Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the city of Memphis was averaging roughly a million visitors a month. While they came for many reasons, historically the biggest lure for destination travel in the Bluff City has been music: music tourism, music legacy and live music. Maintaining that brand in 2020 and re-growing it in a post-COVID-19 world, will be one of the main charges for Jayne Ellen White.
White holds the position of music specialist for Memphis Tourism. It’s a role that was created in 2019 and one that White — whose past experience includes running Sun Studio and leading visitor experience for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — was perfectly suited to fill.
“From my perspective, it’s a balance of understanding of what tourism means to this city, having been on one side of it for so long, and trying to get us to a different level in the music tourism space,” said White. “People come here for all the legacy music attractions, but we want them to know we have a wonderful vibrant contemporary music scene and live music scene. Right now, we’re doing everything we can to be ready to have as many visitors as we did pre-COVID.”
Inspired by ‘the magic that happens in Memphis’
A native of West Virginia who grew up all over the country as an Army brat, White graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in communications. But music was always her passion.
“I worked for a music magazine in college, worked in concert promotion, and I played in bands. Music was always in the forefront of my life, always really important to me,” said White. She arrived in Memphis in late 2006 and quickly landed a job giving tours at Sun Studio. Over the next decade she would take on various roles at Sun, eventually running its day-to-day operations.
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“In working at Sun for 10 years, I really got to see the magic that happens in Memphis every day,” she said. “We would have tourists coming to Memphis who’d waited their whole lives and saved up a bunch of money to travel over and a make pilgrimage to see where the music they loved came from. It meant so much to them to be here. Experiencing that on a daily basis, it made me love the idea of working in tourism in this city.”
After leaving Sun in 2017, she moved on to Stax, where she served as director of visitor experience. “That was really important for me as well,” said White. “Apart from the rock and roll of Sun and Elvis, soul music is the identity of who we are as a city. Having worked at Sun and Stax, it paved the way, gave me a great background to have on my resume to come into this new position that Memphis Tourism was creating.”
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Memphis Tourism President and CEO Kevin Kane said that they’d been looking to create a music-centric role within the organization. “We do a lot of research and when you look at all our attractions, music is a huge part of why people choose to come and here and visit. Music really is our brand. And so we wanted someone who would eat, drink and sleep Memphis music to come in and focus on just that,” said Kane.
“What attracted us to Jayne Ellen was that she was a passionate music person who had worked at music properties that had impacted the music economy. Crucially, we also felt she understood the current day music scene in Memphis as well as the legacy side, and could leverage that to further the visitor economy.”
Promoting music during COVID-19
White’s duties range from helping license Memphis music for the city’s tourism campaigns to helping lure music and music-related conventions to the city. She’s also helped oversee the development of the Music Hub initiative.
“It’s a resource where people can find out more about Memphis Music, anything that’s happening right now to the beginnings of our history,” said White. “It’s a landing page, and also a place where I can do some PR activation for the current music scene, which is really exciting.”
White’s efforts — along with most of the tourism and hospitality industry — were upended this spring with the arrival of COVID-19.
“We’ve actually done pretty well as far as visitation goes, better than we might have expected under the circumstances,” said White. “We do hope that we will be slowly getting back to normal in the next 12 months or so. Initially, a lot of what I was doing after COVID hit was helping rescheduling things, helping local musicians who’d been put out of work. Now, we’ve been focusing on organizing our information and resources the best way possible, so we can be ready to get back to where we were [pre-COVID] eventually.”
In October, White helped launch Memphis Music Month, a program that featured socially distanced and virtual concerts, and various other activities.
“We see it as a way for local business to integrate music into their brand,” said White. “It felt like a perfect time to launch that program and make folks realize how much music is and can be a part of the fabric of everyday life in Memphis. We hope it’s the very beginning of what will be an annual event.”
“Even through the pandemic she’s accomplished some really good things,” noted Kane. “She’s kept that leverage and kept that momentum going for us.”
For White, keeping Memphis music front and center in terms of the city’s civic and tourist identity is both a passion and privilege. “It’s great that I’m able to do what I love,” said White, “and especially in that I’ve carved my own path to do it, which is something I’m proud of.”
You can reach Bob Mehr, who covers music and pop culture, at [email protected].