The timing couldn’t have been better.
Months before we knew how the 2016 presidential election would play out, organizers at Folk Alliance International had chosen a theme for the annual conference this year in Kansas City — “Forbidden Folk – Celebrating Activism in Art.”
Billy Bragg, a celebrated British singer-songwriter and activist for left-wing causes, will be the keynote speaker as well as the headliner at the Kansas City Folk Festival on the final day of the public/private conference, which unfolds Feb. 15 –19 at the Westin Crown Center and Sheraton Kansas City hotels.
Panel discussions will address the timely theme. Many of the singer-songwriters attending the conference will no doubt have fresh material in response to the improbable (or, if you prefer, nightmarish) election of Donald J. Trump to the White House.
“We’ll be celebrating activism in art and the role of music in labor and justice and environmental movements,” said Aengus Finnan, executive director of the Folk Alliance. “In the past there was perhaps a more high-profile relationship between folk music and being present on picket lines in civil rights movements . . . What we’re celebrating is that tradition.”
In addition to Bragg, one of the artists attending this year will be Ramy Essam, an Egyptian songwriter living in exile in Sweden. Finnan described Essam as “the Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger of the Arab Spring.”
For the almost 200 groups and solo artists from around the world who have won public showcases at the conference, protest music was not a prerequisite.
“It wasn’t a condition for applying,” Finnan said. “The industry conference is still the industry conference. There’s an added stream of more community-oriented sessions. This year there will be the addition of artists talking about the ways they approach activism.”
Thousands of musicians and other music-business professionals will attend the conference at the two Crown Center hotels, which are linked by an elevated walkway. The conference is a gathering of the tribes, part trade show and part music festival.
The 2017 event will be the fourth consecutive Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City. After the 2018 gathering, it all moves to Montreal.
The purpose of the conference is exposure. Artists will be seen and heard by radio hosts, concert producers, agents, consultants and other music professionals. In the three years the conference has met in Kansas City, performers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland, Great Britain, Sweden, Estonia, Japan and other home countries have graced Folk Alliance stages.
But Finnan sees a higher purpose than exposure, one that he expressed in an Alliance newsletter a few years ago:
“ . . . the term Folk is about much more than entertainment and careers, and in fact it is more than music,” Finnan wrote. “Folk is an ethos, a community, a way. It is reverence for tradition, celebration and expression of the human condition, and exploration of the new. It is quality over quantity. It is the brave and often isolated voice of social, political and environmental concern.”
The conference offers something else of vital importance to the musicians: A sense of community.
“For many this is the one time of the year when they can attend an event where they’ll be understood,” Finnan said. “Being a touring songwriter sounds romantic . . . but it’s basically working out of your office at a different truck stop every day. This is a family reunion of like-minded artists.”
Most of the artists pay their own way, although some countries — such as Canada and Australia — help musicians with travel expenses. And organizers from certain states, Oklahoma and Michigan, to name two — sponsor rooms for showcases by their native artists. Last year attendees could park themselves in the Oklahoma Room if they wanted a taste of the various bands and singer-songwriters from the Sooner State. They could also visit the Aussie Room, the Canada Room and the Sweden Room.
The cost for artists to attend, if they aren’t already members of Folk Alliance, is to pay for membership and also the registration fee. It’s not cheap for a five-piece band to fly in from Ireland or Australia once you factor in conference fees, airfare and hotel rooms, but some see the costs as career investments.
“It’s a place where lifelong musicians who perhaps never make it onto any ‘top’ list are able to build sustainable careers,” said Erika Noguera, the Alliance communications director.
The official number of public showcases for 2017 is 198, but Noguera said that number reflects the finite ballroom space at the Westin.
“We could have four times that,” she said. “If anything, we would want to reduce the number of showcases, but that’s really hard to do because there’s so much talent. It’s an emotional process and people put their heart and soul out there to apply. But there are a limited number of spaces.”
Noguera said the bands and solo artists appearing in the almost 200 public showcases this year were selected by a screening committee.
“We had 800 apply, but many of those who weren’t accepted might still come and book a private showcase,” she said. The private showcases are hosted by the musicians themselves on the upper floors in the afternoon and again in the late evening into the wee hours.
The public can purchase tickets to the official showcases in the Westin Crown Center ballrooms, as well as tickets to the Kansas City Folk Festival at the Sheraton, scheduled for Feb. 19, the final day of the conference.
The public showcases are tightly scheduled, 30-minute performances with a quick turnaround between acts. Some showcases are solo artists with acoustic guitars. Others are duos, trios, and full bands with drum kits and electronic keyboards. You’re likely to hear fiddles, banjos, horns, amplified ukuleles, electric cellos and more. “Folk” is broadly defined at the conference.
In 2016 the conference sold 1,382 tickets to public events (the official showcases as well as the Kansas City Folk Festival on the final day of the conference) and attracted some 2,500 registrants for the whole shebang. By November some 1,200 hotel rooms had already been claimed at the Westin and Sheraton for the 2017 conference.
Folk Alliance International relies heavily on volunteers. Some 210 worked last year, and the need appears to be inexhaustible. At the 2016 conference, organizers were still recruiting after the conference was underway. Noguera said this year the conference hopes to attract 240 to 250 volunteers. The biggest perk is admission to the conference, including both public and private showcases.
