Folk Alliance coming up
Two weeks from tonight I will have arrived at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City for what I believe is my fifth time attending. My first trip was with Jake Schepps and Expedition when the conference was held in Austin. The next two were also with Jake, but in Memphis. Last year I went with Katie Glassman and Snapshot in K.C.
Having never held a "real" job, I have never been to a "real" industry conference. I believe, though, that FA is as different from the Annual Meeting of Scientific Accountants as my life's work is from scientific accounting. Sure, there are panels and workshops on how to make your career more profitable and efficient, keynote speakers, an exhibit hall and name tags, but there are also three floors of a giant hotel crammed full of musicians playing showcases in rooms gussied up as music venues until three o'clock in the morning, which is when the jamming begins.
Every strata of the independent music business is represented: talent buyers from the country's biggest festivals, heads of influential record labels, high-powered booking agencies, arts presenters, super-famous musicians (Jim Kweskin!), dudes living in a van playing for tips, middle-aged folkies trying on a second career, all manner of merchandise hawkers (free strings!), Canadians, and last year, Al Gore. Pretty much all the musicians below the super-famous level are hoping for the same results: a booking agent and better gigs than they currently have, and maybe the super-famous ones want that, too.
The organization chooses and presents a large number of official showcases from 7 - 10 p.m. each night. These highly coveted 20 minute slots are held in conference rooms with unflattering lighting and poor sound quality, often with doors that open to a cacophonous hallway. This year will be my first playing an official showcase. I can't wait.
When those are over, the unofficial showcases begin on the upper floors. As far as I can tell, anyone can host a room. Bands, venues, booking agencies, folk music organizations, orangutans. A few corner suites are big enough to pull off a concert feel, but most are just regular two-queen-bed rooms. Some folks go to town on their rooms, and it can be quite lovely: beds stood vertically against the wall, lamps, xmas lights, snacks, sound system, chairs, tub full of beer. Other folks tape the lineup on the door and call it done.
Unofficial showcases also average around 20 minutes, and most artists will play at least three or four a night. One of the first years I was at the conference, in addition to my showcases with Jake, I played 18 more with my songwriter friend, Sally Shuffield.
But crazy as it sounds, this is where the magic happens. Think about going to see a band at a venue. Even at a local bar, there is a substantial time commitment to see just one act. Now picture hundreds and hundreds of some of the world's most talented, driven and relatively unknown musicians playing for hours on end, four days in a row, in spaces no bigger than your living room, separated by nothing more than a flimsy Hyatt wall. By the second night, your antennae are quivering as you register a gorgeous three-part harmony, a musical saw, a raucous jug band, high-octane bluegrass, and you grab a seat for a few songs of each.
Those revelrous, chaotic, joyous and completely overwhelming hallways are the heart of Folk Alliance, in my opinion. I find much of the rest of conference to be challenging. For one, it is very expensive, especially for a group with a profession that generally doesn't pay very well. In Katie's band, we are using money from almost all of our gigs since the summer to pay for this trip. And while there is so much useful information to be gleaned from a remarkable collection of accomplished attendees, I always have to contend with discouragement and pessimism. There is a constant bombardment of what you could and should be doing to further your career, which for me creates the constant cognition that I am doing a fraction of what I ought to be. I'm sure almost all of us feel this in relation to our work in some way, but it becomes acute in the midst of a few thousand self-employed guitar pickers trying desperately to stay in the game.
So when I'm cruising the unofficial showcases and happen upon a duo toe to toe in a tiny room in front of an audience of three at two in the morning, blending their voices like their lives depended on it, I know that music is real, and that I gotta stay in the game.