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Looking back on the Folk Alliance International Conference 2017

April 21, 2017

In February this year, Kansas City, Missouri became the capital of the folk world. Between February 15th and 19th, the city hosted the annual Folk Alliance International Conference and representatives from major league institutions of the folk industry flooded the streets. The Folk Alliance International Conference timeline can be traced back to 1989 when the event made its debut at Camp Hess Kramer in California. Its founding philosophy was to bring together music professionals from around the world in order to share ideas, network, to unearth new talent and to put established artists on a pedestal.

This event is a huge amount of fun and some of the best networking opportunities and unusual festival type events in the music world. And, one thing which no other music conference has is “guerilla” music showcases. More about that later.

The Folk Alliance International Conference Is One Of The Coolest Music Conferences In The World

For the 5th time, I participated in this conference by helping Earwig recording artist Andy Cohen host the Traditional Music Room, which he programs. Though the majority of the Folk Alliance conferences and the category called folk music have been overloaded with singer-songwriters playing their own material, to varying degrees rooted in traditional music but not actually “folk” music in the traditional sense, Andy Cohen and a small cadre of others are the torch-bearers of real old time music. At the Folk Alliance the Traditional Music Room is “the place to be” for authentic, true folk music.

The reason Andy is asked every year to program the traditional music room is because he is a master instrumentalist and singer of traditional blues and folk music, on acoustic guitar, piano, and other stringed instruments. He is also a walking encyclopedia of the history, traditions and repertoire of traditional music from the United States and the British Isles, and knows a huge number of musicians from around the world working in traditional styles and has a talent for mixing in a cool variety of artistry and cultural traditions in one music room. He is also a stickler for those musicians playing genuine folk music in the room, even if they are currently usually playing their own original material of more modern repertoire.

Some of them have to dust off some of the music they started out performing, in order to hold their own in the room. But they do it and then some. It’s an absolute delight. In 2017 I heard 30 musicians in our small trad room with a 50 year age range, jamming on a traditional tune on bluegrass fiddle, banjo and guitar. The conference music school instructors brought their students. Now that was fun! Blues Legends Bobby Rush and Barbara Dane also stopped by and watched some great blues players Mary Flower and Rich Delgrosso playing, then did a tune of their own. A group of Balkan Roma musicians with accordion and tuba who would have been right at home in a New Orleans street parade, just killed it, having the whole packed room up and dancing.

During the 5 years of my attendance, just in the trad room I have heard solo, duo and band performances and jams large and small of bluegrass, blues and many ethnic styles of music, music from lots of different countries including Australia, French provinces of Canada, the United Kingdom, Asia, the Middle East, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, South America, and from all over the USA. Today, the conference is the largest gathering of the Folk Music community in the world, and it encompasses an A to Z of genres, including:

  • Appalachian
  • Blues
  • Bluegrass
  • Celtic
  • Cajun
  • Roots
  • Traditional
  • Singer Songwriter
  • World Music
  • And more

The Folk Alliance International Conference Offers Music, Networking, Collaboration & Education Opportunities

The Conference as a whole is a great place to hear, meet and network with musicians from all over the world as well as to meet, network and learn from:

  • Artist managers
  • Talent buyers
  • Music programmers
  • Domestic and international cultural organizations
  • House concert organizers
  • Disc jockeys
  • Journalists
  • Instrument makers
  • Service providers, including distributors, social media platform staff and so on

The event has a trade show, educational panels on the business and the history of folk music, and even a 4 day music school where musicians can go and learn from many of the best musicians in the genre. There is even a folk festival on the last day, just after the conference ends, which provides yet another opportunity to see some of the best musicians from the Conference.

The daytime schedule features a string of networking opportunities, special reception events and 147 different workshops and panel sessions. The latter drill into topics like women in music, ‘the music they didn’t want you to hear’, and contemporary protest through music. The theme for the 2017 event was Forbidden Folk. Its intention was to champion activism in art and to celebrate the role music plays in social, political, labor and environmental movements.

My Personal Highlights From the The Folk Alliance International Conference

For me some of the highlights have been hearing Barbara Dane, and Jim Kweskin in our traditional music room, having dinner with Willie DeVille in 2015, and dinner (Thanks to Barbara Newman from The Blues Foundation and her husband Bruce), and a one-on-one conversation afterwards with David Amram. Talk about an inspiration!

Meeting a bunch of djs who have played Earwig releases on their folk shows was also a treat. It was exciting too, to hear and see a vast array of styles of music and musicians of various ages and cultural groups I would never be able to see up close anywhere else.

One of the really cool opportunities about this event is that you may be able to me and chat, or even share a meal or cup of coffee with a musician or music business person you have admired from a distance, or someone who can give you some words of advice or tell you a story. If you are a musician, you may even sit in with someone you least expected to, doing music you may or not be familiar with. Now how cool is that?

Speakers, Performing Artists & Guerilla Showcases at The Folk Alliance International Conference

Each year there is a keynote speaker on the opening night. The keynote speaker for the conference was the Grammy Award-winning UK artist and activist Billy Bragg. He was headhunted for the role because of his involvement in grassroots political movements, and his vocal opposition to racism, sexism, bigotry and homophobia throughout his recording career. In 2016 it was Graham Nash. These speakers usually do 1 song solo after their talk.

In the evening, speakers and commentators hand their batons to performing artists. 200 acts are cherry picked by a panel of Conference staff, to perform in a series of official showcases – 30-minute micro concerts held concurrently in nine ballrooms throughout the hotel. These slots are the most coveted ones because they get more publicity and performers have somewhat of a better chance to be seen by talent buyers, agents and concert presenters. Also, the musicians have less competition for an audience during those showcases than during the late evening at the “guerilla” showcases.

Just imagine 3 floors of hotel bedrooms and suites, with a different musical act in each room every 30-45 minutes, from 10:00 pm until at least 3:00 am for 4 nights. In a few of the rooms the music goes on until 4:00 or sometimes 5:00 am. These rooms are called guerilla showcases because each act and the room host promotes their gigs and room acts by putting up posters on the walls and doors of the hotel room floors and by handing out and leaving gig and artist postcards all over the hallways in the lower floors where the official showcases are. Each of these rooms is sponsored, scheduled and hosted by an organization such as a record label, a booking agency, a foreign cultural organization, or a few folks who wanted to have a room to promote what they were doing.

Musicians try to get short gigs in multiple rooms each night so that they can reach a variety of people wandering through, and also so they can have more opportunity to play with and meet and network with musicians and music business folks from around the world.  It is just mind boggling how much music can be heard at this conference and how many networking connections can be made.

How to Enjoy The Folk Alliance International Conference

Some words of caution, there are so many musicians and music industry people there, that tickets for the public, the fans if you will, are limited unless they buy a ticket for the whole conference. Check the Folk Alliance International website for all the details about the organization and the conference. It’s already possible to put the dates in your diary for next year’s conference. The event will take place at the same location in Kansas between 14th and 18th of February 2018. Also note that there are so many Canadian, European and international participants that, usually in every 5 year cycle, one of the conferences is held in a foreign country.

If you have been to a music conference in any genre or niche, please share your experience on the Earwig Facebook page or on our fan wall on the free EarwigMusic mobile app, available for I-phone and Android.