“In my experience, music cannot change the world. The only people — in the wonderful exchange of ideas that we engage in as artists, the only people with the power to change the world are the audience. Not us.” – Billy Bragg
David Glasser, Charlie Pilzer and I represented Airshow at the 29th Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City earlier this month. Charlie, a lifetime member, recalled attending conference #3 in Malibu. David and I were later arrivals, but have attended our share. After skipping a few years during the recession, upon returning, I was struck by the vitality of the conference, and the many new and shining faces to be seen along with the many veterans of the genre. It gave me a hopeful feeling about the sustainability of this music that I have loved for so many years.
Beyond congratulating the board and staff on another well-rounded conference –they do deserve credit for a good one! – I note the challenge to this organization, since its founding: to promote folk music and the careers of folk musicians. That could sound like a mission for any professional or trade organization, but when the music is folk music, it’s a little more layered, adding these: to keep alive the flame of folk culture, and to support musicians of a fundamentally non-commercial form of music to build sustainable careers.
The conference is a mashup of two events: the showcase event and the industry event.
The industry event consists of dozens of panels and networking sessions covering professional development topics (Succeeding at crowd-funding. How to tour another continent. PR prerequisites. Sustainable events.) All that thoughtful knowledge-sharing takes place during the day. Friend Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records became a Folk Alliance convert last year, observing the generosity of panelists and experts, true to the event’s founding spirit. Who would want to pass up the opportunities to learn, so freely offered?
The showcase event, from six in the evening to near sunrise, includes over 3,000 performances in rooms large and small, for audiences of a few to a few hundred. If you’re a talent buyer or musician, just this portion of the event can run you ragged. Because we are neither artists or buyers, our main job at Folk Alliance, as Charlie puts it, is to bump into people, so the wee hours showcases are strictly optional for us.
[Airshow was one of the hosts of the Colorado and Friends showcase room, featuring 17 performers rotating through over 30 slots during the event. The room was assembled by Chris Zacher’s talented team from Denver Levitt Pavilion, with help from Swallow Hill Music and Great Divide Brewing among others. There’s a little photo album below, with some of the artists .]
Finally, there was the theme of the conference, “Forbidden Folk,” addressing the long tradition of protest music, and its role in the current moment. Billy Bragg’s keynote speech put today’s environment in a personal and historical context. The full text of this speech can be found here, courtesy of American Songwriter.
Billboard used its coverage of the conference to ask the question, Is folk music still relevant for the resistance? Melinda Newman queried up and coming artists and elders in the field of political protest, and received some thoughtful answers, with the conclusion that the anthems of today’s movements (The Women’s March and Black Lives Matter are named) come from pop culture, not folk culture. Acknowledging the passion of the organization’s members, Executive Director Aengus Finnan’s answer reflected the dual nature of organization’s mission, asserting that singer-songwriters and acoustic folk musicians can make closer connections with their smaller, engaged audiences, and should add their voices to the message of the moment.
For me, Folk Alliance is always an energizing social stew, and a rich reward for getting out of the studio and office and mixing it up with friends and clients. This year, I found a source of hope and inspiration for getting through a dire time.