Volunteers distribute promotional posters around the city, man instrument check rooms, assist in hosting luncheons for music professionals, unload vans, man venue entrances, prepare conference credentials and check attendees in when they first arrive.
This year volunteers have two options: They can pay to join the Alliance and work 16 hours, or work 22 hours without joining. Either way, the volunteers gain access to what some believe is the most exciting part of the conference — the exclusive private showcases on three floors of the Westin Crown Center.
By 11 p.m. the public showcases are finished, and conference goers wander the private showcase floors. Sometimes they seek specific artists, but just as often they’re on a mission to discover music by random chance. Revelers clog the hallways, along with players maneuvering full-sized bass fiddles through the crowd.
In the private showcases, alcohol is free and plentiful, but for many attendees the variety, quality and quantity of music is itself intoxicating. Sometimes the beds have been removed to make room for more chairs. If not, people just squeeze together, none the worse for wear.
That’s all part of the magic of the conference. And some of the magic extends to the hotel lobby, where singers and bands will set up and start playing spontaneously during the conference.
Bob McWilliams, who hosts “Trail Mix,” a six-hour folk music show every Sunday on Kansas Public Radio, has attended the annual conference since the mid-1990s. McWilliams was not only looking for talented people he could include on his radio show, he was also seeking artists for West Side Folk, the concert series he produced in Lawrence.
The first conference he attended was in Portland, Ore. He’s been to conferences in San Diego, Jacksonville, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Memphis, Nashville and Cleveland.
“It’s bigger now,” he said. “There are more people. There was just a relatively small number of official showcases, usually in a large, theater-type space, maybe three or four a night. You didn’t have a lot of choice. What has been done more in recent years is having multiple stages. The good part is it’s possible to see and hear a lot more people in a set-up with a stage and sound system.”
The professional opportunities for the artists, McWilliams said, include everything from concert tours to house concerts. In that regard, the private showcases are critical.
“One thing that makes the conference a really special thing is I think it offers artists and presenters a lot of opportunity no matter what level they’re at,” McWilliams said. “In the private showcases, I know how hard it is for artists, especially if it’s their first time at the conference, to play in a room with four people sitting there. But you don’t know who those four people are. Those 20 minutes could open some doors for you.”
Among the showcase artists this year, McWilliams is especially looking forward to Gaby Moreno, a Guatemalan singer-songwriter; All Our Exes Live in Texas, a super-quartet of Australian “folk royalty”; Phoebe Hunt, a compelling singer-songwriter from Texas; and New York-based; a neo-western swing band influenced by Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Over the years, this conference has catapulted a lot of artists. Among them is We Banjo 3, who performed twice at the Kansas City Irish Festival, and Anais Mitchell, whose folk opera “Hadestown” was recently produced off-Broadway in New York. And while many of the Folk Alliance artists offer new faces and new sounds, attendees can also see veteran singer-songwriters like David Olney, Darden Smith, Ellis Paul and Eliza Gilkyson, all of whom will perform this year.
Conference director Finnan, 44, was born in Ireland but grew up in Ontario, Canada, where his parents moved to start an organic vegetable farm. The farm became a place for retreats, and musicians often came through.
“I grew up listening to folk,” he said. “But I didn’t know it to be folk. It was just the music that was being played. There was a cultural affinity for the music of Ireland. But my mom was a fan of Leonard Cohen and my dad was a fan of Ravi Shankar.”
Finnan said he grew up with a record player in the house, but no television. He studied theater at Concordia University in Montreal and later studied native and northern education at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. For a time he taught elementary school.
Eventually he launched his own career as a singer-songwriter and helped organize a folk festival in Ontario.
The annual conference in Kansas City since 2014 had energized the local acoustic music scene as well as the arts community generally. Some musicians and fans have despaired that when the conference moves on after 2018, the loss will leave a cultural void.
But Finnan wants to make one thing clear: The Alliance will remain here and continue to play a role in the community. “Folk Alliance International is not going anywhere,” he said. “The headquarters will remain here.”
Last year the Alliance produced its first Kansas City Folk Festival on the final day of the conference, and that’s happening again this year. Finnan said he hopes the festival will someday be a free-standing event, possibly at an outdoor venue.
“The intention is when the conference goes to Montreal, the Kansas City Folk Festival expands and ideally moves to a warmer time of year in a public space in Kansas City,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. And it’s likely the conference will come back to Kansas City in future years.”
Finnan has personally investigated the acoustic music scene in Kansas City. The Alliance has nourished symbiotic relationships with other cultural events, including the Kansas City Irish Festival.
“I love this job,” he said. “I love this city. I love the people who are involved and interested in the conference and going out of their way to mount the impossible. I am honored to be in this role and I’m exceptionally proud of our staff and team.”
Here, Finnan said, he sees a city with a bright future.
“There are many cities that feel like they had their day and that day is never coming back,” he said. “Kansas City looks like it had a day in terms of architecture, but it feels like the real moment is around the corner. The vibrancy of this city and the talent of this staff and the passion of the artists we represent is what has me in this job.”
For more information call 816-221-3655 or go to the Alliance website at folkconference.org.
Donna Trussell contributed to this story.
— KC Studio is a magazine that covers Kansas City’s performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture. For more information about complimentary subscriptions to KC Studio go online at www.kcstudio.org.