undoubtedly an impressive room full of talent, it is also a long way from the dark clubs and local musicians of Memphis, Tennessee.
After the interview, I started thinking about Timberlake and Ives and what it means to “sell-out.” There is a lot of local resentment towards Timberlake and the success he has found as a musician. Some of it may be jealousy, some of it may be because people think there are more talented artists who “deserve” it, and some of it may be simply because they think he isn’t a part of the Memphis music story anymore. To that, I would say that at age 11 (when Timberlake first appeared on Star Search), you cannot be a sell-out and Timberlake was only 14 when he became a member of ‘N Sync; can you look a 14-year-old boy in the eye and tell him he left behind his city or that he isn’t a real musician? I certainly couldn’t and I would hope that most people feel the same way. In fact, I would argue that Timberlake can’t help it if he’s lucky and he certainly is not the talentless pop star that people make him out to be (you can’t deny he has one amazing falsetto). According to Ives, who actually works with the man, he’s one of the hardest working people in the business.
As for Ives, I think it’s also completely false to call him a sell-out. He paid his dues in Memphis, he grew up here and played in various bands throughout his life, including FreeSol, a band that signed with Timberlake at Tennman Records, and Lord T & Eloise, a group he still plays with. When FreeSol was dropped by Interscope (the parent company of Tennman), Ives was prepared to enter the business world and even had an interview at a credit card company, but Timberlake called, saved the day, and the rest is history. Ives said in my interview with him that he doesn’t consider himself the best guitar player around, and that may be true, but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve success or that he should have to spend his career making much less money playing in Memphis. People say that you have to get out of Memphis to really succeed in music (and by “succeed,” in this case, I mean make a lot of money), and in its current state, that is completely true.
I think that most people would agree that there is no industry here. Ok, there are a few labels and PR firms, but a handful of people invested in music does not make an industry. And, I get it, Memphis does not want to be like Nashville. We don’t want to produce a product, we want to produce great music. We aren’t sell-outs, we’re artists. However, we have becomes so consumed with the fear of “selling out” that we have forgotten how to compromise. And although I would never want to live in a Memphis that looked and felt just like Nashville, we should take lessons from them. We need more people invested in what it means to succeed and less concerned with looking cool and only making music with their friends all day. In the city that once had the perfect ingredients to create the King of Rock and Roll and make a label as successful as Stax, I say why can’t we do that again? In short, we need professionalism to make this great city thrive again and we won’t do that by disowning every Memphian that makes it big.