The Georgia Music Hall of Fame — the Macon landmark that has amassed relics of the state’s rich musical history, if not the crowds those relics warrant — is in dire straits. According to the authority board that oversees it, if the museum isn’t on its way to raising $225,000 by October, it will close its doors for good Dec. 31.
This seems an unlikely crisis for a music museum in a state that has churned out acts and artists including James Brown, Gram Parsons, R.E.M., Ludacris, Otis Redding, the B-52’s, Little Richard, Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers Band, and OutKast. The problem could boil down to one shortcoming: location.
Since opening its doors in 1996, the museum has failed to draw the visitors it needs to survive. Early estimates were that the Georgia Music Hall of Fame would attract 150,000 people per year, says executive director Lisa Love. Instead, the museum has averaged between 25,000 and 35,000.
Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, recalls that in the early ’90s, then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller lobbied to place the museum in Macon to spread tourism dollars beyond Atlanta. “When they put those museums in Macon, they wanted them to be destinations,” Lucas says of the music museum and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. “A lot of legislators were tired of voting for everything to go to Atlanta — the World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome, etc. They wanted to put things outside of Atlanta. Otherwise, all of the other communities would dry up.”
Macon sits about an hour south of Atlanta, and roughly two hours from Athens and Savannah. For that reason, it didn’t seem like it would be difficult to lure tourists there. But when the museum was built, the tourists did not materialize.
Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts is a vocal proponent of moving the music museum to Atlanta. “When it was first approved and constructed in Macon, I said they were making a terrible mistake,” Pitts says. “Even if the state of Georgia were to subsidize it forever, it still wouldn’t draw the people it needs.”
By comparison, Atlanta’s or even Athens’ tourism industry and active music scenes make them seem more viable locations than the museum’s current home. It would make financial sense, some argue, to move the facility to a town with a younger, bustling population.
But according to Love, moving the Music Hall of Fame isn’t an option. “The authority board is not considering the question of moving the museum,” she says. “All the efforts of the board and the Department of Economic Development are focused on sustaining the museum in Macon.”
Author and journalist Scott Freeman, a former Creative Loafing senior editor who lived in Macon in the early ’80s and late ’90s, and who authored the books Otis! The Otis Redding Story and Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, wonders whether the museum would thrive in either city.
“Philosophically, that’s where it ought to be,” Freeman says of Macon. “Along with Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., Macon was one of the three cornerstones for Southern R&B. But practically speaking, Macon has never been able to bring tourism.”
He says he doesn’t think moving the museum to Atlanta would solve its problems, either. “The history is so disconnected from Atlanta,” Freeman says. “The [National] Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., because that’s where the first game was played. But I don’t know how well it would do in downtown New York. Atlanta was never a nexus the way Macon was.”
Beyond the question of location, improving the quality of the museum’s exhibitions might also attract more visitors. Brian Poust, who runs the Georgia Soul music blog and DJs under the name Agent 45, says he was underwhelmed by the museum. “Would you rather go to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame or the Stax Museum in Memphis?” he asks. “The Stax Museum is first-class all the way. At its core right now, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame really is not that interesting.”
In 2000, the B-52’s became the first new wave band to be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the group’s vocalist Fred Schneider couldn’t disagree more with Poust. “The Georgia Music Hall of Fame is of the same class as the Stax Museum, but comparing the two is like apples and oranges,” Schneider says. “Georgia’s Music Hall of Fame celebrates all kinds of music. And it’s not like the rock and roll hall of fame. It covers a very broad range of Georgia music. It’s a great resource. And it has a really great gift shop that sells a lot of CDs by Georgia musicians.”
Currently, 60 percent of the Hall’s funding comes from the state. But a plan to infuse it with more revenue from a 1 cent hotel tax is the museum’s best hope for survival.
Macon’s legislative delegation projects that the tax will raise about $400,000 per year to give $130,000 a piece to the Georgia music and sports halls of fame, as well as Macon’s Douglass Theatre. But unless Gov. Sonny Perdue calls a special session to address the problem, the tax won’t go into effect until January 2010, the month following the museum’s Dec. 31 deadline to raise more funds or face closure.
In the meantime, outside fundraisers are being planned. Schneider is releasing a new line of dog cookies, called Fred’s Space Cookies, the proceeds of which will be donated to the museum. On Oct. 8, several Macon acts, including Chris Hicks, Rolybots and Mag Tard, will perform at a benefit concert at the Cox Capitol Theatre. And on Oct. 9, several more musicians, including Marshall Ruffin, Montgomery Gunn and Spy for Hire, will play a benefit at the Loft in Columbus. “We have a huge job ahead of us, but when I look at the kind of adversity that artists like Brenda Lee, Ray Charles and Otis Redding overcame to reach their dreams, I find strength,” Love says. “It is their legacies and achievements and the goal of preserving and sharing them that make the challenge seem so honorable and worthwhile.”