The Folks You Meet at Folk Alliance
Do you ever have those moments where your perspective zooms out for a second and you suddenly feel overwhelmed by the absurdity of things that usually feel normal? For example, you check the news, and instead of thinking “What ridiculous thing did the president tweet today?” you think, “Oh my god, the guy from the Apprentice is literally the president of the United States of America.” Or you’re looking for a song on Spotify, and you suddenly think, “Oh my god, I have a device that fits into the palm of my hand with which I can access more recorded music than I would ever possibly have time to listen to in my entire life.” Or you’re watching a sports game, and you suddenly realize that a world-altering amount of money is exchanged so that millions of people can sit on their couches and watch a bunch of other people throw a ball… you get the idea. I have a lot of those moments when I’m at Folk Alliance.
Folk Alliance International is a nonprofit organization whose annual conference, held for the last several years in mid-February at the Westin Hotel in Kansas City, serves as a meeting for the entire folk music industry: booking agents, publicists, media folks, record labels, festival and venue promoters, and, of course, artists numbering in the thousands. (A small handful of fans do attend FAI as though it’s a festival, and I can’t blame them – it’d be the biggest and greatest festival lineup ever.) During the day, there are panel discussions and an exhibit hall; during the evening, there are official conference-sponsored showcases in the hotel’s many ballrooms and conference rooms. The showcases act as an opportunity for artists to bring their music to a wider professional network, and for industry folks to scout for new artists to work with. After the official showcases end, from the hours of 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., there are dozens upon dozens of private showcases – formerly known as guerrilla showcases – that take place in every single hotel room on the 5th, 6th, and 7th floors of the Westin.
At first, the guerrilla showcases were an unsanctioned way for lesser-known artists to increase their performance opportunities, to access a bit of FAI’s networking power even if they didn’t make the cut for an official showcase. They were a kind of parallel conference with its own DIY punk energy. Now, they’re the officially-sanctioned lifeblood of the conference. A minority of artists receive official showcases, and they only receive one; whereas they can book as many private showcases as they want. (My band, Lula Wiles, played nine this year, which is a lot, but I know artists who’ve played 15!) The rooms are hosted by record labels, music festivals, booking agencies, artists, and other organizations, who rent folding chairs, pay to have the hotel beds removed, and carefully curate their room’s lineup and vibe. The showcases are short, and many are in-the-round with multiple artists. In the hallways of the showcase floors, every single inch of available wall space is covered in posters advertising artists’ showcase schedules. The hallways themselves are full of attendees schmoozing and artists running with instruments in their hands, going from one showcase that just ended to another one that starts in five minutes. It’s exactly as bizarre as it sounds.
During the three times I’ve attended Folk Alliance, I’ve had a number of “Wait, what the hell is this” moments. “My band spent thousands of dollars in order to come here and beg to be noticed by this tiny insular shred of the music industry, and we’re playing our songs in a freaking hotel room, and there are 12 people in here, and they’re mostly other artists… This is ridiculous.” And it’s true that at FAI, it’s often difficult to know if your work is paying off at all. Spending four days in a hotel with three thousand other folkies is overwhelming, and the pressure to make enormous career moves can get to your head. I don’t like the feeling of competing for attention with other artists, and I don’t like the cagey, hedging-your-bets nature of many music-industry interactions. It’s like the worst aspects of dating – you try not to seem too interested, you wonder if you should wait a couple of days to follow up, you dance around the question rather than asking outright “do you want to work with me?” Not to mention that the bulk of the conference takes place between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. when the alcohol is flowing freely and everyone is basically delirious. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Well, firstly, the professional opportunities are numerous. Although it’s easy to feel lost in the din at Folk Alliance, my band has made a number of our most important connections there – often in a crowded hallway at 2 a.m. when we were least expecting it.
Also, all of our friends are there. Folk Alliance often feels like a big family reunion – it’s quite rare that this many musicians all find ourselves congregating in one place. We all savor the opportunity to hear each other’s music, collaborate, and have jams and dances and song circles late into the night. When we’re all traveling around and living in far-flung locations, it’s easy for lots of time to pass without an opportunity to see or hear your friends. And, of course, maintaining connections with other artists is a professional and creative necessity.
After this year’s Folk Alliance conference, my third in a row, I left feeling really creatively invigorated (mentally, at least – physically I was exhausted and hungover, if I’m being honest here). For the first time, I felt like I could really see my career moving forward. I also got to see a lot of my friends and favorite musicians play: Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards played an incredible showcase, where they enlisted me and 19 other string players to join in from the audience, and turned off the mics and the lights for their last song. I got to see Kristin Andreassen perform in her new Appalachian-inspired dance project, SHIFT. The Stray Birds hosted their own room, where they tested out their new songs every night to a packed room of adoring friends. I also heard some amazing music I’d never heard before, including the Brooklyn-based instrumental powerhouses Sam Reider & the Human Hands and the old-time duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calgano. Lula Wiles got to share an in-the-round set with Quebecois rock star Lisa LeBlanc, and it was a rager.
That’s the greatest thing about Folk Alliance – everyone is there because they’re doing something that they really believe in. Spending a lot of money to play music is not something you do unless you really feel that you have something to share, something to say. It’s inspiring to see so many people putting themselves out there in this way, and that’s what keeps the business side of things from sucking out my soul. Folk Alliance is a hyper-concentrated reminder of everything that the roots music world has to offer, and I feel lucky to be part of this community.