Background on FAI
First, for those who are not familiar with Folk Alliance International, some basics from their website:
“Folk Alliance International’s mission is to serve, strengthen, and engage the global folk music community through preservation, presentation, and promotion.”
“The FAI folk umbrella represents the broadest international iteration of the genre, encompassing a diverse array of music including Appalachian, Americana, Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, Francophone, Global Roots, Indigenous, Latin, Old-Time, Traditional, Singer-Songwriter, Spoken Word and every imaginable fusion.”
“The organization began in Malibu, California in 1989 when Clark and Elaine Weissman and the California Traditional Music Society gathered a hundred people involved in the presentation and performance of folk music and dance.
Many people have contributed to the growth of the organization. Volunteers have chaired numerous committees both to produce the annual conference and to further goals throughout the year. The work of FAI takes place under the leadership of a Board of Directors, but every member of the organization contributes to the success of our endeavors.”
Every year, as part of this mission, vision and history, they produce a big conference. Usually in recent years it has been in Kansas City, Missouri, where the FAI headquarters is located. This year, 2019, was in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, so was physically as close as it ever will get to my home. So it became clear I had to go.
Now, FAI also has regional organizations that put on regional conferences and events. Where I live, my regional affiliate is Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, or NERFA. You can read about my experience attending NERFA 2018 here.
To register for either conference, apply for official showcases, etc., one has to join FAI as a member.
Registration is a modern, online experience. Since prices will change, I won’t list them here, but the conference itself is not very expensive if you get a member/early bird/showcase submission rate. One key difference between FAI and NERFA conferences: no food is included in FAI registration. It’s important to budget for on-site food expenses.
Once registered, if you are an artist looking for showcases, you are then able to apply for Official Showcases. Unlike NERFA, there are not two levels of official showcases (Formal and Semi-formal), just Official Showcases and Private Showcases (NERFA uses the term “guerilla showcases”). Note: there is GLOBAL competition for these spots, so don’t be disappointed if you aren’t selected.
If you are planning on doing Private Showcases, get your act together early or you will similarly be shut out. At the same time, don’t over book yourself or you will not perform well. better to do fewer showcases well than it is to do every one you can. There is so much more to do, so many people to meet, that you need to budget your time, as well as your money. Meeting people is actually the biggest opportunity at this conference, not performing.
Unless you are travelling from a long way, the largest expense is likely to be the hotel. Many people share rooms by posting to the Facebook group FAI Conference Notice Board. It’s a good idea to join that group as all kinds of useful information appears there, from info on guerilla showcases to the hotel/conference wifi password.
First Timer Opportunities
As a first time attendee, there are some special opportunities offered, and I encourage any first time attendee to look into these and apply early, etc:
- First timer scholarship: I applied for, and received, a scholarship which reduced the cost of the conference registration itself to $100. If you are applying for an Official showcase, you can apply for this!
- First timer Showcase: I snoozed and didn’t apply in time to this Private showcase. If you do apply promptly, you will likely get a spot. Do it!
- Connecting Folks Mentors: I signed up for this and was connected with Joe Crookston, who is an experienced performing singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. We played email tag for a while, then finally got a long call in while he was returning from a Canadian tour. He was very encouraging, and it was cool to meet up with him in person at the Connecting Folk breakfast at the conference. Get yourself a mentor!
- First-Timer Downloadable Guide: They have a whole guide for first time attendees on the website. A lot of this matches what my mentor Joe said. Check it out here.
- First Timer Orientation: Attended this on Wednesday afternoon. Here’s a tip: plan to get to the conference as early as possible and stay as late as possible. Opportunities abound when it’s less crowded.
- First Timers and Connecting Folk Breakfast: Sit with an experienced FAI attendee and volunteer mentor and have any questions answered about the conference.
Workshops, Artist Mentoring, Speed Meetings, Classes
There are so many things happening at this conference, I can’t list it all here, but I will share some of what I did:
- Attended workshops like “Songs that Ignite Change” and “Catching Attention when Releasing your Art”
- Took classes like “Creative Guitar Tricks for Songwriters” with Joe Crookston and “Stage Critiques” with Vance Gilbert
- Signed up for an Artist Mentorship session with Si Kahn (!)
- Met industry folks in a series of Speed Meetings. Very interesting, but not for the sensitive.
This barely scratches the surface of what I did or what is available during the conference. The biggest problem is that you can’t do everything you will want to.
Some of these require extra sign up and some require extra payments. Check out the conference website and app and plan ahead!
So if you just want to see music, this is really a great opportunity to see a LOT of music.
There are Official showcases, which are well-produced and do really showcase an incredible array of the hottest talent. Take notes.
Then there is the spectacle that is Private showcases: four hotel floors of small room after room of mini-folk-clubs, with all kinds of decorations, setups, and music. The hallways are covered in posters, and when it gets crowded (the Private showcases run from ~10:30 to 3 AM and in a few cases, later!) it is hard to navigate the hallways, with instruments everywhere you turn.
If you are scheduled to play a showcase, get there as early as you can. The elevators are likely to be a jam up, so learn where the stairs are and use them.
It’s also polite to the other performers to check out what they are doing and show them support. You will also want to see old friends play, new friends play, your favorite talented artists play, etc… this will be a balance you will need to figure out for your situation. Again, you literally can’t do everything.
It was really a great experience meeting songwriter and activist Si Kahn. I contacted him in advance of the Conference and sent some links. He wrote back and asked for ALL the lyrics to the songs on my album! We sat and talked for a while, and I got to see him perform up close in a private showcase. He was very kind and supportive of what I am doing, and talked about “entertaining the troops” versus “winning over converts”. Just a really nice guy all around!
I may have annoyed Vance Gilbert: after I took his performance class I tried to check out as many of his showcases as possible. The man did a LOT of showcases. So, since I don’t get to see him up our way much at all, I figured I would check out what he was doing and see how he applied what he was teaching in the Stage Critiques class. He noticed, and said something about me following him around. I tried to make a joke. It was awkward. Ugh.
So, Vance Gilbert is a fucking genius. He will tell you so himself, but I will tell you it’s true. I was lucky enough to be picked first to be worked on in the class, and it was a revelation. So was everything he said to everyone else. He just has the knack for knowing what to do with a performance, how to tweak the arrangement, how to deliver a line. All of that and more. I am going to beg him to come up to Burlington and do a workshop for Burlington Songwriters group.
Meeting people, new artists
Above meeting slightly famous dudes, I met all sorts of people, and discovered all sorts of artists. These are not just industry contacts, these are friends, fellow musicians, and inspiring artists. This was the real investment: spending time with these folks, jamming, talking, and helping when needed: I was able to help find a melody for a song that needed to be performed just a few minutes later, give up the 9-volt in my ukulele to save a private showcase, and support a world-class musician in her last-minute showcase. It felt good to be part of a community.
I will be featuring some of these artists in the blog here over the next few weeks. Look for “FAI Discovery” in the blog title!
Folk Alliance International 2020 Conference will be held in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA January 22-26, 2020